Rooted in Relationships

Just as a system of roots supports and nourishes trees as they develop and grow, nurturing relationships with adults provide a foundation for young pe…
Jun 1st, 2022 | 44:36

Episode 2.2 - Junlei Li - The power of simple interactions

In this episode of Rooted in Relationships we discuss the importance of human relationships and how the fundamental need for connection exists across all cultures, but may look different depending on cultural norms and expectations. We are joined by Dr. Junlei Li Co-Chair of the Human Development and Education program and Saul Zaentz Senior Lecturer in early childhood education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Dr. Li discusses how regardless of the culture or context, meaningful relationships and positive development can occur through simple interactions.

Podcast: Rooted in Relationships

Episode: Junlei Li - The power of simple interactions


Welcome to the Rooted in Relationships podcast, where we talk with renowned researchers and experts to explore how connections to resources, relationships and social networks provide the key conditions that all young people need to thrive. Kicking off season two of the podcast, Search Institute CEO Ben Houltberg introduces Kent Pekel, education leader and former CEO of Search Institute. Today, Kent has a conversation with Dr. Junlei Li, Co-Chair of the Human Development and Education program and Saul Zaentz Senior Lecturer in early childhood education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He discusses how, regardless of culture or context, meaningful relationships and positive development can occur through simple interactions. 


Raised in China, Dr. Li’s parents were both teachers, which made him engaged in teaching and learning from an early age. These concepts are what he went on to study in graduate school, focusing on psychology and children’s development. Physically entering classrooms, Junlei realized that some teachers were simply just able to connect with their students better than others. This idea really puzzled him. After spending a few years in classrooms and later becoming an adoptive parent, he began further questioning the outcomes for young children unable to build healthy relationships with others but may be able to do so afterwards in foster care. These two building blocks solidified for Junlei the importance of relationships and the fact that they can be built anywhere.  Dr. Li discusses the cultural differences between his home country of China and the U.S., where he now lives and works. While many things differ, one thing is for sure: children, regardless of where they’re from, all fundamentally need and desire the same kinds of relationships. 


Dr. Li co-authored the article Developmental Relationships as the Active Ingredient. The hypothesis of the article is that practices, services and policies work only if they help to strengthen the human relationships around children and families. While he does still believe this hypothesis, there is one small caveat he would add. This is that at the time, they did not sufficiently describe the relationship between the active and inactive ingredients. Just because something is an inactive ingredient doesn’t mean it isn’t useful. The awareness that relationships are ultimately central to who we are as teachers, parents, administrators, etc. is crucial. Once we are aware of something, we can further adopt and adapt the ideas. 


Next, Kent asks Dr. Li to elaborate on the role of developmental relationships when it comes to at-risk youth. There are obviously great inequities in the distribution of material and professional resources. Similarly, many of the interventions imposed on marginalized communities tend to neglect the relational part. These acts consequently corrupt the teacher and student relationships and undermine the very thing that children need. In his own work, Dr. Li sees it important to call out the need for explicit and intentional relationship-based programs and policies. 


Simple Interactions is the work that is trying to address a very simple question which arises after a presentation or workshop about relationships. Most simply put, the question is “So what?” Almost everyone agrees that relationships are important, but not many can define what they might look like day in and day out. The idea behind Simple Interactions is to break relationships down to their tiny, everyday building blocks. Then, we can look at these everyday interactions to determine what is happening to contribute to the strengthening of a relationship over time. 


As the conversation wraps up, Dr. Li discusses how his current work differs from his past research. Increasingly so, he is considering what kind of developmental relationships need developing and strengthening among adults. In his classroom, he is deeply committed to help to develop and support the development of new generations of child and youth serving professionals. Finally, he identifies the most important lessons the pandemic taught us. 



0:34 - Ben Houltberg introduces season two of the podcast. 

1:25 - Welcome Dr. Junlei Li to the podcast. 

5:19 - Dr. Junlei Li’s interest in human relationships.

8:43 -  Culture differences between China and the U.S. 

12:27 - The hypothesis of Dr. Li’s article Developmental Relationships as the Active Ingredient. 

18:50 - Can relationships be scaled? 

22:28 - Discussing historic inequities of access to developmental relationships. 

26:49 - The work of Simple Interactions. 

30:50 - Dr. Li highlights two colleagues trailblazing this field. 

34:08 - Dr. Li’s current work. 

39:33 - What the pandemic taught us that we must not forget.  


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