Relationships are the Active Ingredient in Learning and Development - By David Tranter, PhD
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 determined by whether such effort ultimately promoted or hindered the active mechanism associated with such an ingredient—the developmental active ingredient? Junlei Li & Megan Julian (2012)
We all think that we are pretty good at relationships. Even when some of our relationships don’t go that well, we can always just attribute it to the other person, or the circumstances, or simply say that the relationship wasn’t important enough to us to devote a lot of effort to.
We also tend to think that relationships just happen. We “hit it off” with one person, or “fail to connect” with another. We see it as a good match of personality and temperament, or a simple mismatch. We generally feel as if there is a chemistry to relationships—some seem to work well, and others don’t. If we try hard to make the chemistry work, then we might then worry that we are no longer acting as our true self. We risk being fake and being fake is the worst thing for relationships.
Although we view the teacher-student relationship as different than relationships in our personal life, we typically draw heavily upon the assumptions we make in our personal relationships to inform our professional ones. One such assumption is about intentionality. While we put considerable effort into building relationships with students, we don’t always act with the kind of intentionality that we do, say with curriculum. Nor do we allow ourselves to give relationships equal time. Imagine if you were able to devote the effort into relationship-building that you do with instruction. Or, imagine how some of your colleagues might react if you tell them that you plan to spend the entire month of September just working on building relationships in your classroom, no “teaching” time, just relationships.
Teachers put a lot of time and energy into the technical aspects of teaching, but often they have much less time to devote to the relational aspects of education. They become experts in curriculum content areas, and fully adept at a wide range of teaching strategies, but they are given fewer opportunities to build their relational toolkit. This is problematic because, while teaching strategies are of course very important, the research on learning and development makes clear that they work only if they are done within the context of a strong teacher-student relationship.
For those who tend to discount the teacher-student relationship as obvious, easy, or like any other type of relationship, some experts refer it as a “developmental relationship” to highlight its unique nature and intent. This means that the relationship isn’t just about being fun or friendly, it’s about creating relationships that foster student development. For example, here are some conclusions made by large-scale meta-analyses of the research on teaching:
Human relationships are the essential ingredient that catalyzes healthy development and learning. Supportive, responsive relationships with caring adults from birth into adulthood provide the foundation for healthy development and learning. Secure relationships have biological as well as affective significance. Optimal brain architecture is developed by the presence of warm, consistent relationships; positive experiences; and positive perceptions of these experiences.
The power of positive developmental relationships with teachers for promoting student outcomes appear to be driven by the extent to which the relationships contain social synchrony and emotional attunement, foster opportunities to learn (including time on task, mentoring, and modeling), and increase student concepts of themselves as learners.
Positive teacher-student relationships — evidenced by teachers' reports of low conflict, a high degree of closeness and support, and little dependency — have been shown to support students' adjustment to school, contribute to their social skills, promote academic performance and foster students' resiliency in academic performance.
Effective teachers are typically described as those who create relationships with students that are emotionally close, safe, and trusting, that facilitate provisions of instrumental help and communication of positive and higher expectations for performance, and that foster a more general ethos of community and caring in their classroom.
It’s not just that the teacher-student relationship underlies student success in general, it’s also been shown to be highly correlated with a whole range of important aspects of student success. Stronger relationships with students typically lead to:
Increased academic engagement
Improved reading achievement
Improved math proficiency
Language skill development
Greater liking of school
Growth in self-directed behaviour
The prevention of school dropout
Increased pursuit of social goals
Increased prosocial behaviour
Development of social/emotional skills
Enhanced emotional well-being
Increased positive self-concept
Willingness to seek help
Greater internalization of adult values and goals
Improved sense of relatedness and belonging
Buffering of stress and anxiety
Greater overall protection against risk
Improved emotional regulation
So, where can you get the greatest bang for your teaching buck? If you devote the kind of intentionality to honing your relationship skills that you do to honing your instructional skills, then it’s highly likely that you’ll see your students improve in all kinds of ways—both social/emotional and academic.
To be clear, the relationship that you develop with each of your students is critical to their success. However, yours is not the only relationship that can make the difference. You might not be able to build a strong relationship with each and everyone one of your students (although you should try!). You can’t, and shouldn’t have to, do it alone.
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