Why Strong Teacher Relationships Lead to Student Engagement and a Better School Environment

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Think about your favorite teacher from elementary school. What made them so special? Maybe they were the first person who helped math “make sense” to you, or maybe they let you borrow books from their classroom library. The wisdom and mentorship that teachers provide can be life changing, especially for younger students.

Educators often focus on improving parent engagement, but student engagement is just as essential. The more self-motivated a student is as they learn to read, the better prepared they’ll be to reach their potential. One of the best ways to encourage this is by building meaningful teacher-student relationships.

Want to learn why teacher-student relationships are so important and how to facilitate them in your school? Learn about the challenges facing teacher-student interaction, how positive relationships can improve your school environment, and five tips for promoting student engagement.

Challenges Facing Positive Teacher-Student Relationships

One of the greatest issues facing teacher-student relationships is that many children aren’t going to class. Chronic absenteeism, or missing at least 15 days per school year, is increasingly common among students and comes with worrisome results.[1] In early grades, chronic absenteeism can predict high school dropout rates later on.[2] And if a child isn’t in class, building relationships with these students can seem nearly impossible.

Additionally, students who have had poor experiences with adults in the past can have a hard time trusting teachers.[3] This could apply to students whose previous teacher treated them unfairly as well as children from abusive or neglectful homes. In many cases, you might not know everything about a child’s background. If you’re having a hard time reaching a student, keep in mind that the problem might be a traumatic past, not you.

Children from low-income or at-risk backgrounds are most likely to have poor relationships with their teachers.[4] The reasons for this are varied. It could be because teachers are more likely to view these students with personal biases. Or in some cases, these children might not have access to the transportation or academic support they need to succeed. Whatever the cause, educators should be mindful of these children when determining how to engage their students.

Sometimes, behavioral or learning disorders can make it hard for teachers and students to understand each other. Children with autism spectrum disorder, for example, might have communication styles that confuse their peers. Learning disorders like dyslexia or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), too, can limit a child’s attention span and frustrate their teachers. Any plans you make for how to connect with your students should include accommodations for these and other conditions.

How Positive Teacher-Student Relationships Lead to Academic Achievement

Building rapport with your students and establishing yourself as their mentor is an excellent way to combat chronic absenteeism.[5] Students are more motivated to attend classes if they know their teacher cares about them and will help them succeed. And by improving school engagement, these relationships can also improve academic achievement.

Even in elementary school, unexcused absences are linked to dropping grades, particularly in math.[6] By motivating students to work hard and miss fewer lessons, teacher-student relationships can keep struggling students from falling behind and close the achievement gap in education. It’s one of the longest-lasting ways a teacher can impact student achievement and career success.

Personal connection with your students can also raise their intrinsic motivation to learn.[7] When students feel interested in their work for the sake of mastering it, they develop a love of learning that will benefit them for their entire lives. Plus, they’re also more likely to have positive attitudes towards their teachers, classes, and lessons.[8] When students focus less on grades and more on mastery, they’re on their way toward a successful school career.

Lastly, these relationships can even tie into your social-emotional learning (SEL) curriculum. Positive teacher-student connections can help children develop self-regulation skills, particularly autonomy and self-determination.[9] As students learn how to evaluate and manage their behavior, they’ll be able to reach their personal and academic goals.[10] And over time, this can reduce failing grades and the need for redirection.

In short, teacher-student relationships can promote school success in the following ways:

  • Strengthens academic achievement
  • Reduces chronic absenteeism
  • Promotes self-motivation
  • Strengthens self-regulation
  • Improves goal-making skills

Other Ways Building Relationships Leads to Student Success

Beyond academic success, getting to know your students can improve classroom behavior management. At-risk students whose teachers work with them as a mentor are more likely to develop socially appropriate behavior.[11] When struggling students are treated as bad or unintelligent by their teachers, they’re unlikely to change. But when teachers make an effort to care about and help them, these students are more than capable of growth.

Effective communication between teachers and students can also strengthen your school atmosphere. Because these relationships are so closely tied to self-motivation, they can lead to an engaged classroom.[12] Your classroom can transform into an ideal learning environment where students are not only prepared but excited to learn. Plus, when students engage themselves in the lesson, they’re less likely to need discipline during class.

A teacher’s impact on their students can last long after the end of the school year. After a student has a meaningful connection with their teacher, they’re more likely to form similar relationships in the future.[13] Because these relationships can give students the guidance and support they need to succeed, it is essential to nurture them in school. This is especially helpful for older elementary children, as strong teacher-student relationships can help ease the transition into middle school.[14]

Building positive relationships with students can help teachers, too. 25-40% of new teachers are likely to leave the education field within five years.[15] But positive relationships with students can reduce this number and show teachers how their career changes lives.[16] If you’re looking for a greater sense of fulfillment in your career, try interacting with your students and helping them with their individual struggles.

How to Improve Student Engagement with Meaningful Connection

One of the simplest and most effective student engagement strategies is getting to know your students on a personal level. Once you recognize how teacher-student relationships can revolutionize your classroom, you can prepare your entire school for lasting success.

Keep these five tips on how to build trust and connect with students to create an ideal classroom environment:

  • Remember to put your heart into your lesson plans. Try to focus just as much on getting to know and guiding your students as you do on teaching academic concepts [17]
  • At the beginning of the year or semester, discuss your and your students’ expectations as a class. You can also hold individual meetings to help struggling students reach their goals [18]
  • Studies suggest that storytelling can help build teacher-student relationships. Try telling personal anecdotes during class or making storytime a regular activity to connect with your students [19]
  • Learn how to construct positive comments by giving specific compliments (e.g. “good job” vs “your art project is so colorful”) and avoiding back-handed compliments (e.g. “you’re not as bad as you used to be”) [20]
  • Make sure you keep healthy boundaries with your students. If a student upsets or frustrates you, don’t take it personally or bring it home with you [21]

Sources:

U.S. Department of Education. Chronic Absenteeism in the Nation’s Schools. Retrieved from ed.gov: https://www2.ed.gov/datastory/chronicabsenteeism.html.[1]

Sheldon, S.B., and Epstein, J.L. Getting Students to School: Using Family and Community Involvement to Reduce Chronic Absenteeism. School Community Journal, 2004, 14(2), pp. 39-56.[2]

Varga, M. The Effect of Teacher-Student Relationships on the Academic Engagement of Students. Retrieved from mdsoar.org: https://mdsoar.org/bitstream/handle/11603/3893/VargaMeagan_paper.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.[3]

Ibid.[4]

Sheldon, S.B., and Epstein, J.L. Getting Students to School: Using Family and Community Involvement to Reduce Chronic Absenteeism. School Community Journal, 2004, 14(2), pp. 39-56.[5]

Gottfried, M.A. Excused Versus Unexcused: How Student Absences in Elementary School Affect Academic Achievement. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, December 2009, 31(4).[6]

Reis da Luz, F.S. The Relationship between Teachers and Students in the Classroom: Communicative Language Teaching Approach and Cooperative Learning Strategy to Improve Learning. Retrieved from bridgew.edu: https://vc.bridgew.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1020&context=theses.[7]

Andersen, J.F., Norton, R.W., and Nussbaum, J.F. Three investigations exploring relationships between perceived teacher communication behaviors and student learning. Communication Education, 1981, 30, pp. 377-92.[8]

Varga, M. The Effect of Teacher-Student Relationships on the Academic Engagement of Students. Retrieved from mdsoar.org: https://mdsoar.org/bitstream/handle/11603/3893/VargaMeagan_paper.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.[9]

Reis da Luz, F.S. The Relationship between Teachers and Students in the Classroom: Communicative Language Teaching Approach and Cooperative Learning Strategy to Improve Learning. Retrieved from bridgew.edu: https://vc.bridgew.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1020&context=theses.[10]

Hall, P.S., and Hall, N.D. Building Relationships with Challenging Children. Educational Leadership, 2003, 61(1), pp. 60-63.[11]

Varga, M. The Effect of Teacher-Student Relationships on the Academic Engagement of Students. Retrieved from mdsoar.org: https://mdsoar.org/bitstream/handle/11603/3893/VargaMeagan_paper.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.[12]

Ibid.[13]

Reis da Luz, F.S. The Relationship between Teachers and Students in the Classroom: Communicative Language Teaching Approach and Cooperative Learning Strategy to Improve Learning. Retrieved from bridgew.edu: https://vc.bridgew.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1020&context=theses.[14]

Sheldon, S.B., and Epstein, J.L. Building early career teacher resilience: The role of relationships. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 2013, 38(4), pp. 1-16.[15]

Ibid.[16]

Pattison, P., Hale, J.R., and Gowens, P. Mind and Soul: Connecting with Students. Journal of Legal Studies Education, 2011, 28(1), pp. 39-66.[17]

Varga, M. The Effect of Teacher-Student Relationships on the Academic Engagement of Students. Retrieved from mdsoar.org: https://mdsoar.org/bitstream/handle/11603/3893/VargaMeagan_paper.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.[18]

Mello, R. Building Bridges: How Storytelling Influences Teacher/Student Relationships. Retrieved from eric.ed.gov: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED457088.pdf.[19]

Lehigh University College of Education. Positive Teacher-Student Relationship Quick Reference Guide. Retrieved from lehigh.edu: https://cpb-us-w2.wpmucdn.com/wordpress.lehigh.edu/dist/5/114/files/2016/11/Teacher-Student-1iceq82.pdf.[20]

Bluestein, J. The Art of Setting Boundaries. Retrieved from educationworld.com: https://www.educationworld.com/a_curr/bluestein-setting-student-boundaries.shtml.[21]

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