Thursday, 9 July 2015

What Relationships do for Learning

"No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship" - says Dr. James P. Comer, professor of Child Psychiatry, Yale University.  If you know anything about Dr. Comer, you would know that he worked with schools in low economic areas.  The schools were fraught with a lack of learning, frequent inattendance, and constant behaviour issues.  Starting with a viewpoint that it was the students' experiences and not the students themselves that resulted in a lack of success, Comer began to evaluate the students' school and home environment.  He found that although at one time the communities around these schools had been strong and connected, the connections had been lost.  The students were coming to school without the proper skills to be successful.  The strong social bonds that help students develop the proficiencies to learn were missing.  He created the School Development Program in 1968 to help schools recreate those social bonds--working with administration, parents, and teachers to foster student development.

Dr. James P. Comer on Development, Relationships and Learning

It worked.
The School Development Program caused a sharp increase in student achievement alongside a decrease in behavioural issues. This SDP model has been now used in over 1000 schools scattered throughout half of the states in America.  Each time, the stakeholders work together to foster child and adolescent development in the school.  Comer's quote illustrates how the development is based on the relationships fostered.  "It is the positive relationships and sense of belonging that a good school culture provides that give these children the comfort, confidence, competence, and motivation to learn." Comer (2005).

Fantastic, right.  You would think that with that kind of success, opponents would give up, schools would focus on relationships and we would move on. Tackle something new.

Not quite.

As Comer states 37 years after his ground breaking work with the New Haven schools:

Many improved practices in education that have been developed over the past two decades have been less successful than they might have been because they have focused primarily on curriculum, instruction, assessment, and modes of service delivery.  Insufficient attention had been paid to child and adolescent development. - Comer (2005)

Curriculum, instruction, assessment, and modes of service delivery.  Sound familiar.  It seems that once again focus is on the wrong place.

Providing engaging activities and maintaining high standards are important, but the effectiveness of these are maximized with positive teacher-student relationships.  Good connections help students learn.  It has been found to be true over and over again.  Emily Gallagher gives a whole host of studies that show this to be true in her NYU Steinhardt article The Effects of Teacher-Student Relationships: Social and Academic Outcomes of Low-Income Middle and High School Students:

 Aligned with attachment theory (Ainsworth, 1982; Bowlby, 1969), positive teacher-student relationships enable students to feel safe and secure in their learning environments and provide scaffolding for important social and academic skills (Baker et al., 2008; O’Connor, Dearing, & Collins, 2011; Silver, Measelle, Armstron, & Essex, 2005). Teachers who support students in the learning environment can positively impact their social and academic outcomes, which is important for the long-term trajectory of school and eventually employment (Baker et al., 2008; O’Connor et al., 2011; Silver et al., 2005). - Gallagher (2013)

Connections-based Learning: Understanding Together

Focusing on positive teacher-student connections is the basis to what I am calling connections-based learning.  You see, if I was going to base learning on anything, it would be the connections.  In connections-based learning I share several ways that students can learn through connections. But I believe the fundamental connection is the one with the teacher.  The teacher-student relationship is the place to start.

So how does a teacher foster positive relationships with the hundreds or thousands of students they work with over the years?

Sara Rimm-Kaufman, PhD, and Lia Sandilos, PhD, University of Virginia have a great article, Improving Students' Relationships with Teachers to Provide Essential Supports for Learning, that shares what positive and negative teacher-student connections look like plus some suggestions to cultivate positive relationships in our classrooms.  These include getting to know students by finding out interests, showing warmth and respect, and being aware of the explicit and implicit messages being sent.

I am not big into lists.  And my acronym skills are poor.  But here are some of the things I focus on as I build connections with my students.


Asking questions is a good place to start when looking to increase the connection with another.  And just as inquiry-based learning keys in on finding good questions, so good questions can help good connections form.  Parents know this.  The question, "How was your day at school?" solicits much less than "what was your favourite part of gym class?"  In the same way, asking students the right questions to promote connection is a bit of an art.  It requires a knowledge of students' interests and activities.  It takes knowing what is going on in their lives.  But I have found that these questions help me understand my students better.  Ask good questions.


A focus on understanding is important as we seek to build connections with our students.  When we seek to understand where students are coming from, we show concern for the student.  It actually helps us put into context what they do.  Understanding the child is shown to be a part of Ross Greene's Collaborative and Proactive Solutions approach.  In the article What If Everything You Knew About Disciplining Kids Was Wrong, Katherine Reynolds Lewis (2015) shares "The CPS method hinges on training school (or prison or psych clinic) staff to nurture strong relationships--especially with the most disruptive kids--and to give kids a central role in solving their own problems."  Lewis tells how, in this approach, staff talk to (and believe!) the child as he or she shares the problem.  Staff seek to understand, then to help the student come up with a plan.  Isn't that what we all want: to be understood.  Seek to understand.


A class cannot be seen as a class.  It is a group of individuals.  Each student comes to you with their own conscious experience.  If the class has a great culture, the students might identify as being part of something, but WE ALL operate in our own personal headspace.  We forget that as teachers; I forget that.  We do not see ourselves as simply a part of a group; we are part of many groups: family, friends circles, different classes.  We don't have to individualize learning.  It IS individualized.  The focus has to be on facilitation of learning or we are simply lying to ourselves that we can actually make learning happen.  Treat as an individual.


Time needs to be set aside to foster relationships.  Bonds between teens and adults have always been a battle.  In the home, the battle for bonds have often been fought by campouts, dinnertime conversation, family events, time.  But the armies against bonds with significant adults have upped their game.  Notifications, insular online networks, addictive games, no time.  I am not saying that the battles are lost everywhere.  I am saying that generally the war is being lost on a large scale.  Time must be set aside to foster relationships. I have taught a K,1,2 split. I have taught Science and Tech 11. In whatever class I am teaching, time set aside to foster relationships has been worth it.  Take the time to foster relationships.

The acronym is QUIT. Oh well.

It is intuitive.  Good relationships better learning.  Good relationships better life.  We don't need to be convinced.  Just reminded. 

How do you strive to achieve significant relationships with your students?

Comer, James P. 2005. “Child and Adolescent Development: The Critical Missing Focus in School Reform.” Phi Delta Kappan. 86:10 (June 2005): 757-763.

Gallagher, Emily. 2013. "The Effects of Teacher-Student Relationships: Social and Academic Outcomes of Low-Income Middle and High School Students" Applied Psychology Opus. Fall issue. Accessed July 2, 2015.

Reynolds Lewis, Katherine. 2015. "Everything You Think You Know about Disciplining Kids Is Wrong." Mother Jones. The Foundation for National Progress, n.d. Web. 09 July 2015.

Rimm-Kaufman, S., & Sandilos, L. (n.d.). Improving Students' Relationships with Teachers to Provide Essential Supports for Learning. Retrieved July 3, 2015. 

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