Behaviour matters but relationships matter more

To create a positive learning environment, we need to stop viewing students in an adversarial light, says Margaret Mulholland
18th October 2019, 12:03am
Instead Of Trying To Manage Behaviour, Schools Should Try To Manage Relationships, Says Margaret Mulholland

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Behaviour matters but relationships matter more

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/behaviour-matters-relationships-matter-more

Relationships matter. We talk about knowing our students well, building their self-esteem, creating an empowering environment, fostering a sense of belonging and rapport. These are the perks and essentials of the job, yet current education rhetoric rarely refers to the development of relationships without mentioning behaviour management.

Schools are urged to “tackle” behaviour. Such language pits the establishment against its students. What does it say to teachers when aggressive messages permeate school culture and distort the more important responsibility of relationship management in the classroom? Osher et al (2018) remind us that warm and caring student-teacher relationships are linked to better school performance and engagement, greater emotional regulation and social competence among young people.

An interesting Arizona State University study found that different teacher-training programmes prioritised two kinds of relationships with students. One is described as an instrumental focus - a limited, one-way relationship in which teachers cull bits of information about young people specifically to motivate them to behave well and focus on teacher-directed tasks. The other, a reciprocal focus, requires teachers to gather complex information and build a holistic understanding of their students, inviting them to grapple with content and problems together.

In the first model, according to the study, relationships were “structured as a controlled means to a particular end: student compliance”. Students learned that their value was tied to the degree to which they worked hard and behaved in line with what (often white) authority figures demanded. In the reciprocal approach, “these students not only learned to think for themselves but also had adults who affirmed and responded to their thoughts and experiences. Such interactions prepared them to engage with authority figures and to someday hold positions of authority themselves.”

Critically, the study identified that teachers trained in the instrumental focus were more likely to go on to teach in low-income, high-minority schools, while those trained in reciprocal relationships ended up in schools with more high-income and white students.

It is not clear why teachers ended up sorting in this way, but it raises concerns about differences in the kinds of relationships high- and low-income students might experience with teachers. This surely deserves further exploration, as does the importance of teacher training that values positive, warm and respectful student-teacher relationships.

In the classroom environment, it’s reasonable to say that for effective learning to happen, students need a sense of physical and psychological safety. This needs to be explicit in the initial teacher training curriculum. Anxiety undermines cognitive capacity and short-circuits the learning process. Steele and Cohn-Vargas (2013) remind us that students learn best in an “identity safe” environment, where value and belonging is reinforced. Children don’t thrive if their emotional needs aren’t met in parallel with their academic needs.

Meta-analysis of 99 studies (Roorda et al, 2011) reinforces this principle, finding that the “affective quality of teacher-student relationships was significantly related to student engagement”. And worse, students at risk for poorer outcomes (those from low-income families, ethnic minorities and those with learning difficulties) were more harmed by negative relationships with teachers and benefited more from positive ones.

Relationship-building needs to be taught to teachers and students alike. This is vital where people with protected characteristics are most at risk without it. A good start would be to rethink teaching strategies that focus too much on controlling the classroom. The evidence suggests they are simply ineffective, especially in the long term, and potentially damaging to the education and wellbeing of young people.

Responsiveness to students and their unique circumstances has always characterised good teaching. And it has always been true that good behaviour and outcomes are built on the foundation of good relationships. It’s now truer than ever.

Margaret Mulholland is the SEND and inclusion specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders

This article originally appeared in the 18 October 2019 issue under the headline “Behaviour matters in schools but relationships matter more”

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