Five children lying together on the ground with text next to image saying tracking student relationships to improve well-being and reduce bullying.

How important are relationships in education? 

Rita Pierson, in her classic TEDTalk, says “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” I thoroughly agree and I would like it mandated that every teacher watches her talk every year!

I want to expand her sentiment to include student to student relationships.

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“Kids don’t learn well in classes where they have bad relationships.”

This is proven at the worst end of the relational spectrum, where victimisation and bullying occur. A report by the Murdoch Children's Research Institute (MCRI) says "Students who are bullied for two or three years in mid primary school fall nearly 10 months behind their peers in numeracy by year 7.”

"The role of friendships is well known during adolescence. Research suggests that young people who feel valued and comfortable with their peer groups have fewer behavioural problems. Peer social support is a protective factor for young people’s mental health, buffering young people from feelings of anxiety and alienation."
- MindMatters

The correlation between learning and the relational context holds true for positive relationships as well. The best learning environments happen for students not only when the instruction is excellent but when relationships are strong with teachers as well as with fellow students.

If you disagree with how important relationships are to education I wish you well as you go on teaching your subject matter to students you don’t know (until A.I. comes in and sweeps away any need for basic content delivery).

For the rest, who do believe that relationships matter greatly for learning, consider these questions.

  • What endeavours do you undertake to increase relationship strength in your class? 
  • How do you keep track of all the relationships at play? 
  • How do you know which student relationships need intervention? 
  • What do you do about it once you do know?
  • We need to agree that relationships matter and are worth our consideration and effort regularly. Give yourself an excuse for running at least some activities that are designed SOLELY to build successful relationships.

  • We need to consider how we holistically build relationship tools into our practice. What can be done when you are teaching English or mathematics which will mean that the classroom context will encourage healthy relationships rather than competitiveness or exclusion?

  • We need to follow up broken relationships. Just as we have remediation processes for illiteracy, students who are struggling with relationships will need targeted help. Without going into too much details about mediation, restorative justice and reconciliation (which needs a blog post for itself), teachers need to know which students are distracted from learning because of conflict in their class.

  • We need processes to assess and track relationships just as we have processes for assessing and tracking numeracy and literacy.

How you can track relationships and why it's important

When asked how they track the relationships of students in their class, most would answer that they use subjective observation. Consider how you could increase effectiveness of these observations.

One simple idea is to regularly meet with two students who you know like you (there’s always a couple in each class) and interview them about the relational dynamics in the class. You may find issues that are below the surface. This will help you to develop your curriculum delivery to match the relational dynamics of your particular class.

When you have greater insight into the connections between students you are often able to pre-empt anti-social behaviour. For instance asking certain students to speak in front of their peers may be disastrous if they are being ostracised by a dominant member of the class. You could ask this student to do their presentation before your staff room instead.

"The value of positive day-to-day interactions across the whole school cannot be underestimated – including school staff with students, staff with staff, students with students and staff with families. These interactions as well as a whole school approach to developing positive relationships and connectedness to school are now well documented in the literature and reported anecdotally. Research is now clear that these benefits not only promote positive mental health but also improve educational outcomes, including increased school attendance, staying at school longer and higher grades."
- MindMatters

Relationships can be tricky to manage, but they are so valuable that they are worth the effort to nurture.

Having a system for doing so can make it far easier to track the health of a cohort. Systems are not there to replace human interactions (obviously!! we are talking about the field of relationships) but a good system can prevent kids from falling through the gaps. They can also encourage you and your peers to continue to do the hard and rewarding work of building wholesome, empowering relationships with every student you come into contact with throughout your career.

Book with a kindness card and resources with copy explaining what it is.

AUTHOR: Peter Cavanagh - Trustmapping.com
Pete is a teacher and “ideas man”. He is married with two children and lives near Melbourne Australia. His passion for ensuring students are well connected and learn effectively lead him to develop a tool to give teachers metrics on trust within cohorts. Data provides insights on trends to reveal how relationships are developing and changing. This helps teachers identify students who are being left out by their peers and to pre-empt bullying. For a free trial in your school, contact Pete via email.

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