Relationships are the Active Ingredient in Learning and Development - By David Tranter, PhD

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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.[1] 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.[2]

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.[3]

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.[4]

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.[5]

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 motivation[6]

  • Increased academic engagement[7]

  • Improved reading achievement[8]

  • Improved math proficiency[9]

  • Improved overall academic outcomes[10], [11]

  • Greater cooperation[12]

  • Greater resiliency[13]

  • Improved attention[14]

  • Language skill development[15]

  • Greater liking of school[16]

  • Growth in self-directed behaviour[17]

  • The prevention of school dropout[18]

  • Greater self-efficacy[19]

  • Increased pursuit of social goals[20]

  • Increased prosocial behaviour[21]

  • Development of social/emotional skills

  • Increased self-control[22]

  • Enhanced emotional well-being[23]

  • Increased positive self-concept[24]

  • Willingness to seek help[25]

  • Greater internalization of adult values and goals[26]

  • Improved sense of relatedness and belonging[27]

  • Buffering of stress and anxiety[28]

  • Greater overall protection against risk[29]

  • Improved emotional regulation[30]

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.


[1][1] Li, J., & Julian, M.M. (2012). Developmental relationships as the active ingredient: a unifying working hypothesis of "what works" across intervention settings. The American journal of orthopsychiatry, 82 2, 157-66. 

[2] Darling-Hammond, L., & Cook-Harvey, C. M. (2018). Educating the whole child: Improving school climate to support student success. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute

[3] David Osher, Pamela Cantor, Juliette Berg, Lily Steyer & Todd Rose (2018) Drivers of human development: How relationships and context shape learning and development, Applied Developmental Science.

[4] Rimm-Kaufman, S., & Sandilos, L. (2011). Improving students' relationships with teachers to provide essential supports for learning. Teacher’s Modules.

[5] Wentzell, K.(2010) Students relationships with teachers. In Meece, J. & Eccles, J. Handbook of research on schools, schooling, and human development. Routledge.

[6]   Ryan, A. M., & Patrick, H. (2001). The Classroom Social Environment and Changes in Adolescents’ Motivation and Engagement During Middle School. American Educational Research Journal, 38(2), 437–460.

[7] Klem, A. M. and Connell, J. P. (2004), Relationships Matter: Linking Teacher Support to Student Engagement and Achievement. Journal of School Health, 74: 262-273. doi:10.1111/j.1746-1561.2004.tb08283.x

[8] McCormick, M. P., & O'Connor, E. E. (2015). Teacher–child relationship quality and academic achievement in elementary school: Does gender matter? Journal of Educational Psychology, 107(2), 502-516.

[9] Rimm-Kaufman, S. E., Baroody, A. E., Larsen, R. A. A., Curby, T. W., & Abry, T. (2015). To what extent do teacher–student interaction quality and student gender contribute to fifth graders’ engagement in mathematics learning? Journal of Educational Psychology, 107(1), 170-185.

[10] Hamre, B. K., & Pianta, R. C. (2001). Early Teacher-Child Relationships and the Trajectory of Children’s School Outcomes through Eighth Grade. Child Development, 72, 625-638.

[11]   Crosnoe, R., Johnson, M. K., & Elder, G. H. (2004). Intergenerational Bonding in School: The Behavioral and Contextual Correlates of Student-Teacher Relationships. Sociology of Education, 77(1), 60–81.

[12] Decker, D. M., Dona, D. P., & Christenson, S. L. (2007). Behaviorally at-risk African American students: The importance of student-teacher relationships for student outcomes. Journal of School Psychology45(1), 83-109.

[13] Ewing, A. R., & Taylor, A. R. (2009). The role of child gender and ethnicity in teacher-child relationship quality and children's behavioral adjustment in preschool. Early Childhood Research Quarterly24(1), 92-105.

[14] Ryan, R. M., Stiller, J. D., & Lynch, J. H. (1994). Representations of relationships to teachers, parents, and friends as predictors of academic motivation and self-esteem. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 14(2), 226-249.

[15] Peisner‐Feinberg, E. S., Burchinal, M. R., Clifford, R. M., Culkin, M. L., Howes, C. , Kagan, S. L. and Yazejian, N. (2001), The Relation of Preschool Child‐Care Quality to Children's Cognitive and Social Developmental Trajectories through Second Grade. Child Development, 72: 1534-1553. doi:10.1111/1467-8624.00364

[16] Birch, S. H., & Ladd, G. W., “Children's interpersonal behaviors and the teacher-child relationship”. Developmental Psychology, 34, 934-946. 1998.

[17] Birch, S. H., & Ladd, G. W. (1997). The teacher-child relationships and children’s early school adjustment. Journal of School Psychology, 35, 67-79. doi:10.1016/S0022-4405(96)00029-5

[18]  Rumberger, R. W. (1995). Dropping Out of Middle School: A Multilevel Analysis of Students and Schools. American Educational Research Journal, 32(3), 583–625. 

[19] Ibañez, G.E., Kuperminc, G.P., Jurkovic, G. et al. Journal of Youth and Adolescence (2004) 33: 559.

[20] Wentzel, K. R. (2003). School Adjustment. In Handbook of Psychology, I. B. Weiner (Ed.). doi:10.1002/0471264385.wei0711

 [21] Blankemeyer, M. , Flannery, D. J. and Vazsonyi, A. T. (2002), The role of aggression and social competence in children's perceptions of the child–teacher relationship. Psychol. Schs., 39: 293-304. doi:10.1002/pits.10008

[22] Liew, J., Chen, Q., & Hughes, J. N. (2010). Child Effortful Control, Teacher-student Relationships, and Achievement in Academically At-risk Children: Additive and Interactive Effects. Early childhood research quarterly, 25(1), 51-64.

[23] Wentzel, Kathryn. (1998). Social Relationships and Motivation in Middle School: The Role of Parents, Teachers, and Peers. Journal of Educational Psychology. 90. 202-209. 10.1037/0022-0663.90.2.202.

[24] Heather A. Davis, H. (2001). The Quality and Impact of Relationships between Elementary School Students and Teachers, Contemporary Educational Psychology, 26, 4,

[25] S. Newman, Richard. (2000). Social Influences on the Development of Children's Adaptive Help Seeking: The Role of Parents, Teachers, and Peers. Developmental Review. 20. 350-404. 10.1006/drev.1999.0502.

[26] Ryan, R. M. (1993). Agency and organization: Intrinsic motivation, autonomy, and the self in psychological development. In J. E. Jacobs (Ed.), Current theory and research in motivation, Vol. 40. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, 1992: Developmental perspectives on motivation (pp. 1-56). Lincoln, NE, US: University of Nebraska Press.

[27] Furrer, C., & Skinner, E. (2003). Sense of relatedness as a factor in children's academic engagement and performance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95(1), 148-162.

[28] Murray, C., & Greenberg, M. T. (2000). Children's relationship with teachers and bonds with school. An investigation of patterns and correlates in middle childhood. Journal of School Psychology, 38(5), 423-445.

[29] Baker, J. A. (2006). Contribution of Teacher-Child Relationships to Positive School Adjustment during Elementary School. Journal of School Psychology, 44, 211-229.

[30] Wentzel, K. R. (1998). Social relationships and motivation in middle school: The role of parents, teachers, and peers. Journal of Educational Psychology, 90(2), 202-209. 

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