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Developmental Relationships as the Active Ingredient: A Unifying Working Hypothesis of "What Works" Across Intervention Settings

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Developmental relationships are characterized by reciprocal human interactions that embody an enduring emotional attachment, progressively more complex patterns of joint activity, and a balance of power that gradually shifts from the developed person in favor of the developing person. The working hypothesis of this article is that developmental relationships constitute the active ingredient of effective interventions serving at-risk children and youth across settings. In the absence of developmental relationships, other intervention elements yield diminished or minimal returns. Scaled-up programs and policies serving children and youth often fall short of their potential impact when their designs or implementation drift toward manipulating other "inactive" ingredients (e.g., incentive, accountability, curricula) instead of directly promoting developmental relationships. Using empirical studies as case examples, this study demonstrates that the presence or absence of developmental relationships distinguishes effective and ineffective interventions for diverse populations across developmental settings. The conclusion is that developmental relationships are the foundational metric with which to judge the quality and forecast the impact of interventions for at-risk children and youth. It is both critical and possible to give foremost considerations to whether program, practice, and policy decisions promote or hinder developmental relationships among those who are served and those who serve.
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Developmental Relationships as the Active Ingredient:
A Unifying Working Hypothesis of ‘‘What Works’’
Across Intervention Settings
Junlei Li and Megan M. Julian
University of Pittsburgh
Developmental relationships are characterized by reciprocal human interactions that
embody an enduring emotional attachment, progressively more complex patterns of joint
activity, and a balance of power that gradually shifts from the developed person in favor
of the developing person. The working hypothesis of this article is that developmental rela-
tionships constitute the active ingredient of effective interventions serving at-risk children
and youth across settings. In the absence of developmental relationships, other interven-
tion elements yield diminished or minimal returns. Scaled-up programs and policies serv-
ing children and youth often fall short of their potential impact when their designs or
implementation drift toward manipulating other ‘‘inactive’’ ingredients (e.g., incentive,
accountability, curricula) instead of directly promoting developmental relationships. Using
empirical studies as case examples, this study demonstrates that the presence or absence of
developmental relationships distinguishes effective and ineffective interventions for diverse
populations across developmental settings. The conclusion is that developmental relation-
ships are the foundational metric with which to judge the quality and forecast the impact
of interventions for at-risk children and youth. It is both critical and possible to give fore-
most considerations to whether program, practice, and policy decisions promote or hinder
developmental relationships among those who are served and those who serve.
Traditionally rooted in medical and pharmaceutical science,
the term active ingredient refers to the critical component
of an intervention that is responsible for producing desired
change in outcomes (e.g., sodium fluoride in toothpaste).
What if everything we do to promote children’s positive
development hinges upon a similarly essential element? What if
the efficacy of every policy, program, or intervention is deter-
mined by whether such effort ultimately promoted or hindered
the active mechanisms associated with such an ingredient—the
developmental active ingredient? In this article, we advance the
working hypothesis that there is such a universally applicable
active ingredient underlying effective interventions. We propose
that developmental relationships, characterized by attachment,
reciprocity, progressive complexity, and balance of power, con-
sistently promote positive development for children and youth
across diverse developmental settings. Furthermore, we argue
that the effectiveness of child-serving programs, practices, and
policies is determined first and foremost by whether they
strengthen or weaken developmental relationships.
We will first define developmental relationships with sufficient
theoretical and operational specificity. Then, using case exam-
ples drawn from empirical studies, this working hypothesis is
applied to explain what distinguishes effective or ineffective
interventions or programs for diverse at-risk populations. We
conclude with the practical implications of our hypothesis on
program design, professional practice, and policymaking.
Competing Hypotheses of Active Ingredients
When we adopt a particular scientific theory to address real
world problems, we use the corresponding active ingredients
both as the lens to examine the problems and as the road map to
formulate our solutions. For example, the various uses of incen-
tives and accountability to reform educational systems or social
services are rooted in behaviorist theories (Fryer, 2010; Pawson
& Tilley, 2004; Schwartz, 2001; Stecher & Kirby, 2004), and eco-
nomic theories have influenced the use of parent-choice vouchers
as a market instrument for pruning ineffective schools. Many of
our educational reform efforts such as test-based accountability,
merit pay for teachers, pay for grades for students, and school
choice can all trace their roots to the basic theoretical ingredients
of negative reinforcement, incentive, and market competition.
However, very few policies or programs based on these behavior-
ist or economic active ingredients yield consistent or lasting posi-
tive effects (e.g., Hanushek & Raymond, 2005; Levitt, Janta, &
Wegrich, 2008; Newmann, King, & Rigdon, 1997).
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Junlei
Li, University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development, 400 N. Lex-
ington Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15208. Electronic mail may be sent to
jul27@pitt.edu.
American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 2012 American Orthopsychiatric Association
2012, Vol. 82, No. 2, 157–166 DOI: 10.1111/j.1939-0025.2012.01151.x
157
What is the alternative to the misapplication of behaviorist or
economic constructs to matters impacting children’s learning
and development? On the basis of the cumulative theoretical
and empirical knowledge in developmental sciences, we propose
developmental relationships as the active ingredient for positive
and lasting developmental change.
Developmental Relationships as the Active
Ingredient
The idea that relationships are important in human develop-
ment is neither new nor controversial to our common sense or
scientific understanding.
Stated simply, relationships are the active ingredients of the envi-
ronment’s influence on healthy human development. They incorpo-
rate the qualities that best promote competence and well-being....
Relationships engage children in the human community in ways
that help them define who they are, what they can become, and
how and why they are important to other people (National Scien-
tific Council on the Developing Child, 2004, p. 1).
It is evident from the cumulative scientific knowledge that
relationships not only are of central importance to children’s
early cognitive, social, and personality development, but also
have lasting influence on long-term outcomes, including social
skills, emotion regulation, conscience development, trust in oth-
ers, and general psychological well-being (see review by Thomp-
son, 2006).
To formulate a testable or falsifiable hypothesis regarding the
indispensable role of relationship in human development, we
need to operationalize ‘‘relationship’’ beyond the common
notions of emotional attachment or connection. Emotional con-
nection is necessary, but insufficient to account for the totality
of how a developing person is relating to others in her commu-
nity. A working hypothesis of relationships must also account
for interactions, activities, and power. We begin with a classical
and succinct theoretical definition of optimal dyadic interactions
(Bronfenbrenner, 1979):
Learning and development are facilitated by the participation of
the developing person in progressively more complex patterns of
reciprocal activity with someone with whom that person has devel-
oped a strong and enduring emotional attachment and when the
balance of power gradually shifts in favor of the developing person
(p. 60; emphasis added).
The four criteria specified previously—attachment, reciproc-
ity, progressive complexity, and balance of power—are simple
without being simplistic. They describe a particular style of rela-
tionship that can apply to both dyadic and group relationships.
Therefore, whereas Bronfenbrenner coined the term developmen-
tal dyad to denote this combination of criteria, we now broaden
it as developmental relationship.
Interactions that befit the previously mentioned definition of
developmental relationship are abundantly evident in even the
most basic and natural developmental phenomena. Picture the
familiar scene of an infant who is learning to walk in the pres-
ence of a parent. What enables the child to take each leap of
faith is often the outstretched arms of the parent with whom the
infant already has an enduring emotional attachment. The
process that leads from crawling to walking is a series of
progressively more complex developments in muscle growth,
control, and coordination (Smith & Thelen, 2003; Spencer et al.,
2006). To scaffold such development, the parent intuitively
adjusts the level of support, from holding up the infant’s body,
to just hands, to offering emotional encouragement at a safe dis-
tance. Throughout the learning process, the physical and emo-
tional interactions are joint and reciprocal. Over time, the
power or control of the walking process shifts gradually toward
the child, who advances from being prodded and encouraged to
take the first wobbling steps or recover from a fall, to leading
the adult into a giggling game of chase.
The four criteria of the developmental relationship—attach-
ment, reciprocity, progressive complexity, and balance of
power—are interwoven and interdependent aspects of one
coherent mechanism of developmental interaction, rather than
simply four separate checklist features.
The foundation of emotional attachment makes sustained
and frequent reciprocal engagement possible without unneces-
sary coercions, and such engagement in turn enhances attach-
ment. By attachment, we do not just mean the exclusive
connection formed between primary caregiver and child, but
any emotional connection that is natural, positive, and appro-
priate for the context. Children naturally want to sit and read
with their favorite adults. Little Leaguers naturally want to go
to practice with a coach who helps them learn and makes them
feel like contributing members of the team. Even when social
systems mandate children to attend certain types of activities,
like school, there is little doubt that attention and participation
differ greatly between a child who feels connected to a teacher
and thus eager to take part in learning activities versus a child
who passively complies.
In sustained and frequent joint activities with a child, the adult
has ample opportunity to observe and gauge the child’s compe-
tence and confidence and appropriately adjust the level of sup-
port to match, otherwise referred to as scaffolding and fading
(Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989; Collins, Brown, & Newman,
1990). A child can develop his capacities with an adult’s support
(i.e., scaffolding) and exercise increasing control and indepen-
dence with the gradual removal of support (i.e., fading). The
level and type of adult support is thus reciprocal to the child’s
development, and the interchange between the two is a dynami-
cally calibrated process. Vygotsky suggests that a child’s learning
and development are best facilitated with progressively more
complex challenges within the zone of proximal development
(ZPD) defined as ‘‘the distance between the actual developmen-
tal level as determined by independent problem solving and the
level of potential development as determined through problem
solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more
capable peers’’ (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86). The attentive adult, in
joint and reciprocal activity, can best locate the ZPD by match-
ing adult control and support to the perceived or actual difficulty
experienced by the child. Naturally, as the adult’s support fades
or as the activity advances, the child is engaged in progressively
more complex patterns of behavior and becomes more able and
willing to exert independence and control (i.e., balance of power
shifts toward the child). Figure 1 illustrates an idealized model
of development encompassing these interwoven processes.
Like the example of an infant learning to walk, such recipro-
cal activities occur naturally in everyday settings. For instance,
158 LI AND JULIAN
when a child is learning to read, an engaged and attentive par-
ent will select a book that matches a child’s comprehension level
and offer varying levels of support that evolve with the child’s
competence. Whereas the parent of an novice reader may read
and act out the characters to help the child understand and
appreciate the story, the parent of a more experienced reader
might move from story telling to interpretation, inviting the
child to take part in the reading (e.g., ‘‘Why does do that?’’
‘‘What do you think is going to happen?’’) A proceduralized
equivalent of such reciprocal patterns of activity is ‘‘reciprocal
teaching’’ (Palincsar & Brown, 1984), whereby children acquire
increasingly more sophisticated reading and comprehension
skills by alternately learning and teaching with their teachers or
peers.
Applying Developmental Relationships to
Understand Developmental Interventions
Our working hypothesis states that human development is
best promoted when developmental relationships are present
and supported. Conversely, human development is stifled when
developmental relationships are weakened or absent. In the fol-
lowing case examples of empirical studies, we examine this
hypothesis with empirical evidence across a broad range of
developmental interventions and settings with diverse target
populations. We aim to demonstrate that across many settings,
the same conclusion applies: When developmental relationships
are prevalent, development is promoted, and when this type of
relationship is not available or is diluted, interventions show
limited effects.
Case Example 1: Orphanage Improvement
Studies
Traditionally, orphanage institutions are severely socially and
emotionally depriving, so there are limited opportunities for
developmental relationships (or any relationships) to emerge
between caregivers and resident children. Children reared in
institutions often have stunted physical growth, aggravated
behavior problems, and prolonged attachment difficulties, and
many of these problems persist even after they are adopted into
permanent families (Chisholm, 1998; MacLean, 2003). Using
orphanages in St. Petersburg, Russian Federation, as an exam-
ple, we discuss both the characteristics of traditional orphanages
and the implementation and effect of one particular intervention
to restructure such institutions for the explicit purpose of
enhancing caregiver–child relationships (The St. Petersburg–
USA Orphanage Research Team, 2008).
Across traditional orphanages around many parts of the
world, there are typically a host of barriers to the development
of caregiver–child relationships. In a study in the Russian Fed-
eration (The St. Petersburg–USA Orphanage Research Team,
2008), a child can experience up to 60–100 different caregivers
before he reaches 19 months of age. Children are grouped
together in large same-age groups with just a handful of caregiv-
ers, as opposed to the mixed age groups with a proportionally
larger number of caregivers that is typical of families. Most chil-
dren in these settings eat, sleep, and play according to the same
regimented schedule, which might improve the ease of institu-
tional operation but limits caregivers’ ability to devote attention
to individual children. Routine care is adult directed and with-
out much regard for the children’s needs and cues. Eating,
changing, and bathing are typically done to the child mechanis-
tically without the smiling, talking, and eye contact that would
have been typical between a parent and a child in a family set-
ting. As a relic of the Soviet era in which conformity and order
were especially valued, even play tends to be completely care-
giver directed; children are shown how to play with toys and
corrected when they play with toys the ‘‘wrong’’ way. Although
there are opportunities for joint activity, reciprocal interactions
with mutually positive affect are rare. The rigidity of adult-
directed routines does not significantly loosen even as children
age. Rather, the worsening of children’s behavioral or emotional
problems with age may further reinforce the need for more, not
less, adult control. Enduring emotional attachments are virtually
nonexistent. Institutions offer neither opportunity to engage in
progressively more complex patterns of behavior nor emotional
safety and encouragement to attempt new tasks, so children’s
competency and confidence develop slowly, if at all. Figure 2
illustrates how development in such a deprived setting differs
from the more idealized model in Figure 1.
A team of Russian and American practitioners and research-
ers (The St. Petersburg–USA Orphanage Research Team, 2008)
designed and implemented an intervention aimed to improve
caregiver–child relationships within institutions with the ulti-
mate goal of improving children’s developmental outcomes both
within the institutions and after adoption. Structural changes
were implemented in the institution to create family-like rooms
with smaller groups of children of mixed ages and disabilities.
Caregivers’ assignments and schedules were altered so that one
of two primary caregivers would be with a given group of chil-
dren every day. Caregivers were trained to respond to children
in a sensitive and reciprocal manner and to follow the child’s
lead. Further, caregivers were encouraged to take advantage of
everyday opportunities to interact affectionately and recipro-
cally with children, such as during regular caregiving activities
like feeding, dressing, bathing, and changing, much as a parent
would.
Under the strong leadership of orphanage staff and with the
support of the international research team, the implementation
of these changes created a context conducive to the emergence
Figure 1. Illustration of the idealized model of developmental
relationship.
DEVELOPMENTAL RELATIONSHIPS AS ACTIVE INGREDIENT 159
of developmental relationships between caregivers and children.
As caregivers got to know the children better, they became more
attached to each child and developed greater understanding of
each child’s abilities. With caregivers increasingly attending to
and following the child’s responses and leads, caregiver–child
relationships naturally progressed into more complex and reci-
procal interactions. The emotional attachment between caregiv-
ers and children was much stronger than before the intervention
and in comparison with other orphanage institutions.
Without any further changes to the children’s nutrition or
medical care, the training and structural changes boosted the
quality of relational interactions. Both typically developing chil-
dren and children with disabilities showed substantial improve-
ments (among the largest ever reported from a developmental
intervention study) across all domains of development, includ-
ing physical growth (height, weight, and head circumference),
motor development, social-emotional skills, and cognitive abili-
ties. Although the magnitude of the improvements may be par-
tially due to institutionalized children’s low baseline scores, the
improvements are markedly larger and longer lasting than insti-
tutional interventions that do not target relationships (e.g., Cas-
ler, 1965; Hakimi-Manesh, Mojdehi, & Tashakkori, 1984). After
the intervention, caregivers also had lower scores on self-report
measures of their anxiety and depression, suggesting that
enhancing developmental relationships benefits both caregivers
and children.
Case Example 2: Instruction and Learning in
Elementary School Classrooms
In the United States, persisting educational challenges have
spurred continued research efforts to identify and differentiate
high- and low-quality instruction in classrooms (e.g., Pianta,
Belsky, Houts, & Morrison, 2007; Stigler & Hiebert, 1999).
Although there is obviously no equivalence between classrooms
and orphanages, they nevertheless share some similar institu-
tional features. The parallel is most apparent in low-quality
classrooms. Teachers are responsible for increasingly larger clas-
ses of same-age children, and adult-directed instructional rou-
tines dominate the students’ schedule and activities. Although
academic subjects become progressively more complex with each
advance in grade level, students’ participation and engagement
in low-quality instructional settings remain limited to the pas-
sive and receptive role. In classrooms serving economically dis-
advantaged students, disciplinary practices are often needed to
maintain students’ compliance with mundane, repetitive tasks
(e.g., Haberman, 1991). Further, teachers’ questions and feed-
back tend to focus more on whether students’ answers are right
or wrong instead of the process of reaching an answer. In focus-
ing on outcome rather than process, teachers may miss the
opportunity to gauge a student’s deep understanding of con-
cepts and to support a relationship with that student. In U.S.
classrooms, these characteristics of low-quality classrooms are
typical of children’s learning experiences rather than excep-
tional, especially for those who are poor (Pianta et al., 2007).
In these low-quality classroom environments, despite the pro-
gressive complexity of academic subjects, the balance of power
is perpetually tilted toward the institutional requirements (e.g.,
curricula and tests) and the enforcers (e.g., teachers), not the
students. Consequently, students’ competency and development
are often stifled, or at least develop in a highly compartmental-
ized manner. Students may accumulate subject knowledge with-
out developing critical thinking skills, intrinsic interest in
learning, or a sense of self-efficacy (Dweck, 1999). The students
who succeed initially may nevertheless continue to expect high
levels of teacher support and direction despite their own grow-
ing competence. Those who perpetually fail to learn may find
disruptive ways to express their frustration, making discipline
and control a continual battle that both sabotages instruction
and undermines classroom relationships and climate (Haber-
man, 1991). Figure 3 illustrates the deviation from developmen-
tal relationship (Figure 1) under these conditions.
In contrast, classrooms identified as high quality in both
domestic and international studies (Pianta et al., 2007; Stigler &
Hiebert, 1999) embody qualities that support developmental
relationships. The combination of instructional support and posi-
tive climate constitutes the leading predictor of subsequent stu-
dent achievement (e.g., Hamre & Pianta, 2001). The interactions
among teachers and students in such classrooms are character-
ized by sensitivity (not intrusiveness), evaluative feedback that
focuses on learning and mastery (not simply correctness), and
encouragement of child responsibility (not overcontrol). For
Figure 2. Illustration of development in orphanage settings deprived of
typical social-emotional interactions.
Figure 3. Illustration of development in overly teacher-directed
classroom settings.
160 LI AND JULIAN
instance, Japanese mathematics teachers in high-quality class-
rooms allow time and opportunity for students to make mis-
takes and then engage the entire class in diagnosing and
correcting mistakes, rather than simply correcting it for the stu-
dents (Stigler & Hiebert, 1999). Such scaffolding and fading
practices deepen students’ learning, shift students’ goals from
performance (i.e., avoid mistakes) toward learning (i.e., use mis-
takes to learn), and shift the learning process partially toward
the students (i.e., students diagnose mistakes rather than teach-
ers offering correction).
Under the increasing weight of curricula, educational stan-
dards, and high stakes testing both in the United States and
around the world, classroom interactions are inevitably more
constrained than the idealized model of developmental relation-
ship. However, effective and ineffective instructions are still
distinguishable by the degree to which the instructional relation-
ships between teachers and students approximate developmental
relationships.
Case Example 3: Mentoring Relationships for
At-Risk Youth
The two previous examples deal with issues within institu-
tional settings where the goals and needs of the institutions
often take priority over the needs of the children. This third
example examines mentoring programs in noninstitutional set-
tings where relationship building itself, rather than caregiving or
instruction, is the primary goal.
Programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters are designed to
enhance relationships between mentors and mentees as the fore-
most program objective. Evaluations of Big Brothers Big Sisters
have turned up mixed and somewhat short-lived results in terms
of program impact on mentees (Grossman & Tierney, 1998;
Herrera, Grossman, Kauh, Feldman, & McMaken, 2007). On
the surface, this seems to contradict our hypothesis that devel-
opmental relationship is the active ingredient for positive devel-
opment. However, even relationship-focused programs are not
the panacea for the lack of developmental relationships. Just as
orphanages and classrooms can be differentiated by the quality
of relationships emerging in those settings, in the study of men-
toring relationships, Morrow and Styles (1995) differentiated
developmental relationships from prescriptive relationships
among mentor–mentee pairings.
Prescriptive relationships are found with adult mentors who
expect the mentoring relationship to produce rapid, meaningful,
lasting changes in their mentee’s life. These mentors decided on
activities and topics of conversation without the youth’s input.
They exhibit tendencies to prescribe activities to the youth and
such tendencies increased over the duration of the mentoring
relationship. Thus, prescriptive mentoring relationships are
characterized by a high degree of control from the mentors that
are not responsive to the mentees’ needs and do not fade over
time. Figure 4 illustrates this dynamic.
In such a mentoring relationship, the shift in power in favor
of the mentee rarely occurs, and the relationship quality is
bound to decline over time as the mentor remains inflexible and
insistent on his or her plans for the relationship. In fact, these
relationships show patterns of tension and discontent, and
youths are less likely to talk to their mentors about their diffi-
culties. Less than one third of prescriptive mentoring relation-
ships had long-lasting relationships, not to mention the lack of
positive impact.
In contrast, mentors characterized as having a developmental
relationship with mentees respond flexibly to the mentee’s needs
and current level of development. Mentees are invited to help
decide what activities are carried out together and whether they
want their mentor’s advice and guidance. By including youth in
the process of negotiating the relationship, mentors are able to
fade their support over time and in response to the youth’s
growing competencies and confidence. Correspondingly, as these
relationships develop, youth often come to their mentors to
divulge problems they are having and to seek assistance. These
relationships meet consistently and over a long period of time
and provide youth the trusting and safe context in which further
individual development and growth are possible.
Importantly, this example demonstrates that not any well-
meaning relationship serves as the active ingredient in develop-
mental interventions. Relationships that fail to meet the criteria
for developmental relationships are neither long-lasting nor sup-
portive contexts for youth. In the mentoring case, gradually
shifting the balance of power toward the youth is particularly
paramount for both engagement and impact. An authentic
developmental relationship transcends the simplistic dichotomy
of youth-driven versus adult-driven paradigms and strikes a bal-
ance of power through building youth and adult partnerships
(Zeldin, Camino, & Mook, 2005; Zeldin, McDaniel, Topitzes, &
Lorens, 2001).
Case Example 4: Home Visiting Programs
Although the concept of developmental relationships emerges
from and is most easily applied to the understanding of the rela-
tionship between adults and children, it can also be extended to
understand interventions and settings that involve an adult as
the developing person. For example, in the context of social
work and social services such as home visiting programs, the
social worker fills the developed person role whereas the (adult)
client being served is the developing person.
Figure 4. Illustration of development within prescriptive mentoring
relationships.
DEVELOPMENTAL RELATIONSHIPS AS ACTIVE INGREDIENT 161
Most home visiting programs are built around the premise
that if a home visitor assists a parent, the child will also benefit.
Typical home visiting programs begin prenatally or in the first
2 years of a child’s life and focus on parent education, child
development, health care, preventing child abuse, and parents’
well-being (Sweet & Appelbaum, 2004). Building the relation-
ship between the home visitor and the parent is often part of
the program focus. There is substantial variability both within
and between home visiting programs in terms of implementation
and program impact. The evidence is mixed as to whether home
visiting has consistently positive effects (Gomby, Culcross, &
Behrman, 1999; Olds & Kitzman, 1993; Sweet & Appelbaum,
2004; Weiss, 1993). Although there is limited research examining
why some home visiting relationships succeed whereas others
fail, the available research is consistent with the conceptualiza-
tion of developmental relationships as the active ingredient in
home visiting programs. Specifically, home visiting programs
that operate on a limited instructional or case management
model (e.g., Bickman, 1996) tend to have disappointing results,
but when there is a strong home visitor–parent relationship and
a focus on parenting strategies, families benefit (Korfmacher,
Kitzman, & Olds, 1998).
What distinguishes effective home visiting relationships and
ones with mixed or poor results? Ideally, an effective home visi-
tor first forms a trusting relationship with a parent. A personal
connection between the home visitor and the parent based on
trust and acceptance may help the parent see herself as worthy
of empathy, respect, and patience from a home visitor. The par-
ent may in turn embody those qualities in her own parenting.
On the basis of a personal connection, the home visitor’s sup-
port is reciprocally matched to the parent’s emerging competen-
cies and needs. For a parent with few resources and relatively
low competencies, a home visitor might actively connect the
parent to resources (e.g., food pantry, child care, social support)
in the community. As the parent becomes more competent and
resourceful, the home visitor’s support and guidance appropri-
ately fades into a facilitator or mentoring role. This gradual
shift in power ensures that the parent becomes more competent
in caring for her child and in utilizing the resources available in
her community. In this way, a parent can develop new skills
(i.e., building relationships within a social or community net-
work) that last long after a home visitor leaves the family.
But there are circumstances where a developmental relation-
ship between the home visitor and the parent is less likely to
form. For instance, a home visitor may visit infrequently, visits
may be split between multiple home visitors for one parent, or
home visitors may adhere rigidly to planned curriculum content
for visits without responding contingently to a parent’s current
competencies and needs. These patterns of practice, often asso-
ciated with increasingly institutionalized social service systems,
echo parallel themes of inconsistent caregivers, rigid routines,
and low-quality interactions in traditional orphanage settings.
When the power consistently tilts toward the social service insti-
tution, home visitors are more likely to form prescriptive, rather
than developmental, relationships. The visited parents are more
likely to develop dependent, rather than self-sufficient, tenden-
cies. The impact of these institutional features on home visiting
includes short-lived visitor–parent relationships and lack of
impact on parental competencies and outcomes.
Practical Implications of the Developmental
Relationship as Active Ingredient Hypothesis
Conceptualizing developmental relationships as the active
ingredient in human development has important and critical
implications for our efforts to promote positive developmental
change. We explore these implications across three areas—
efforts to build programs and systems, efforts to provide aid
and assistance, and efforts to evaluate and research the effec-
tiveness of interventions.
Evidence-Based Programming and System-
Building Approaches to Change
Much of what we do collectively to create positive and lasting
change in children’s development may be categorized into two
general approaches. One approach is evidence-based program-
ming. We choose self-contained intervention packages with
either proven efficacy or demonstrated promise through
research and evaluation. Such interventions range from multi-
year programs that specify a target, curriculum, and staff quali-
fication (e.g., the 2-year long nurse–family partnership in which
nurses provide frequent prenatal and postbirth home visits to
first-time mothers) to hour-long intervention protocols trans-
lated from laboratory experiments (Embry, 2004; Embry &
Biglan, 2008). Treating a well-specified and self-contained
program or experimental protocol as the indivisible atomic unit
of evidence-based intervention, the implementation primarily
focuses on how to replicate and scale up such units with fidelity.
An extension of evidence-based programming is the system-
building approach—linking together an amalgamation of prom-
ising interventions to comprehensively address a wide array of
systemic factors that constrain or derail children’s development,
such as poverty, crime, education, and parenting. For example,
in early childhood work, we integrate parent education, social
services, early intervention, and quality child-care programs
(Coffman, Wright, & Bruner, 2006; Fulbright-Anderson &
Auspos, 2006; Guralnick, 2011). The famous Harlem’s Chil-
dren’s Zone (Dobbie & Fryer, 2011) is known for taking an
entire neighborhood and transforming every aspect of the com-
munity, including safety and sanitation, social services, educa-
tion, and parent engagement. In a cooking metaphor, the
system-building approach is akin to making a crockpot dish
whereby one hopes to stew together ingredients that are palat-
able on their own into a combination that tastes even better.
Despite the ebb and flow of these two complementary
approaches, we as a field have not consistently implemented reli-
able, sustainable, and scalable solutions that effectively serve
large numbers of at-risk children across settings. On the positive
side, we have always had a plethora of theoretically motivated
interventions that demonstrate promising success during pilot,
experimental, or developmental stages. To our collective dismay,
when such efforts finally earned the privilege of being scaled up
in large field trials or actual use, formal evaluations often found
no effect or highly uneven effects. Such cases include numerous
after-school programs (see review by Granger, 2008), preschool
programs (e.g., U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,
Administration for Children and Families, 2010), home visitation
programs (e.g., Wagner & Clayton, 1999), system-building
162 LI AND JULIAN
initiatives (e.g., Bickman, 1996), school accountability (see
reviews by Hanushek & Raymond, 2005; Newmann et al., 1997),
teacher accountability (see reviews by Levitt et al., 2008),
performance incentive for teachers or students (e.g., Fryer, 2010;
Murnane & Cohen, 1986), mentoring programs (e.g., Grossman
& Tierney, 1998; Herrera et al., 2007; Wheeler, Keller, & Dubois,
2010), numerous literacy and mathematics curricula, social-emo-
tional interventions, and at-risk behavior change and prevention
programs (see What Works Clearing House listing).
It appears that the problem of ‘‘not working very well for
very long’’ is the norm, rather than the exception, in existing
efforts to promote developmental change in school and commu-
nity settings. The decade-long federal program, What Works
Clearing House, was designed to screen evaluation research to
identify programs that both work and can scale. The program
identified so few programs that passed its evidence criteria that
it earned the unfortunate nickname Nothing Works Clearing-
house (Schoenfeld, 2006; Toppo, 2007; Viadero, 2008).
Our working hypothesis offers a partial explanation for the
phenomenon described previously and an alternative approach
to improving programs and policies for children and youth. We
believe that programs or policies often fail in scale-up for one of
two reasons. One, the program and policy never considered
enhancing developmental relationship as one of its main objec-
tives. Many school curricula experiments have mostly achieve-
ment goals and not relational goals. Policies such as merit pay
for teachers, incentive for students’ grades, accountability and
sanctions for schools, and vouchers for school choice do not
address relationships at all. Many of these programs and policies
not only do not enhance developmental relationships, some
adversely affect the climate and relationships within develop-
mental settings (e.g., school accountability). Second, programs
that had intended to promote relationships fail to do so with
focus and intensity in actual implementation. The mentoring
and home visiting case examples serve to demonstrate this effect.
We believe an alternative to the evidence-based programming
and system-building approaches is to focus on developmental
relationship as the active ingredient upon which the effectiveness
of other program elements depend. Viewed through the active
ingredient lens, the present system-building approach may be
unnecessarily broad, whereas the evidence-based programming
approach may be too narrowly focused on experimental pro-
grams or interventions. In program design, the focal question
ought to be ‘‘How does a (practice, program, system, or policy)
help to strengthen relationships in the developmental setting?’’
For example, if the policy or program decision is to adopt a
new curriculum (teachers to students, or social worker to fam-
ily), the most important question is whether or not such a cur-
riculum would move the relational interactions closer to being
developmental relationships, rather than merely the content,
coverage, rigor, and alignment of such a curriculum. Beyond
activities, if the design choices have to do with infrastructure
(e.g., center-based vs. home visiting services), the question is not
just logistics or financials, but whether the infrastructure choices
enhance or inhibit the growth of developmental relationships.
Unlike the traditional evidence-based programming approach,
we do not believe the active ingredient is a curriculum or
an intervention protocol. Rather, it is the universal notion of
developmental relationships that can be flexibly implemented by
and integrated into a host of existing and new activities and pro-
cedures. Likewise, in system-building efforts, we believe that a
system is not merely a coordinated combination of different
‘‘proven’’ interventions. Rather, a system and all of its com-
ponents ought to provide multiple pathways deliberately
constructed to enhance developmental relationships in each
developmental setting affected by the system.
Focusing on developmental relationships does not exclude the
need for a good curriculum or a coordinated social service sys-
tem, but a well-intentioned curriculum and social service system
will not be effective unless the implementation builds on and
enhances the quality of developmental relationships in the class-
room or the community.
Macrolevel Social Change Through Aid and
Assistance
Although the concept of developmental relationships origi-
nates in dyadic interactions, it may apply to the relationship
between groups and entities that have a differential in power or
expertise. Although few systematic and experimental studies
have been carried out on this scale, there are sufficient qualita-
tive accounts of change (Bradley et al., 2009; Dickens & Groza,
2004; Marsh, Schroeder, Dearden, Sternin, & Sternin, 2004) that
allow us to extend our hypothesis to this area for consideration.
In aid and development work, both within countries (e.g., urban
community revitalization) and between countries (e.g., foreign
aid), the source of the initial assistance, whether a government
entity or a nongovernmental organization, often starts as the
developed entity. The group receiving aid and assistance starts as
the developing entity. Thus conceived, the key to sustainable and
enduring impacts and positive change might be whether or not
the two groups manage to foster a developmental relationship
over time.
For years, foreign aid on issues ranging from childhood mal-
nutrition to poverty alleviation has followed a stereotypical
storyline: aid arrives, problem lessens; aid leaves, and problem
returns. But there is a counternarrative. Published first in the
British Medical Journal, an approach called positive deviance has
gradually garnered attention (Marsh et al., 2004). A group of
childhood malnutrition advocates began not by pumping dollars
and materials into Vietnam villages, but by first finding children
and families that defy the malnutrition norm from within these
villages (thus named positive deviance). This approach
recognizes and acknowledges the current capabilities of a com-
munity rather than rigidly imposing ideas identified by the orga-
nization providing aid. In doing this, a positive and empowering
relationship develops between the aid-providing organization
and the receiving community, and the providers of aid serve
more as facilitators than benevolent dictators, allowing the com-
munity to gradually take more responsibility and control over
efforts to produce change.
In essence, by engaging the villagers themselves to identify
what worked right under their noses and scaling up the change,
the foreign aid workers effectively managed to build a develop-
mental relationship with the local community—earning trust,
building sophisticated local capacity for change, and shifting the
balance of power toward the people being helped rather than
building reliance on aid-supported materials.
DEVELOPMENTAL RELATIONSHIPS AS ACTIVE INGREDIENT 163
We believe that it is constructive to conceptualize macrolevel
aid and intervention between developed and developing entities
(neighborhoods, schools, agencies, countries) as the cultivation
of a developmental relationship akin to that between a support-
ive mother and her wobbling infant or that between an empow-
ering mentor and his mentee.
Program Evaluation and Policy Research
The constructive goal of research and evaluation is not simply
to prove whether a program worked by some distal outcomes (a
daunting, expensive, and often unfruitful task), but rather to
add to the knowledge of how programs and systems need to be
implemented to maximize the impact of well-known active
ingredients and identify the program-specific pathways that
allow the active ingredients to transform both individual and
settings in an enduring way (Pawson & Tilley, 2004). When
research and evaluation focus too narrowly on programmatic
inputs and outcomes, as typical evaluations do today, they iden-
tify shortfalls in results without offering an insightful under-
standing of why programs fail (Hendricks, Plantz, & Pritchard,
2008; Pawson & Tilley, 2004; Schambra, 2011). The lack of con-
sistent, positive, and lasting outcomes only fuels more research
and evaluation for impactful programs (to no avail) and
increases pressure on schools and community organizations to
deliver or prove such outcomes on short order. Such pressure
often inadvertently leads schools and community organizations
further astray from promoting development relationships
through their activities and services (Halpern, 2005).
As we believe developmental relationships constitute the
active ingredient for developmental interventions, we argue that
research and evaluation involving developmental interventions
should focus their efforts on determining what effect the actual
implementation of programs and policies has on developmental
relationships among the people and settings affected. To do
that, we need credible metrics for developmental relationships.
The empirical studies cited in our case examples offer a range of
assessment tools and methodological options to assess develop-
mental relationships among caregivers and children, teachers
and students, mentors and mentees, and home visitors and par-
ents. In addition, we advocate for new and innovative measures
that can easily be used by nonresearchers and can quickly and
reliably determine relational quality in field settings. When qual-
ity standards and indicators are anchored in reliable measures
of quality relationships, the research and evaluation of pro-
grams and policies, instead of serving only as the arbiter of
competitive programs, can inform us about how actions impact
relationships so we may learn how to better improve develop-
mental outcomes.
To facilitate such a shift in evaluation and research focus, gov-
ernment and foundation funders of evaluation and research
efforts need to adopt, at minimum, a phased-in evaluation strat-
egy that first prioritizes the understanding of program or policy
impacts on developmental relationships before proceeding to the
much more expensive effort to causally determine outcomes. As
we have argued in theory and based on empirical evidence, few
programs or policies serving children have hopes of producing
lasting outcomes if they do not enhance, or if they undermine,
the quality of developmental relationships. The thousands of
studies reviewed by the What Works Clearing House, most of
which focused on outcomes and failed to find them, ought to
have signaled the futility of chasing after distal outcomes without
first examining credible intermediate indicators in the present.
Conclusion
Developmental relationships are hypothesized to be the active
ingredient in developmental interventions. Such relationships
are defined relatively parsimoniously as human interactions
characterized by four interwoven features—attachment, reci-
procity, progressive complexity, and balance of power. We
made the testable claim that developmental interventions pro-
duce desirable outcomes if and only if such interventions
enhanced developmental relationships and offered case examples
of empirical studies that shed light on developmental relation-
ships across multiple settings for multiple target populations.
Developmental relationships should become the focal point
for efforts intended to produce meaningful developmental
change: ‘‘How does a (practice, program, system, or policy) help
to strengthen relationships in the developmental setting?’’ With
this focus, decision making starts and ends with how an action
impacts relationships.
One common response we receive when discussing this article
with professionals who serve children (funders, program manag-
ers, researchers) is: ‘‘We do agree with the importance of rela-
tionship building. But funders pay for and want hard,
measurable outcomes, not soft, hard-to-measure relationships.’’
We believe it is time to make developmental relationship the
very outcome that is measurable and worth paying for.
Keywords: children; youth; at-risk children; at-risk youth; devel-
opmental relationships; classroom environment; mentoring;
home visiting programs; orphanages; scaffolding; fading
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166 LI AND JULIAN
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Youth development programs often rely on volunteers to deliver programming to young people. Our study explored the skills and competencies volunteers self-identified as important for their roles. We analyzed qualitative responses to 2 open-ended questions asking University of California 4-H volunteers to identify priority skills to aid in their volunteer development. Using inductive thematic analysis, we developed a coding scheme to analyze 1,144 responses. Participants reported the need for professional development in content-specific areas, program management basics, and child development. Volunteers also reported desiring training in educational practices, organizational skills, specific volunteer roles, and communication skills. The modalities through which volunteers were willing to develop these skills were peer-to-peer learning; online, in-person, classes and conferences; and continuous education. Given the importance of adult volunteers to youth development programs, it is essential that volunteers’ professional and skill development be supported by both effective and preferred approaches.
... (2019) ir pateikiami 1 priede. Šiandienis mokslas yra pateikęs argumentų, kad vaiko vystymasis priklauso nuo besitęsiančių abipusių ryšių tarp individo genetikos, biologijos, tarpasmeninių santykių, 66 Li, J., & Julian, M. M. (2012). Developmental relationships as the active ingredient: a unifying working hypothesis of "what works" across intervention settings. ...
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