Improving Students' Relationships with Teachers to Provide Essential Supports for Learning
Positive relationships can also help a student develop socially


Sara Rimm-Kaufman, PhD, UVA

Improving students' relationships with teachers has important, positive and long-lasting implications for students' academic and social development. Solely improving students' relationships with their teachers will not produce gains in achievement (see "High quality academic instruction"). However, those students who have close, positive and supportive relationships with their teachers will attain higher levels of achievement than those students with more conflictual relationships. If a student feels a personal connection to a teacher, experiences frequent communication with a teacher, and receives more guidance and praise than criticism from the teacher, then the student is likely to become more trustful of that teacher, show more engagement in the academic content presented, display better classroom behavior, and achieve at higher levels academically. Positive teacher-student relationships draw students into the process of learning and promote their desire to learn (given that the content material of the class is engaging and age appropriate).

Example: What do good teacher-student relationships look like and why do these relationships matter?

Teachers who foster positive relationships with their students create classroom environments more conducive to learning and meet students' developmental, emotional and academic needs. Here are some concrete examples of closeness between a teacher and a student: 1) A seven-year-old girl who is experiencing divorce at home goes to her former first grade teacher in the mornings for a hug of encouragement, even though she is now in the second grade; 2) A fourth grade boy who is struggling in math shows comfort in admitting to his teacher that he needs help with multiplying and dividing fractions; 3) A middle school girl experiences bullying from other students and approaches her social studies teacher to discuss it because she trusts that the teacher will listen and help without making her feel socially inept.

Example: What do positive teacher-student relationships look and feel like in the classroom?

Video clip of a preschool classroom teacher-student interaction.

Video clip of a first grade classroom teacher-student interaction.

In contrast, what do negative teacher-student relationships look and feel like?

High quality academic instruction

High quality academic instruction refers to instruction that is appropriate to students' educational levels, creates opportunity for thinking and analysis, uses feedback effectively to guide students' thinking, and extends students' prior knowledge. (Praise and Assessment, Motivating to Learn, Critical Thinking)

The contribution of positive teacher-student relationships on school adjustment and academic and social performance

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 (Battistich, Schaps, & Wilson, 2004; Birch & Ladd, 1997; Hamre & Pianta, 2001). Teachers who experience close relationships with students reported that their students were less likely to avoid school, appeared more self-directed, more cooperative, and more engaged in learning (Birch & Ladd, 1997; Klem & Connell, 2004). Students reported liking school more and experiencing less loneliness if they had a close relationship with their teachers. Students with better teacher-student relationships also showed better performance on measures of academic performance and school readiness (Birch & Ladd, 1997). Teachers who use more learner-centered practices (i.e., practices that show sensitivity to individual differences among students, include students in the decision-making, and acknowledge students' developmental, personal and relational needs) produced greater motivation in their students than those who used fewer of such practices (Daniels & Perry, 2003; Perry & Weinstein, 1998).

The quality of early teacher-student relationships has a long-lasting impact. Specifically, students who had more conflict with their teachers or showed more dependency toward their teachers in kindergarten also had lower academic achievement (as reflected in mathematics and language arts grades) and more behavioral problems (e.g., poorer work habits, more discipline problems) through the eighth grade. These findings were evident even after taking into consideration (statistically) the extent to which students' behavior problems related to problematic teacher-child relationships. These findings were greater for boys than for girls (Hamre & Pianta, 2001). Further work describes that children with more closeness and less conflict with teachers developed better social skills as they approached the middle school years than those with more conflictual relationships in kindergarten (Berry & O'Connor, 2009).

What do positive student-teacher relationships look like in the classroom?
  • Teachers show their pleasure and enjoyment of students. 

  • Teachers interact in a responsive and respectful manner. 

  • Teachers offer students help (e.g., answering questions in timely manner, offering support that matches the children's needs) in achieving academic and social objectives.

  • Teachers help students reflect on their thinking and learning skills. 

  • Teachers know and demonstrate knowledge about individual students' backgrounds, interests, emotional strengths and academic levels. 

  • Teachers seldom show irritability or aggravation toward students.

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