Learning is all about connections and relationships. Research tells us that students of all ages need at least one adult at school that they can connect with on a deeper level if they are to thrive and be successful.
Back in 1997, the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health found that those who reported a feeling of connectedness with a caring adult in school were less likely to be involved in every single risk area studied (including suicide ideation, early sex, violence, substance abuse).
Those students who have close, positive and supportive relationships with their teachers tend to attain higher levels of achievement. More recently, researchers linked positive academic outcomes with the relationship between student and teacher, while others found that a teacher-student relationship that is characterised by closeness, affection, and support is associated with higher levels of prosocial behaviour in that student.
We can therefore be fairly certain that deep, caring relationships are a powerful and positive influence on our students. Covid-19 deprived many young people of these critical relationships, or at best replaced them with a virtual version.
“Many students admit to switching off their cameras, and focusing instead on their gaming careers.”
For some this worked out: particularly those students who were comfortable online, had access to suitable technology, and had teachers who understood how best to connect digitally. However, many students admit to withdrawing from the online format, disengaging with discourse, switching off their cameras, and focusing instead on their gaming careers.
Regression or Progression?
The predominant concern we read about in the media seems to be around how much curriculum content has been missed during the pandemic, and therefore how disadvantaged our students are and will be in the future. But let us also consider for a moment the additional skills, dispositions and capacities students have developed throughout this period, such as independence, resilience, adaptability, organisation, self-management and more.
Pre-Covid, one popular criticism of this generation of students was that they struggled to complete extended tasks and lacked resilience. How do we test the accuracy of this assumption, when we would not knowingly and deliberately impose genuine hardship on our children?
“Our children have been presented with a major plot twist, and while some have struggled, most have come through and a number have even thrived.”
Covid-19, while clearly horrific and hugely disruptive, has actually given us an opportunity to see how our young people handle tough and uncertain times. Our children have been presented with a major plot twist, and although some have genuinely and understandably struggled, most have come through and a number have even thrived.
But none have fallen by the wayside purely because of a lack of curriculum coverage. Relevant and updated content is critical of course, and skills are worthless without it, but in times like these, less is more when we consider curriculum content, and more is definitely more when it comes to relationships.
An Alternative Lens?
Instead of teachers being evaluated primarily according to the academic results of their students, why not assess their skill in building meaningful relationships with their students? How about the ways teachers have prepared students to cope with adversity, to be comfortable with ambiguity and to adapt to a new normal? As we have seen, research illustrates that these have a greater potential long-term impact on a child’s future than almost any other factor.
While building initial trust is paramount, caring relationships with students should not only be warm and fuzzy. There is a need to hold students to account, to continue insisting on high expectations, and to challenge them to reach goals they may not have even attempted without the gentle but deliberate nudge provided by great teachers.
“While building initial trust is paramount, caring relationships with students should not only be warm and fuzzy.”
Powerful one-to-one coaching does not require an extended amount of time. Just five to seven minutes is enough for a meaningful conversation to let a student know that you care about them, you know them as a person not just as a student, you know they are capable of more (as we all are), and you will support them as much and as little as they need to reach their goals.
Synchronicity Closes the Gap
Recent findings in neuroscience have revealed a phenomenon known as conversational synchrony. In observing the brain function of humans engaged in conversation, scientists have found that humans begin to mirror each other behaviourally and physiologically.
This mirroring, known in neuroscience as synchronicity, has long been observed as a beneficial outcome in the therapist-patient relationship, but the role of synchrony in interpersonal conversation is an exciting development. The mirroring that occurs during successful interpersonal conversations includes matching of breathing rate, movement patterns, and convergence of word choices and speech patterns.
“Scientists have found that humans begin to mirror each other behaviourally and physiologically.”
Fascinatingly, as conversationalists achieve synchrony with each other, their underlying brain physiology begins to change. Important regions of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the right temporoparietal junction form stronger connections with each other as conversational partners engage.
Students will tell you that they tend to perform better in classes where they have a closer than usual connection with the teacher. But going beyond that and constructing purposeful 1:1 conversations that focus on the ways we learn, our work habits and attitudes to learning will pay significant dividends and position our students for success.
Gordon R G, Tranel D and Duff M C (2014) The physiological basis of synchronizing conversational rhythms: The role of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Neuropsychology. 28(4), 624–630.
Klein J D (1997) National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health. Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). 278(10), 864-5.
Koole S L and Tschacher W (2016) Synchrony in psychotherapy: A review and an integrative framework for the therapeutic alliance. Frontiers in Psychology.
Longobardi et al (2020) Student-teacher relationship quality and prosocial behaviour: the mediating role of academic achievement and a positive attitude towards school. British Journal of Educational Psychology. 91(2), 547-562
Paxton A and Dale R (2017) Interpersonal movement synchrony responds to high- and low-level conversational constraints. Frontiers in Psychology.
Sacks et al (2020) Relationships with Caring Adults and Social and Emotional Strengths Are Related to High School Academic Achievement. Child Trends.
This article first appeared in the latest edition of International School Magazine, out now.