It seems like we all live in tiny blocks of time on a calendar — running from meeting to meeting. Products of the information age, our phones, watches, tablets, and computers tell us where we need to be and what we need to do. They help us keep track of our over-full schedules and shape the way we live.

Not surprisingly, this culture has seeped into the way we deliver programming for young people. The average afterschool program’s schedule could compete with the most chaotic CEO’s diary. Each activity is carefully slotted into blocks on a schedule. Even the term “afterschool” reminds us that when a program happens seems to matter much more these days than what the program is about.

I have been working with youth practitioners for over twenty years, and in the last decade, they tell me that they have become so over scheduled it is difficult for them to get to know young people in their program, even to ask them about their day. There is simply no time. Instead, they spend precious resources moving youth from activity to activity, counting each young person as they move through blocks of time, documenting program dosage.

But what happened to free time? Time to play, experiment, and create relationships?

The most important parts of childhood have been relegated to the in-between times.

Parents are also experiencing this crush: When did you last have a meaningful conversation with your child? Chances are good it was while you were in transit to school or an activity, during a time in between other scheduled activities. Good youth practitioners are doing the same: They make time to get to know young people during the “in between” times – on a bus, in the hallway, during snack, on the street, or whenever they can fit it in.

More and more empirical research shows us that the number of hours young people spend in a program or the number of activities that programs jam into their schedule just does not make a difference. Rather, it's opportunities to build positive, meaningful relationships with adults that really drives positive change.

In 2015 and 2016, the Search Institute conducted two provocative studies. The first, a survey of more than 1,000 U.S. parents, found that positive youth-adult relationships were ten times more predictive than demographics in influencing mastery of SEL skills. In the second study, an analysis of more than 25,000 youth surveys, Search Institute also found that when youth had a greater number of positive relationships with adults, they reported higher academic motivation, stronger social-emotional skills, and a more responsible attitude. They were also less likely to engage in risky behaviors.

That same year, The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child announced that the single most common finding in their research was that children who end up doing well after childhood trauma have "had at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult.”

Here at Hello Insight, we’ve found the same conclusion supported by our own platform. In 2017, we reviewed data from 4,980 young people at 94 programs nationwide. We found that when it came to positive social and emotional learning (SEL) outcomes for young people, positive youth/adult relationships were more important than dosage, type of activity, age, ethnicity, or gender. In fact, young people in programs that are purposefully creating space for youth/adult relationships are demonstrating growth in SEL that is more than double the SEL growth seen in other programs.

Our own research also suggests that positive relationships between young people and caring adults can serve as an equalizer. SEL doesn’t grow the same way in each young person, and each program serves a different mix of young people, who are all at different stages of their SEL journey. Within the Hello Insight platform, we’ve found that some young people have stronger SEL skills than others. A young person is considered “higher asset” if they’re at or above the median (50th percentile) in SEL, and “lower asset” if they’re below it. In programs that serve mostly lower-asset young people, we have found that focusing on developing strong and supportive relationships between young people and adults really makes a difference. Young people in these programs begin to demonstrate SEL growth that puts them closer to their higher asset counterparts.

It’s intuitive to many of us that these strong relationships can be transformative to a group of young people. Many of us have had personal experience as students, campers, and athletes who went through the kind of transformative growth a skilled teacher, coach, or counselor can cultivate. The question now becomes, how do we set up our programs to bring those relationships out of the in-between times and into the everyday? Here are my suggestions:

  1. Support activities that build relationships.
  2. During activities, choose to focus more on how young people engage with you and with each other than whatever task you hope it is they will complete
  3. Demand a loosening of so-called “accountability” measures that focus only on ouputs or counts and encourage adoption of meaningful standards instead
  4. Collect and value data about how young people experience relationships in programs.
  5. Celebrate organizations who are doing a tremendous job in this area.

Relationship-building is a key component of promoting SEL in the young people in your program. Share your favorite relationship-building tips and tricks with us in the comments on Facebook!