Sue Roffey describes her way of thinking about how to relate more deeply with students in the classroom

Making sense of the world

Students arrive in a classroom with a set of personal and social constructs about the way the world works. They interpret what happens to them in the light of what they currently understand.

If, for instance, conforming to behavioural expectations in a classroom has resulted in widespread approval from significant adults that lead to a feeling of self-worth, then the constructs for that student will anticipate more of the same. ‘Getting into trouble’ may be a source of shame. Such students will be motivated to re-establish their reputation as ‘good students’.

 On the other hand, a young person who anticipates rejection or failure is more likely to respond negatively to innocuous comments and feel hurt and angry before other interpretations are considered.

Recent events may have turned a student’s world upside down. He or she may be trying to make sense of what has happened. It is easier to work with this sort of student if your response to his or her behaviour acknowledges their interpretation of the situation. This means finding out what the behaviour means for the student. It is more useful to ask ‘What did you think was going on here’ or ‘What did you want to happen?’ rather than ‘Why are behaving like this?’

Emotions are an integral component of individual constructs. Anxiety and depression are often masked as defiance. As an ‘externalising behaviour’, this is more likely to take up the available attention. By contrast, the sadness underlying fury may not be considered important, as it is not something that needs to be ‘managed’.

The degree to which an emotion is present depends on what has been triggered recently. If the student has had a terrible weekend, or a negative experience with a previous teacher, he or she is more likely to be emotionally volatile.

Feelings are also linked to expectations. If a student’s past experience with studying history has been fraught with failure and conflict, then a history teacher might be in for a more testing time than a sports teacher, where experiences have been happier. If, however, a positive relationship with a student has been established, then the impact of an event earlier in the day will be moderated by the student’s expectations of safety and support.

Teachers too are working within the framework of personal and social constructs that they bring into the classroom. Their personal constructs will include their own sense of competence and what they believe is required if they are to be considered a ‘successful’ teacher within their school. Teachers also bring feelings such as frustration, compassion, interest, competence and anger, which may have been triggered by the school system itself. For instance, a teacher may feel supported as a member of an emotionally literate culture, or fearful of criticism within an authoritarian one.

What works in establishing good student-teacher relationships?

A growing body of research has established that a good relationship is a significant factor in classroom management. This inhibits difficult situations arising in the first place and provides a cushion when challenges do arise. Relationships develop through what is said and not said, and the messages that are given about values and expectations.

Developing good relationships

Specific actions in developing good relationships can be summarised as follows:

Show the student he or she matters by:

  • greeting by name, smiling, showing an interest by comments and questions
  • finding something about the most challenging student to like or admire and commenting positively on qualities and strengths. This may position them and their behaviour differently – attributing to them resourcefulness, humour, protectiveness, spirit in the face of adversity etc. This may give the student an alternative self-concept to work towards
  • giving regular positive feedback that is specific, genuine and brief
  • showing belief, trust and high expectations
  • showing that their success, safety and wellbeing is of concern.

Show acceptance of the person but not their behaviour by:

  • stating what students are expected to do rather than what they shouldn’t be doing – information is much easier to hear than accusation
  • using ‘I’ statements rather than ‘you’ statements which comment on behaviour
  • not labelling people
  • offering comfort in distress
  • giving choices which give the student some control and promote self-efficacy.

Develop a sense of inclusion and belonging by:

  • ensuring that there are experiences which guarantee success – however small
  • ensuring that there is fairness – giving each their turn
  • framing behaviour in terms of equity rights eg ‘You are not allowed to hurt another student and other students are not allowed to hurt you’
  • encouraging students to take a responsibility and giving positive feedback for this
  • using the word ‘we’ and ‘our’ to include not to exclude
  • avoiding unfavourable comparisons or put downs
  • avoiding self-fulfilling prophecies
  • doing everything possible to avoid sanctions that are about exclusion
  • welcoming students back if they have been absent
  • speaking about the student positively to others.

The teacher who is able to stay calm, acknowledge feelings and show interest in the wellbeing of individuals will win respect and have an easier time in the classroom. The best way to maximise positive interaction with your students is by:

  • acknowledging and validating feelings in the first instance before trying to ‘fix the problem’
  • giving students time and space to come down from a high level of emotion – not trying to ‘get to the bottom of things’ when feelings are running high
  • being aware of personal responses and how to regulate emotions such as anxiety and fear
  • being calm, speaking quietly but not being bland – others need to know that what they do matters
  • being prepared to listen – if not at the time then later
  • checking the meaning a behaviour has for a student in order to understand how they come to feel what they do
  • not taking challenging behaviour personally. This is emotionally draining. It is useful for teachers to understand their personal triggers so that students have less chance to succeed in baiting
  • being sensitive to the emotional content of a situation. This means saying things that soothe, rather than exacerbate, difficult feelings. These emotions may be expressed as anger and defiance but also incorporate rejection, hopelessness and injustice
  • using all opportunities to demonstrate concern, care and belief in the young person
  • maximising emotional resources such as having enough sleep, debriefing with a trusted colleague and anything else that ensures that incidents are kept in perspective
  • giving students good models of regulating and expressing emotions – showing students that there are ways to feel better about yourself and express what you feel without damaging others
  • focusing on and building on the positive in any situation rather than maximising the negative, the deficit and the difficulty. This includes conversations with and about the students and their parents. It also includes not being too hard on yourself.

Maintaining professional integrity

Sometimes nothing seems to work. So what do you do? Teachers need to behave in a way which is consistent with how they want the student to behave, even if they are currently not doing so. Whatever a student does, a teacher has choices about how to respond. Focusing on the negativity within the situation wastes valuable emotional resources and damages the possibility of relationship rebuilding. It is better to:

  • state clearly and calmly what is expected
  • model appropriate behaviour
  • state consequences calmly
  • follow through consistently.

This maintains both self-respect and respect for the student. School systems also need to support teachers – but not at the expense of the student.

Students whose lives have been enmeshed with unsupportive relationships, poor role models and/or values which are contrary to those of the school do not change overnight, especially if they are into adolescence. Some are too damaged, too angry and too distressed to trust anyone’s good intentions – especially in the short term. But individuals do change incrementally over time if they experience a consistent and emotionally safe environment. Some respond to a respectful approach surprisingly quickly.

A strategy is only as good as the context in which it is embedded – and relationships are the most significant factor in determining success.

What students say about their teachers:

  • Teachers should treat all the kids the same – not having favourites like the ‘good’ students.
  • Being consistent matters – getting into trouble for something one day because a teacher is in a bad mood but not another day means you don’t know where you are.
  • Knowing the students’ names and talking with them about things in their lives makes them feel that they matter.
  • Teachers who don’t shout get more respect – though doing it occasionally is OK.
  • Talking as an equal – not talking down to students – is good.
  • It’s good to have teachers you can approach, who don’t make you feel stupid when you don’t know something.
  • Teachers should be friendly but not try and be your friend.
  • Teachers should walk the talk: they shouldn’t expect things from students they aren’t prepared to do themselves.
  • Teachers need to be confident in themselves; then students will have confidence in them.
  • Teachers should know what they are teaching, but not try and be above you all the time.
  • Teachers need to listen – some jump to conclusions about things.

How teachers make a difference
‘I had a hard time at home and at school and this one teacher made a real difference for me. He showed that he cared whether I was there or not, whether I learned anything. He didn’t give up on me. It’s because of him that I stayed in school. I don’t think teachers should say “it’s up to you whether or not you learn – it makes it seem they don’t care about you.”’

This young person is now training to be a teacher herself.