Youth standing and talking in a group

The Rooted in Relationships Model

Search Institute’s Rooted in Relationships model builds on decades of research about the critical importance of strong developmental relationships for young people’s growth, learning, and success in life.

Administrative leaders and direct service staff often report that organizational and funding priorities are focused on delivery of content, both programmatic and academic, and that they have inadequate time and resources to work on relationship-building with young people.

We are not just talking about relationships between youth and teachers or program staff. The entire web of relationships —including peers, families, and other adults — matters. Relationships happen within content and program delivery, and in all the spaces that surround those activities.

An intentional focus on relationships is not a separate, add-on strategy. Rather, it must be integrated into what an organization already does.


The Rooted in Relationships Model

Resource Audience

Youth Program Leaders Teachers School / Youth Program Staff School / Youth Organization Leaders District Leaders

Resource Type


Read Time

Under 5 Minutes

The Rooted in Relationships Model

We use an organic metaphor to describe the dynamic systems that work together to ensure all young people within an organization or program experience the developmental relationships they need to thrive. We chose a Ginkgo tree to represent the positive youth outcomes that proliferate in a relationship-rich setting.

The Ginkgo tree, which displays bright, yellow leaves in autumn, is extremely resilient. It can thrive in many different conditions, with deep roots that make it resistant to damage from harsh weather.

In this model, the tree represents a healthy and thriving young person . Thriving is indicated by looking at several key areas of development including intrapersonal, social-emotional, academic, and civic.

Just as a system of roots supports and nourishes trees as they grow, a network of developmental relationships (with peers, teachers, coaches, staff) offer youth connection, stability, encouragement, guidance and opportunities they need to thrive. Research has shown that young people who experience strong developmental relationships are less likely to engage in high-risk behaviors, such as substance abuse and violence; and are more likely to report a range of positive outcomes, from academic success to social-emotional competencies and prosocial behavior.

Roots absorb nourishment from the soil in which they grow. Soil conditions are critical for optimal growth and development of the root system. To cultivate the soil, we add important nutrients, remove toxins, and create space for roots to grow deeper and stronger. Similarly, an organization can cultivate a climate that is intentional, inclusive, and equitable. A relational climate that embodies these characteristics provides fertile ground for strong youth-adult relationships to take root.

The bedrock provides a solid foundation for the soil and all that grows within it. Similarly, organization structures (such as communications; staff hiring, training and retention practices; budget allocations) can be aligned to continually support and sustain positive relational climates where relationships thrive.

Environmental factors above ground affect a tree and its roots, soil, and bedrock. Youth- serving organizations are similarly affected by societal norms, government policies, and other aspects of the broader community context.