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IES Grant

Title: Leveraging Developmental Relationships with Teachers to Enhance Student Motivation
Center: NCER Year: 2017
Principal Investigator: Scales, Peter Awardee: Search Institute
Program: Researcher-Practitioner Partnerships in Education Research      [Program Details]
Award Period: 2 years (08/01/2017 - 07/31/2019) Award Amount: $399,446
Type: Researcher-Practitioner Partnership Award Number: R305H170078

Co-Principal Investigators: Pekel, Kent; Roehlkepartain, Eugene; Syvertsen, Amy K; and Heistad, David

Partner Institutions: Bloomington Public Schools (BPS)

Education Issue: Like many school districts in the United States, Bloomington Public Schools (BPS) is trying to increase student achievement, while simultaneously attempting to reduce inequities in academic and nonacademic indicators of success. The district and its partner, Search Institute, identified student-teacher relationships as a potential lever for improving student motivation and contributing to reduced inequities in school success, dubbing the project DREAM—Developmental Relationships Enhance Academic Motivation.

Purpose: The purpose of the DREAM research project was to understand whether specific teacher relational practices can enhance student motivation and improve student academic outcomes.

Partnership and Research Activities: The partnership built on an ongoing collaboration between BPS and Search Institute focused on understanding and improving social and emotional factors in student development. Several teams of district, building, and research representatives, including students, were formed to guide the larger vision of the project and its day-to-day functioning. Through three waves of student and teacher surveys, the team measured how students and teachers experience their relationships within five major categories of interactions: expressing care, challenging growth, providing support, sharing power, and expanding possibilities. Through three waves of student focus groups and teacher interviews, the team built a deeper understanding of the ways in which students experience interactions with their teachers, and what teachers who are excellent relationship-builders actually do to construct enduring and motivating relationships with students.  The longitudinal design allowed the team to examine whether changes in developmental relationships over the school year reduced common socioeconomic disparities in academic achievement. Although DREAM was not an intervention project, several leadership team and school- and district-wide communications, including an open-access webinar toward the end of the project, conveyed to staff and students in the participating schools key information about developmental relationships are, and emerging data from student and teacher voices about how student-teacher developmental relationships were being built in their schools, and brainstorming sessions for how the data could be used to improve those relationships, and hence, student motivation, in the district.

Setting: The research took place at two schools within the Bloomington Public School District: Kennedy Senior High and Valley View Middle School. The district serves a rapidly changing suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota. These sites were selected because of the diversity of their student populations, the continuity created by Valley View feeding exclusively into the high school, and the schools' ongoing commitment to advancing a focus on student-teacher relationships and student motivation and perseverance.

Sample: In Fall 2018, the final wave of data collection, the survey participants numbered 696 students and 58 teachers at Valley View Middle School, and 1,127 students and 97 teachers at Kennedy High School. Student focus groups included 10–15 middle school students, and 11–15 high school students, in separate groups by school level. A total of 8 teachers, 4 each from the middle and high school levels, participated in the teacher interviews. Demographically, the student survey sample at Valley View (using Fall 2018 data) was 47% female, 77% non-white, 38% Hispanic (can be any race), and 66% eligible for free or reduced meals, per school records data. For Kennedy High, the corresponding totals were 49% female, 64% non-white, 29% Hispanic (can be any race), and 47% FRL-eligible.  Among the teachers, 67% were female, 96% were white, and the mean number of years of experience as a teacher was about 10 years. In the interests of promoting confidentiality, we did not ask focus groups or teacher interview participants for demographic information. But most of the students were youth of color, and all of the teachers were White.

Data Analytic Strategy: This mixed methods project connected qualitative interview and focus group data from teachers and students with a quantitative longitudinal study. Multidimensional Item Response Theory (MIRT) package analyses done in R showed that most of the items measuring developmental relationships and motivation operated as predicted. We tested developmental relationship models from a unidimensional structure up to a 6-factor structure. The 5-factor structure reflecting the 5 elements of express care, challenge growth, provide support, share power, and expand possibilities had very good model fit statistics to support it, including CFI=.987, TLI=.986, and RMSEA=.084. Structural Equation Modeling and regression analyses were used to analyze the survey data, as was latent class analysis and latent transition analysis to classify students into groups and to measure how these groups change over time. Thematic analysis of the qualitative data was conducted using Nvivo software.

Key Outcomes: Through surveys of middle and high school students and teachers, focus groups with students, and interviews with teachers nominated as excellent relationship-builders, the partnership team found that students who experienced strong developmental relationships with teachers felt more connected to school, had greater academic motivation, and better grades. However, students eligible for free and reduced-price meals had worse relationships with teachers. Student-teacher relationships worsened over the school year on average for all students, but even more so for lower-income students. The results suggested that intentional building of student-teacher relationships can positively affect student motivation and performance, but that attention to those relationships has to be intentional, since they tended to worsen over the school year in the absence of explicit efforts to strengthen them.

In addition to the databases of survey, focus group, and interview data described above, the DREAM project produced several peer-reviewed papers: 1) a mixed-methods paper on change over time in developmental relationships and motivation; 2) a survey paper on the value-add of all 5 elements of developmental relationships predicting school connection and performance, in comparison to the more commonly used dimensions of teacher care and challenge; 3) a mixed-methods paper on differences in how types of relationships (with teachers, parents, and friends) influence motivation; 4) a qualitative paper leveraging discourse analysis of teachers' stories of dealing with teaching challenges; and 5) a thought leader piece detailing practical relationships-building implications for educators and youth workers was accepted and is forthcoming in  the Journal of Youth Development. An open-access webinar on the study and its findings also was held, with more than 1,000 registrants, now available at Search Institute's website (

The key research findings included:

  • The levels of both student motivation and student-teacher developmental relationships were just "okay," with high school students reporting worse relationships with teachers than middle school students do.
  • On average, both student motivation and developmental relationships with teachers declined over the school year, with lower-income students declining even more in the quality of their relationships with teachers.
  • Increases in developmental relationships predicted increases in student motivation.
  • High-quality student-teacher developmental relationships strongly predicted student motivation and also predicted teachers' confidence in their own effectiveness.
  • Developmental relationships predicted GPA (indirectly, through student motivation) as well as student test scores.

Project Website: Information about the DREAM project is accessible on the Search Institute website,


Chamberlain, R., Scales, P. C., & Sethi, J. (2020). Competing discourses of power in teachers' stories of challenging relationships with students. Power and Education, 12(2), 139–156.

Scales, P. C., Pekel, K., Sethi, J., Chamberlain, R., & Van Boekel, M. (2020). Academic Year Changes in Student-Teacher Developmental Relationships and Their Linkage to Middle and High School Students' Motivation: A Mixed Methods Study. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 40(4), 499–536.

Scales, P. C., Van Boekel, M., Pekel, K., Syvertsen, A. K., & Roehlkepartain, E. C. (2020). Effects of developmental relationships with teachers on middle-school students' motivation and performance. Psychology in the Schools, 57(4), 646–677.

Sethi, J., & Scales, P. C. (2020). Developmental relationships and school success: How teachers, parents, and friends affect educational outcomes and what actions students say matter most. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 101904.