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Nurturing close student-teacher relationships

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The Benefits of Close Student-Teacher Relationships and How to Nurture Them
Penny Van Bergen
Centre for Children’s Learning in a Social World and Department of Educational Studies,
Macquarie University
Kevin F. McGrath
Centre for Children’s Learning in a Social World and Department of Educational Studies,
Macquarie University
Daniel Quin
School of Psychology, Australian Catholic University
Van Bergen, P., McGrath, K. F., & Quin, D. (2019). The benefits of close student-teacher
relationships and how to nurture them. In Inclusive Education for the 21st Century: Theory,
policy and practice, L. J. Graham (Ed.) Allen & Unwin.
Introduction
Close relationships between teachers and students are important for all classrooms.
Close student-teacher relationships provide a critical foundation for learning and set the tone
for the classroom climate (Hughes, 2011). Students who experience close and supportive
relationships with their teachers are more likely to interact positively with other classmates,
to excel academically, and to feel a positive sense of school belonging and adjustment (Pianta
& Stuhlman, 2004). Close relationships are also powerfully predictive; with relationship
quality in the early years of schooling predicting both social and academic outcomes in high
school (Hamre & Pianta, 2001; McGrath & Van Bergen, 2015).
In developing close relationships with their students, educators face two inherent
challenges. First, research shows that student-teacher relationship quality typically declines
across the school years (Jerome, Hamre, & Pianta, 2009); albeit with different trajectories
and fluctuations for different groups of students (Lee & Bierman, 2018; Spilt, Hughes, Wu,
& Kwok, 2012). This may be because reduced student-teacher interactional opportunities in
higher grades creates conditions whereby teachers and students are less invested in student-
teacher relationships, and more attentive to relationships with peers and colleagues. It is also
possible that teachers’ expectations of students change across time, as students grow older
and as differences in student behaviour become entrenched. Finally, according to O’Connor
and McCartney (2007), interactions are increasingly instruction-based and not relationship-
based. Whatever the cause, strategies for ameliorating both declines and fluctuations in
relationship quality are important (Lee & Bierman, 2018).
Second, some students and some teachers are at greater risk of experiencing poor-
quality relationships than others. Boys are more likely than girls to experience a negative
student-teacher relationship, for example, as are students in at-risk groups including
minority students, students from low-income families, students with disruptive behaviour,
and students with learning difficulties (see McGrath & Van Bergen, 2015; Roorda, Koomen,
Spilt, & Oort, 2011 for reviews). Worryingly, it is these same at-risk groups of students who
are most likely to benefit from close, supportive, and caring relationships with teachers
(McGrath & Van Bergen, 2015).
For teachers, a host of different risk factors emerge. Teachers with low teaching self-
efficacy and teachers who provide less emotional support in the classroom are each likely to
experience poor-quality relationships with their students, as are teachers with depression
(Hamre, Pianta, Downer, & Mashburn, 2008; McGrath & Van Bergen, 2017). These results
hold true even when student characteristics, such as disruptive behavior, are taken into
account (that is, statistically removed from the analyses such that the unique contributions of
the teacher can be determined). Teachers with more years’ experience might also be at
greater risk of experiencing poor-quality student-teacher relationships (Brekelmans,
Wubbels, & van Tartwijk, 2005), although findings are equivocal (Hughes, 2011).
Interestingly, despite evidence that student gender predicts relationship quality (McGrath,
Van Bergen, & Sweller, 2017), the findings for teacher gender are more complex. Gender
matching appears important for female teachers, who report preferences for female students,
but not for male teachers (Spilt, Koomen, & Jak, 2012).
In this chapter, we explore the characteristics of different student-teacher relationships
and the contexts in which they develop. We also draw on available research evidence to
identify the benefits of close and supportive student-teacher relationships for all students.
We conclude the chapter by considering the practices that can help teachers to nurture close
relationships with their students. In doing so, we present a blueprint that teachers, teacher
educators, and researchers can use to drive new lines of questioning and troubleshoot
interactional problems as they arise. We note that all students have the right to expect a
close, supportive, and effective relationship with their teachers, irrespective of challenging
learning, developmental, or behavioural characteristics (Spilt & Koomen, 2009).
Characterising the Student-Teacher Relationship
Research investigating student-teacher relationships typically characterises these
relationships using three relational constructs: closeness, conflict, and dependency (Hughes,
2011; Murray & Murray, 2004; Pianta, 2001; Sabol & Pianta, 2012). Applying these
constructs, student-teacher relationships have traditionally been classified as being either
positive or negative. A positive student-teacher relationship is defined as one that is both
high in closeness and low in conflict and dependency. A negative relationship, in contrast, is
one that is low in closeness and high in either conflict or dependency (Hughes, 2011; Pianta,
2001; Pianta & Stuhlman, 2004).
Whilst student-teacher closeness has been associated with positive adjustment, and
conflict with poorer adjustment, the effects of dependency on student outcomes are less clear
(Hughes, 2011; see Murray & Murray, 2004; Solheim, Berg-Nielsen, & Wichstrøm, 2012).
This may be because the appropriateness and function of dependency is also variable across
time and contexts. Dependency, which refers to how reliant on the teacher a student is, is
typically considered in terms of age-appropriate behaviour. Thus, what might appear clingy
or possessive for an older child may be normative for a younger child who has not yet
developed strong independence. Dependency is also likely to be culturally specific, with
some cultures valuing independence and autonomy above others (Solheim et al., 2012).
Due to challenges in operationalising dependency, it has sometimes been both (i)
reframed as a neutral (and not negative) relationship construct, and (ii) omitted from reviews
of student-teacher relationships and their outcomes altogether (e.g. McGrath & Van Bergen,
2015; Roorda et al. 2011). Following these same lines of reasoning, we encourage teachers
to view dependency not as a relationship obstacle but as a call for additional support. Hence,
if a student is particularly dependent, the teacher has a unique and much-needed opportunity
to support the student’s development of self-regulation and autonomy in a way that is
developmentally and culturally appropriate. We discuss strategies for addressing dependency
in our final section.
Towards a more nuanced view of student-teacher relationships
Given that dependency is often omitted, positive and negative student-teacher
relationships have come to be synonymous with closeness and conflict. These relationship
constructs are unlikely to be dichotomous in practice, however. Although closeness is a
strong marker of an emotionally positive relationship, it is entirely possible for students and
teachers who share warmth and closeness to also experience significant conflict (see Spilt &
Koomen, 2009). Thus, a dimorphic view of student-teacher relationships may overlook
important nuances in the combination of qualities characterising these relationships.
In recent research, McGrath and Van Bergen (2017, 2019) present four relationship
categories, based on bisections of both closeness and conflict data. They found evidence that
more than 40% of relationships may be ‘atypical’, with either high closeness and high
conflict (a complicated relationship), or low closeness and low conflict (a reserved
relationship). Together, these atypical relationship types exceed the number of purely
negative relationships (see Table 1).
Table 1
Characteristics of Four Student-Teacher Relationship Types (adapted from McGrath & Van
Bergen, 2019).
Relationship Type
Characteristics
Incidence
Positive
High in closeness and low in conflict
41.2%
Complicated
High in closeness and high in conflict
15.7%
Reserved
Low in closeness and low in conflict
25.5%
Negative
Low in closeness and high in conflict
17.6%
The identification of at least two atypical student-teacher relationship types,
complicated and reserved, highlights the need for teachers and researchers to broaden their
discussions of relationships beyond the positive-negative dichotomy. This is important for
two reasons. First, and despite students benefitting strongly from relational closeness, those
with ‘complicated’ student-teacher relationships may still require support to improve
prosocial behaviour and reduce aggression. As relational closeness may be less stable than
conflict (Lee & Bierman, 2018), it is also possible that these same students will not
experience the benefits of close relationships with other teachers. It is therefore vital that
teachers do not overlook including these students in behaviour supports, despite their own
feelings of closeness toward the student.
Second, students with reserved student-teacher relationships may be particularly
vulnerable to negative academic and social outcomes. As reserved relationships are
characterised by both low closeness and low conflict, these students may go unnoticed by
teachers and receive considerably less attention, time, and support than students who
experience other relationship types. Compounding this risk is a possible confound between
reserved student-teacher relationships and shyness. Shy students often have great difficulty
in forming positive relationships with their teachers, and therefore have relationships that are
neither close nor conflictual (Coplan & Rudasill, 2016). Interestingly, however, they also
tend to have higher levels of dependency on teachers (Arbeau, Coplan, & Weeks, 2010).
This dependency may be due to anxiety when interacting with peers, which leads the student
to over-rely on teachers for social interaction (Arbeau et al., 2010). To ensure the
development of close and supportive relationships with teachers and peers alike, such
students must be identified and supported.
Student-teacher relationships in context
When considering the characteristics of different student-teacher relationships, it is
important to also consider the broader contexts in which those relationships occur. These
broader contexts are relevant both for considering how close and effective student-teacher
relationships form, and for considering the influence of the student-teacher relationship on
other developmental outcomes. For almost 40 years, Bronfenbrenner’s seminal ecological
systems theory (1979) has been used to describe how factors relating to the individual
student, his or her family, the school, the peer group, and the broader community each have
complex and interrelated influences on child and adolescent development. At the individual
level, for example, prior educational experiences may influence a student’s developmental
outcomes and their relationships, while at the peer level, the educational values and antisocial
behaviours of one’s friends may be of influence. At the family level, socioeconomic status
and family conflict each play a role, and at the community level, student safety and
community involvement are likely to be influential.
Drawing upon Bronfenbrenner’s classic work (1979), relationship scholars in the
modern era have also developed ecological models of development to examine both the role
of student-teacher relationships in development and the processes and experiences that may
influence relationship quality (O’Connor, 2010; Pianta & Walsh, 1996). Research applying
ecological models of development have identified important findings for student wellbeing,
including that high-stakes testing negatively impacts close student-teacher relationships
(Thompson, 2013), that there is a bidirectional relationship between student-teacher
relationship quality and peer liking (Hughes & Chen, 2011), and that a close relationship with
a teacher can protect against the negative effects of a negative child-parent relationship for
young children (Hughes, Cavell, & Jackson, 1999).
Using ecological models of development, student-teacher relationships have
increasingly been targeted as a mechanism for enhancing development for students at risk.
Not only do student-teacher relationships have powerful outcomes, they also are amenable to
intervention. This means there is the potential for whole-school communities to implement
initiatives designed to improve the quality of specific students relationships with their
teachers and, in doing so, also target other child and adolescent outcomes such as peer
relationships, academic achievement, and student behaviour (Quin, 2017). Other contextual
factors that place students at risk of negative outcomes are less readily influenced by
educators within the school community (Quin, 2017). It is important to remember that the
outcomes of these relationship interventions are also likely to be influenced by other in-
school factors, including academic climate, interpersonal safety, and institutional
environment (Quin, Heerde, & Toumbourou, 2018). Thus, other approaches might also be
needed in specific cases. When relationship interventions are paired together with these other
approaches, however, the chances of positive student outcomes are high.
The role of the teacher: emotional labour, relational labour, and instruction
Above we describe how student-teacher relationships are characterised by closeness
and conflict, and how dependency may also drive relationship quality in some cases. We
further note how relationships exist within specific ecological contexts, and how contextual
factors such as individual student or teacher characteristics, peer and family relationships,
and school and community structures might also influence student-teacher relationships and
student outcomes. As many readers of this book are preservice and existing teachers, there is
a need to also consider the work of the teacher specifically. Here, we focus on the role of the
teacher in managing and building close and effective student-teacher relationships.
Teaching is often described as a type of emotional labour, requiring teachers to
manage their emotions in accordance with professional rules and expectations. This
classification does not fully consider the longitudinal and interpersonal nature of classroom
dynamics, however. Given the inherently relational work of teachers, we identify teaching as
also being a kind of relational labour. In addition to being required to manage their emotions
to conform to predetermined rules, teachers are expected to have superior relational skills that
allow them to form close relationships with a diverse range of students. Hence, the teachers
who are most likely to be considered ‘effective’ by colleagues, students, and parents are those
with whom students are able to connect with and relate to on a personal level. In this chapter,
we use the term relational labour to frame the practices that promote relational closeness
between teachers and students.
Of course, relational work is not a teacher’s only task. Perhaps most prominent in
popular discourse is the expectation that teachers should provide instruction that aligns with
the prescribed academic curriculum. Yet relationships and instructional work are mutually
dependent. When students struggle to understand a difficult concept, for example, those with
close student-teacher relationships are likely to feel comfortable expressing frustration or
difficulty in a safe and secure environment. The teacher is then afforded the opportunity to
offer emotional support while simultaneously providing more nuanced instruction. When
there is a mismatch between a students psychological needs and learning, teachers who are
close to that student may be better able to disentangle these competing motivations. For this
reason, the overlap between relational and instructional work is critical (Nie & Lau, 2009).
Benefits of Close Student-Teacher Relationships for Students, Teachers, and Society
Just as student-teacher relationships are multifaceted, so too are their benefits. Below
we highlight short- and long-term benefits of a high-quality student-teacher relationship for
students, for teachers, and for society. We note that these benefits are powerful and
interlinked, with strong bodies of evidence to support them. Drawing on these benefits, we
highlight the need for close student-teacher relationships to be prioritised in pre-service
teacher training, whole-school interventions, and broader educational policies.
Benefits for students
Close and supportive student-teacher relationships have powerfully important impacts
on student outcomes. Students benefit from such relationships in the form of improved
wellbeing and psychological engagement, more appropriate classroom behaviours, stronger
academic performance, and closer peer relationships (Hamre & Pianta, 2001; Quin, 2017;
McGrath & Van Bergen, 2015). In contrast, poor student-teacher relationships contribute to
low academic achievement and greater disciplinary infractions, even when student behaviour
is accounted for (Hamre & Pianta, 2001). High-quality student-teacher relationships are also
protective (McGrath & Van Bergen, 2015). Students who have experienced high-quality
student-teacher relationships are less likely to be absent from school, less likely to be
suspended, and less likely to drop out of school (e.g. De Wit, Karioja, & Rye, 2010;
Rumberger, 2011).
The benefits of close and supportive student-teacher relationships are particularly
important for students who are otherwise vulnerable. For example, Meehan, Hughes, and
Cavell (2003) find evidence of reduced aggression for students with supportive teacher
relationships with particularly strong effects for students in minority groups. Close
relationships with teachers can also buffer the detrimental effects of negative parent-child
relationships (Hughes et al., 1999). Finally, students who do not experience positive adult
role models outside of school may be particularly likely to turn to teachers to model a host of
positive social processes and behaviours in the classroom (Catalano, Hagertym, Oesterle,
Fleming, & Hawkins, 2004). Although a legacy of successive close relationships is optimal
(Lee & Bierman, 2018), just one teacher can make a powerful difference. McGrath and Van
Bergen’s (2015) review of 92 student-teacher relationship studies highlights the finding that
even a single close relationship can serve protective and predictive functions for students who
are at-risk.
Benefits for teachers
Although student-teacher relationships are typically discussed in terms of their
benefits for students, it is important to remember the importance of these relationships for
teachers too. Teachers report considerable distress from managing disruptive classroom
behaviours (Beaman, Wheldall, & Kemp, 2007), with long-term wellbeing and employment
outcomes. In a large-scale study of 2,569 Norwegian teachers, for example, Skaalvik and
Skaalvik (2011) found that problems with student discipline left teachers feeling emotionally
exhausted, and this exhaustion in turn predicted both lower job satisfaction and higher
motivation to leave the teaching profession. If close and supportive student-teacher
relationships can arrest these behaviours, as we show above, the benefits for teachers and
their schools are enormous.
Closeness with students is also an important source of teacher wellbeing more broadly
(Milatz, Lftenegger, & Schober, 2015), and teachers typically report finding the relational
aspects of their work highly rewarding (Gallant & Riley, 2017). Given the benefits of
closeness for students and teachers alike, strategies are needed to identify teachers who
commonly experience lower levels of closeness. Although there is some counterintuitive
evidence that low levels of closeness may protect teachers from emotional exhaustion (Milatz
et al., 2015), this strategy is likely to backfire. Low closeness with students is associated
with teachers’ feelings of helplessness (Spilt & Koomen, 2009), and, as we show above, also
places students at greater risk of negative outcomes. A more effective strategy, therefore, is
to provide direct and indirect support for teachers as they engage in relationship-building and
relational labor. We discuss this support in our final section.
Benefits for society
Over and above the benefits of close student-teacher relationships for individual
students, teachers, and schools, there are also significant flow-on benefits for society more
broadly. We note above, for example, that close and supportive student-teacher relationships
can significantly reduce students’ aggressive behaviour. Given evidence that aggression at
school predicts long-term unemployment and criminal activity (see Kokko & Pulkkinen
2000), these early relationships may have much larger economic and social justice benefits
for individuals and communities. We also note above that students who experience close
relationships with their teachers are less likely to truant, to be suspended, or to drop out of
school. This may because such students feel a greater sense of belonging at school. In
addition, for students with high levels of aggression, there may be an indirect effect. Close
student-teacher relationships support a reduction in aggressive behaviour, and a reduction in
aggressive behaviour is in turn likely to support more positive and enjoyable peer interactions
in the school context. Whatever the cause, such trends have important societal outcomes:
truancy and drop out are associated with diminished physical and emotional health (and, thus,
greater societal health burden), reduced academic opportunities, poor vocational
opportunities, and increased mortality (Belfield & Levin, 2007). The greater engagement
students have with school, the stronger the social benefits overall.
Nurturing Close and Supportive Student-Teacher Relationships
In the final section of this chapter we consider what teachers can do to build strong
relationships with their students. We draw on our own research conducted with collaborators
in Australia, and on research conducted by other teams internationally. Consistent with the
view that teaching is a kind of relational labour, we organise this section by strategies and
approaches that can be used to build closeness, reduce conflict, and respond to dependency,
as well as school-wide approaches that can be taken to support teachers and create a positive
school environment in which respectful and healthy relationships are prioritised.
In considering how teachers can best build close relationships with their students, it is
important to also consider how the student-teacher relationship changes over time. Research
focusing on the progression of individual student-teacher relationships across the school year
is limited, yet suggests multiple opportunities to renegotiate relationship boundaries. In a
longitudinal case study of a disruptive student and his teacher, Newberry (2010) describes
four relationship phases:
an appraisal phase, where the student and teacher gather information about
one another;
an agreement phase, where routines, expectations, and interactional styles are
established;
a testing phase, where boundaries are explored and re-established; and
a planning phase, where the student and teacher reflect on their past
experiences and establish expectations for the future.
Critically, each phase offers opportunities for individual or whole-school
interventions. Put simply, therefore, it is never too late to enhance student-teacher
relationship quality.
Building closeness
Closeness within the student-teacher relationship is supported by care, warmth, and
open communication (Pianta, 2001). Students are likely to feel closer to teachers who
express an interest in their personal lives, who offer support when needed, and who care
about their wellbeing. They are less likely to feel close to teachers with whom they clash.
Across the past 10 years, a range of interventions have been developed to support the
emergence of warm and supportive student-teacher interactions (Sabol & Pianta, 2012).
These interventions typically enjoy moderate support. In the “Banking Time” intervention
for younger children, for example, teachers work one-on-one with a student they are worried
about to observe the student’s actions and emotions during play (Driscoll & Pianta, 2010).
To demonstrate emotional sensitivity and care, the teacher then narrates the child’s actions
and emotions back to the student in an interested tone of voice. After just 6 weeks, teachers
who participate in the Banking Time intervention report higher levels of closeness with the
targeted student, increased frustration tolerance themselves, and more successful classroom
interactions (Driscoll & Pianta, 2010). In the “My Teaching Partner – Secondary”
intervention for secondary students, teachers are offered strategies to increase closeness and
boost their instructional success simultaneously (Mikami, Gregory, Allen, Pianta, & Lun,
2011). They may, for example, be encouraged to ask about students’ extra-curricular
interests, and to then incorporate these interests into their teaching. Such interventions
require the dedicated focus of a teacher on particular students, yet are otherwise easy to
implement.
Interestingly, and as alluded to in the Banking Time intervention, teachers’ own
attitudes and emotional responses are also important in facilitating relationship closeness.
When students are disruptive, teachers who make external attributions for this disruption and
who express high emotional competence are likely to experience closer and more enjoyable
relationships than those who do not (McGrath & Van Bergen, 2019). Drawing on the notion
of relational labour, such teachers may regulate their own emotional responses to frustration
in order to nurture their ongoing relationships with students. They also appear to be more
likely to express emotional self-efficacy: a belief that they are capable of regulating their
emotional reactions and supporting students to regulate theirs. For teachers who have lower
emotional self-efficacy, engaging with psychologists (or other expert coaches) in emotion
reframing strategies and self-efficacy interventions may be beneficial for both themselves and
their students.
Finally, when considering how best to build close and supportive relationships for at-
risk groups, we encourage teachers not to forget about the students in their classes who are
especially shy. Shy students do not typically experience high levels of conflict with their
teachers, and, thus, they are more readily overlooked. Such students are highly likely to turn
to teachers for emotional support when they are feeling anxious about interacting with peers,
however, and there is good evidence that relational closeness with a teacher can protect shy
students from peer rejection and school avoidance (Arbeau et al., 2010).
Reducing conflict
In public discourse, student-teacher conflict is often attributed to disruptive and
challenging student behaviours such as calling out in class, shouting, hitting, and swearing.
Consistent, systematic and evidence-based behavioural interventions for students who exhibit
disruptive and challenging behaviours are critically important. Students themselves often
report a need for such support, with suspended students reporting that they would have been
less likely to be suspended if they had learnt alternative strategies to manage their behaviours,
received additional assistance with school work, and were give support to manage stressors at
home (Quin & Hemphill, 2014). Interestingly, however, research has shown that just half
(53%) of the variance in teachers’ ratings of conflict can be attributed to student behaviour
(Hamre et al., 2008). Other factors include teachers’ own mental health and self-efficacy,
with teachers who feel less able to manage their classroom and less able to motivate students
also reporting higher levels of conflict with the students in their class (Hamre et al., 2008).
That these ratings of conflict exist over and above students’ own disruptive behaviour
suggests that initiatives and interventions to support teachers’ own wellbeing and self-
efficacy may have powerful implications for relational conflict too. Even when particular
students exhibit disruptive or challenging behaviour that is slow to change, teachers’ beliefs
and actions are powerful and important.
One mistake that teachers may make in an attempt to reduce potential conflict is to
give a pre-emptive warning or reprimand. Yet our own research reveals that this approach
may backfire. To better understand students’ perceptions of their relationships with teachers,
Van Bergen, Graham, and Sweller (submitted) conducted interviews with 96 Australian
students in middle childhood and adolescence (Grades 3 to 9). Some of the participants were
enrolled in alternative school settings for students with behavioural difficulties, giving unique
insight into the factors driving relationship quality for both mainstream and non-mainstream
groups. Interestingly, although students themselves varied in age, school context, and
propensity for disruptive behaviour, the factors underpinning their perceptions of high- and
low-quality relationships were remarkably consistent. Students reported close, supportive
relationships with teachers who they perceived as being kind, caring, helpful, or humorous,
and negative, conflictual relationships with teachers who they perceive as being hostile or
unjust (Van Bergen et al. submitted). Importantly, reports of injustice highlighted pre-
emptive discipline as a key source of conflict:
Well, she always picked me out, as well, for misbehaving, so I got in a lot of trouble
for that, but… like, a lot of people were just doing a lot worse than I was doing, but
she was like, no, no, youve been bad before. (Sean, age 15)
One reason that pre-emptive discipline is so likely to contribute to relational conflict
is that it conveys negative expectations. In related research, findings over several decades
have also highlighted the detrimental effect of negative expectations on academic
achievement and progression (see Rubie-Davies, Hattie, & Hamilton, 2010). To support
student behaviour, reduce relational conflict, and enhance other developmental outcomes,
positive expectations and optimism are critical.
Responding to dependency
Throughout this chapter we urge teachers to view dependency as a neutral
relationship attribute. Specifically, we suggest that dependency should not be seen as a
relationship barrier but as an opportunity to provide support for students who require it. In
addressing dependency effectively, therefore, it is important to also diagnose the root cause.
If the dependency is developmentally or contextually appropriate, and does not cause
relational problems, then there is no particular reason to intervene. If, however, there are
negative implications for the student, then intervention is appropriate.
Where students are overly dependent on teachers for organisational support, the focus
for teachers should be on encouraging and scaffolding the students’ autonomous and
independent classroom participation. Where students are particularly shy, however, a
different approach is needed. It is recommended that teachers refrain from asking too many
questions of shy students directly, especially in front of others, and instead engage in
conversation with shy students when others are not nearby. This allows shy students to
gradually develop social confidence before being asked to speak in front of the class (see
Evans, 2001), and also supports the development of closeness. Although these two
approaches differ, they are consistent in that the needs of the individual student are identified
and his or her own skills supported.
Supporting teachers
Thus far, our recommendations for enhancing close relationships, reducing conflict,
and responding to dependency have centred on strategies that individual teachers can use
when interacting with students. Both in Australia and internationally, there has been a
tendency to place the responsibility for improved student outcomes on “super” teachers
without addressing broader, systemic issues (Mockler, 2014). Yet relationships and student
outcomes are a function of the broader teaching context, and it is a responsibility of the entire
school community to create an environment in which close and nurturing relationships with
all children are modelled, supported, and encouraged, and where conflictual and reserved
relationships are addressed sensitively and urgently. An explicit whole-school approach is
invaluable.
Given the heavy emotional toll that teachers may feel when managing student
behaviour, interactions, and relationships, the support of school leaders (i.e. principals and
executive staff) is critical. School leaders can play a role both in creating a whole-school
climate that is emotionally positive and supportive, and which promotes teacher efficacy
(Wang & Degol, 2016). Amongst Australian teachers who had left the profession, for
example, Gallant and Riley (2007) found evidence of significant stress and burnout due to a
perception of poor support, excessive workloads, and short-term contracts. Although many
of these stressors are structural, and beyond the control of any one school, leaders can
provide emotional support to students, staff members, and parents in the school community
who are experiencing undue stress by addressing their concerns sensitively and directly. At
an administrative level, school leaders should also seek to decrease those extraneous
workload demands that are within their control, and to set clear behavioural expectations and
values for the school community. Finally, leaders can demonstrate confidence in their
teachers by allowing them greater autonomy where possible. Leaders who are effective in
providing timely direction, intervention, and support will create opportunities for teachers to
invest greater time and energy in relationship-building with their own students.
In addition to the support of school leaders, it is highly advantageous for teachers to
have the support of a collaborative pastoral care team that also includes school psychologists
and other specialist staff. Ideally, this pastoral care team should work directly with school
leaders to provide holistic support to the entire school community. For students, of course,
psychological support is critical, and as we note above even highly disruptive students
frequently identify this as a need (Quin & Hemphill, 2014). Yet teachers too need support,
and this is particularly the case when they are charged with managing complex student
behaviours. Worryingly, school psychologists typically have limited time in which to work
with teachers and their students (Tegethoff, Stalujanis, Belardi, & Meinslchmidt, 2014). In
many cases, this means that teachers must manage at least some complex student behaviours
with limited support for their own psychological needs. To address this problem, we advocate
for widespread increases in educational funding for qualified specialist school staff.
Conclusions
Across this chapter we have identified the key characteristics of close student-teacher
relationships and discussed the benefit for students who experience a close relationship with
their teachers. Given the value of close student-teacher relationships for all students,
irrespective of their learning, developmental, and behavioural characteristics, we suggest that
schools focus on relationships as an essential priority.
To support this goal, we have reviewed a variety of interrelated strategies and
approaches for building close relationships. We see, for example, that teachers can begin to
build a close relationship with any child even if they are at risk in other ways by simply
expressing care and positive regard for that child. This is an important finding, because it
positions the quality of each student-teacher relationship within the teachers’ sphere of
influence. Of course, the expression of care can sometimes seem extremely challenging,
particularly in the face of chronic misbehaviour. The research clearly shows that close and
supportive relationships between students and their teachers are both necessary and valuable,
however. Moreover, they also help to mitigate misbehaviour. Teachers who manage,
develop, and pursue close and supportive relationships with their students are often adept at
considering a variety of explanations for their students’ behaviour and in regulating their own
emotional reactions carefully. Schools and communities must look for ways to support
teachers in this task, such that no students (or teachers) fall through the cracks.
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... The most common reasons students provided for disliking school in Graham et al.'s (2016) study were "schoolwork" and "teachers, " with most students who dislike school reporting that they most commonly get in trouble with teachers for "not following instructions" and "not doing work" . These students were also significantly less likely to remember any teachers with whom they had a positive relationship (Van Bergen et al., 2020), and had experienced many difficulties with learning, as well as multiple long suspensions of up to 20 days per suspension, eventually resulting in exclusion/expulsion from school (Graham and Buckley, 2014). Such evidence suggests that students who dislike school may be more likely to experience conflict and have poorer quality relationships with teachers, feel less connected to school, and be subject to higher rates of exclusionary discipline, which is precisely the opposite of what these students need to stay in and succeed at school (McGrath and Van Bergen, 2015). ...
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