• July/August 2018
  • Vol. 19, No. 6

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New Study Explores the Role of Relationships in Transforming Youth

Transformational relationships help young people see that they matter and that they can change the way they think, feel, and act. Transformational Relationships for Youth Success, a recent report from the Center for the Study of Social Policy in partnership with the Dartington Social Research Unit in the United Kingdom, describes a study that looked at a the role of transformational relationships in the lives of youth and how to promote them. The report describes what makes relationships transformational, the attributes of workers who are most successful at creating such relationships, and what organizations need to do to promote them. It also probes the larger question of how complex public systems can avoid getting in the way of relationships and actually promote them. The study comprised over 80 interviews in both the United States and the United Kingdom with youth, social workers, and organizational leaders.

The study found the following to be important for workers in achieving transformational relationships with children:

  • The ability to listen without judgment
  • Persistence over time
  • The ability to "be real"
  • The ability to challenge youth
  • Showing up in crises
  • Demonstrating love

Youth identified the following challenges to affecting positive change:

  • Stress
  • Difficulty experiencing and recognizing emotions
  • Negative self-perception and shame
  • Sense of powerlessness and lack of agency

The study noted youth experienced the following positive effects as the transformational relationships were developed:

  • Feeling that they matter
  • The ability to imagine a better future
  • An emerging sense of power and agency
  • A developing capacity to self-regulate

The study outlined the following attributes of organizational cultures that promote transformational relationships:

  • An understanding that relationships are at the heart of healing
  • The ability to meet the critical needs of youth in transition (e.g., housing, help with education and employment)
  • Adoption of a practice model that considers relationships as essential elements
  • Hiring and supervision practices that are responsive to youth needs (e.g., valuing a job candidate that has the potential and personal skills to work well with youth over one with past work experience)
  • A culture that values youth through a supportive environment and a spirit of camaraderie
  • Smart use of data to track youth well-being and interaction with social workers

Finally, the study makes the following recommendations for organizational and system leaders:

  • Put relationships at the heart of the work
  • Move beyond a strengths-based practice to one that is grounded in relationships and that empowers young people to become actively engaged in affecting change in their lives
  • Understand the role of love and boundaries in affecting change
  • Make relating the priority ("First, relate")
  • Consider budding relationships as progress (i.e., importance of being patient with progress)
  • Pursue equity (i.e., recognize that workers might find some youth more appealing and ignore the needs of others)
  • Build relational organizations via a practice model and a set of organizational supports

Transformational Relationships for Youth Success is available at https://www.cssp.org/pages/body/Transformational-Relationships-for-Youth-Success-Report.pdf (6,480 KB).

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