Skip Navigation
archived information
Skip Navigation

Learning for a lifetime and the power of relationships

Learning for a lifetime and power of relationships

By Jessy Newman
July 22, 2021

This is a time of opportunity.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has created unimaginable disruption, change, and disconnection, it also presents an opportunity to rebuild with a focus on what matters most for learning and development. The need to re-engage young people—in their education, in their social interactions, in their community—is ever-present, and questions about how to do so effectively weigh on policymakers, education leaders, families, and students.

Lessons from the science of learning and development highlight principles for healthy learning, development, and thriving. Specifically, a body of research suggests that there is a relationship between thriving learners and (a) environments filled with safety and belonging; (b) rich learning experiences; (c) the development of skills, habits, and mindsets; (d) integrated support systems; and (e) positive developmental relationships [523 KB PDF icon] (two useful resources are Turnaround for Children’s blueprint for whole-child design and Osher and colleagues’ brief on thriving, robust equity, and transformative learning [1,307 KB PDF icon]).

Learning for a lifetime: Social and emotional learning

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is one way that schools and districts across the country are working to support healthy learning and development (National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, 2019). The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) states that SEL is “the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions” (CASEL, 2020a).

To shed light on research-based SEL strategies and practices for high school students, Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest developed a 30-minute documentary, Learning for a Lifetime, in partnership with the Midwest Career Readiness Research Alliance and Twin Cities Public Television. The documentary focuses on ways that schools and districts can engage in SEL and features real-life examples of educators integrating SEL into everyday interactions at three alternative learning centers in Minnesota.

The power of relationships

One lesson that was clear from the documentary interviews with students and teachers: relationships are powerful. Although the individual schools, teachers, and students portrayed in the documentary approached learning and development differently, it was clear that students were learning in safe and supportive environments and had established trusting, identity-safe, and rich developmental relationships with adults and their peers.

Such developmental relationships are essential. We see in the research across scientific disciplines that these relationships are associated with increased resilience and reduced stress (which often stems from adverse experiences), in turn, improving students’ ability to learn and develop (Darling-Hammond et al., 2019; Cantor et al., 2018; Risisky et al., 2019). Studies have shown relationships between stress and impaired attention, short-term memory, and our ability to control our emotions (Blair & Raver, 2012; Stafford-Brizard, 2016). However, research suggests that positive developmental relationships—even if only one—have the potential to make a world of difference (Li & Julian, 2012 [220 KB PDF icon]). What’s more, emerging lessons about the power of developmental relationships suggest the benefits exist no matter one’s age or the setting (Search Institute, 2020).

Extensive research on SEL supports this idea as well. The influential meta-analysis of school-based, universal SEL programs [573 KB PDF icon] by Durlak and colleagues in 2011 and a follow-up meta-analysis in 2017 suggest a relationship between successful SEL implementation and safe and supportive conditions for teaching and learning, which are often strengthened by caring and trusting relationships (Darling-Hammond et al., 2019; Newman et al., 2018).

Relationships bolster re-engagement and accelerated learning

Many policymakers, education leaders, and families are concerned about how to accelerate student learning to address changes stemming from lost instructional time and disengagement during remote learning. As states and districts coordinate summer learning opportunities and plan for the fall semester, it is important to prioritize what was missing for so many during the past school year: connections and relationships. Educators may want to consider using research-informed strategies—often integrated into evidence-based SEL programs—that build connection and foster relationships, such as working with students to co-create routines and establish shared norms, providing opportunities for youth to connect informally, and building socialization and emotional awareness into coursework (Jones, Brush, Bailey, et al., 2017).

Strategies for rebuilding and re-engaging

Now is the time to double down on building relationships to support social, emotional, and academic learning and development. Using what we know from across several fields of study, such as the science of learning and development, SEL, trauma-informed practice, cognition, and education broadly, we can meet the goal of building back better by first (re)building relationships.

  • Consider the many learning environments young people experience, from classrooms to school buildings, afterschool and other community programs, summertime experiences, service learning opportunities, and more. Are youth experiencing safety? Do they have a place where they feel like they belong? When education leaders and community partners work together to offer a range of learning experiences and programs, young people are more likely to have opportunities to engage with caring, trusted adults and to have access to enriching opportunities for learning and development.
  • Support adults so they in turn can support young people. The traumas of this past year are not unique to youth. A national survey conducted by the American Institutes for Research found that adult educators have faced multiple challenges as they pivoted time and again to adapt to remote learning, hybrid learning, simultaneous teaching, and more—all while managing their personal safety and dealing with hardship, uncertainty, and stress during a global pandemic. One way that district and school administrators can support adult well-being is by providing for their staff’s basic needs and supporting their emotional health.

    Resources for addressing trauma in adults and students include the Center for Great Teachers and Leaders’ webinar series “Teaching and Leading With Trauma-Informed Care,” which offers guidance on implementing evidence-based practices. A REL Southwest blog post, “Research-Based, Trauma-Responsive Education Practices,” and companion webinar examine the research on trauma-responsive practices and recommend steps educators can take to create a trauma-responsive school environment.
  • Create conditions that foster positive developmental relationships. The research syntheses shared above (e.g., Darling-Hammond, et al., 2019; Osher, et al., 2018) suggest that young people are better able to learn and develop when they see that adults care for them, receive support to achieve their goals, are treated with respect, and have autonomy to develop their own sense of efficacy and agency. The Search Institute has a long history of research with youth and educators that explores the relationship between educator practice and youth perspectives. From this work, the Search Institute created the Developmental Relationships Framework [523 PDF icon], which includes five elements with 20 actions that educators can employ to build strong relationships.

Related resources


American Institutes for Research. (2020). Recognizing the role of afterschool and summer programs and systems in reopening and rebuilding. Washington, DC: Author.

Blair, C. & Raver, C. C. (2012). Child development in the context of adversity: Experiential canalization of brain and behavior. American Psychologist, 67(4), 309–318.

Cantor, P., Osher, D., Berg, J., Steyer, L., & Rose, T. (2018). Drivers of human development: How relationships and context shape learning and development. Applied Developmental Science, 24(1), 6–36.

Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). (2020a). SEL is …

Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). (2020b). CASEL guide to schoolwide social and emotional learning.

Darling-Hammond, L., Flook, L., Cook-Harvey, C., Barron, B., & Osher, D. (2019). Implications for educational practice of the science of learning and development. Applied Developmental Science, 24(2), 97–140.

Jones, S., Brush, K., Bailey, R., Brion-Meisels, G., McIntryre, J., Kahn, J., Nelson, B., & Stickle, L. (2017). Navigating SEL from the Inside Out: Looking Inside & Across 25 Leading SEL Programs: A Practical Resource for Schools and OST Providers. Harvard School of Education. [9,398 KB PDF icon]

Li, J., & Julian, M. M. (2012). Developmental relationships as the active ingredient: A unifying working hypothesis of “what works” across intervention settings. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 82(2), 157.

National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development (NCSEAD). (2019). From a nation at risk to a nation at hope. ASPEN Institute.

Newman, J. Z., Dymnicki, A., Fergus, E., Weissberg, R., & Osher, D. (2018). Social and emotional learning matters. In D. Osher, D.A. Moroney, & S. Williamson (Eds.), Creating safe, equitable, engaging schools: A comprehensive, evidence-based approach to supporting students (pp. 213–222). Harvard Education Press.

Osher, D., Cantor, P., Berg, J., Steyer, L., & Rose, T. (2018). Drivers of human development: How relationships and context shape learning and development. Applied Developmental Science, 24(1), 6–36.

Osher, D., Pittman, K., Young, J., Smith, H., Moroney, D., & Irby, M. (2020). Thriving, robust equity, and transformative learning & development: A more powerful conceptualization of the contributors to youth success. American Institutes for Research and Forum for Youth Investment. [1,307 KB PDF icon]

Risisky, D., MacGregor, J., Smith, D., Abraham, J., & Archambault, M. (2019). Promoting pro-social skills to reduce violence among urban middle school youth. Journal of Youth Development, 14(4), 197–215.

Search Institute. (2020). The intersection of developmental relationships, equitable environments, and SEL (Insights & Evidence Series). [59,490 KB PDF icon]

Stafford-Brizard, K. B. (2016). Building blocks for learning: A framework for comprehensive student development. Turnaround for Children. [1,845 KB PDF icon]

Turnaround for Children. (n.d.). Whole-child design blueprint. [webpage].

< Previous PostNext Post >

Author information

Jessy Newman Staff Picture

Jessy Newman

Senior Researcher | REL Midwest


Beating the odds (2)

Charter Schools (2)

College and Career Readiness (42)

Data Use (32)

Discipline (4)

Early Childhood (31)

Educator Effectiveness (36)

English Learners (10)

Literacy (11)

Math (1)

Online Courses (7)

Research Tools (2)

Rural (14)

Teacher Preparation (24)

Teacher Recruitment (2)

Teacher Retention (2)

Teacher Workforce (14)

Return to the REL Midwest Blog

Sign up for our newsletter to receive monthly updates featuring new posts from the REL Midwest blog!

Subscribe to Newsletter