Teacher-Student Relationships: A Key Starting Point for Helping Disengaged Kids

Teacher-Student Relationships: A Key Starting Point for Helping Disengaged Kids

by Scientia Professor Andrew Martin

The extent to which a disengaged student will be receptive to anything the teacher says or does will greatly rely on the quality of the relationship between that student and teacher.

There is a long line of research demonstrating the substantial role that teacher-student relationships play in students’ academic and social-emotional wellbeing.

A good relationship with the teacher helps students learn about themselves, is a source of emotional support when things don’t go well, and a source of practical support if the student does not understand or cannot do something. Good relationships also have an energizing function because they activate positive emotions that are a pathway to positive motivation and engagement.

Teachers have unique opportunities to build positive relationships with students. This is because they have three major channels through which to connect with students. The concept of “connective instruction” was developed to capture these three relational channels.

Connective instruction comprises: (1) the interpersonal relationship, (2) the substantive relationship, and (3) the pedagogical relationship.

The interpersonal relationship refers to the personal and emotional connections between the teacher and student. Teachers do this through practices such as:

  • Actively listening to students’ views
  • Getting to know students
  • Allowing student input into decisions that affect them
  • Accepting students’ individuality
  • Having positive but attainable expectations for students

The ‘substantive relationship’ refers to the connections between the student and the academic content, tasks, and assessment. Practices to support the substantive relationship include:

  • Setting work that is challenging but not too difficult
  • Injecting fun (where appropriate) into the lesson
  • Assigning work that is important and significant
  • Building variety into content and assessment tasks
  • Utilizing material and assigning tasks that arouse curiosity

The ‘pedagogical relationship’ is the connection between the student and the teaching or instruction itself, through practices such as:

  • Maximizing opportunities for students to succeed and develop competence
  • Providing clear feedback to students focusing on how they can improve
  • Explaining things clearly and carefully
  • Encouraging students to learn from their mistakes
  • Ensuring all students keep up with the work and allowing opportunities to catch up

I have developed teacher templates to self-assess and apply each of the three connective instruction channels.

When teachers connect to a disengaged student on these three channels, their capacity to re-engage that student is significantly boosted.

Further Resources: Connective instruction templates for teachers can be downloaded at lifelongachievement.com/pages/download-corner and research articles by Andrew Martin are available at researchgate.net/profile/Andrew-Martin-22

This article was provided exclusively to The Educator by Andrew Martin, Scientia Professor of Educational Psychology in the School of Education, UNSW Australia.