By Robert Loe
The ability to connect to classrooms and to each other is crucial because, in a sense, it is playing out in school, your later relationship with society.
I know relationships matter. Relationships matter far more than we like to openly talk about and yet I haven’t met someone yet who didn’t agree. On Monday 26th January, however, I listened to Prof Colleen McLaughlin speak about why relationships matter in the context of education. I have never heard someone speak with such authority on the subject. Prof McLaughlin, drawing on decades of research (a lifetime’s work), asked her audience to accept several “assumptions” about why relationships matter. Why “assumptions” I thought? The evidence presented was utterly compelling and supports everything that I believe and that Relational Schools Project has uncovered in its own research in the last year. So why “assumptions”?
I take it the reason is that, in Professor’s McLaughlin’s view, she is “yet to see a school take relationships on as a topic“. Well this is the work I would like to do for a lifetime. Today, I want to share with you why relationships matter, and the reasons many of the schools we work with have already taken on this challenge.
Relationships matter because “learning is mutual and deeply social”
McLaughlin reminds us that relationships matter because they lie at the heart of the way children learn. Learning is not an individual cognitive thing; it is a social thing. I know I make this sound a little trite but it has enormous implications for how we view classroom environments. You cannot learn if you are frightened. You cannot learn if you are unhappy. You cannot learn if you feel you don’t belong in a classroom.
What’s more, you cannot hope that by adding an intervention, yet another activity to the ever-growing list of a teacher’s workload, you can make people feel engaged. Rather this is a radical change in mindset. You have to change everything.
You have to change the way children relate to each other in the classroom. You change the way you do learning in a way that assimilates mutuality and relationships. You have to change the way teachers relate to each other in the staffroom and challenge the values that teachers are made to operate under. And let’s be clear when teachers hear the message of Relational Schools Project, they like it and they like it because it reminds them of why they became teachers in the first place: they love children and they want to see them grow up, mature and send them off to build a society not just hold down the job. Such values are distinctive from the values of our current system which espouses competition, standardised testing and fear. In Singapore they have a word that encapsulates this value: the word is “kiasu” – be afraid to fail.
What is enacted in schools and their surrounding communities on a daily basis matters because they shape the personal and social development of young people.
Why student-student relationships matter
We know that about the age of 8 or 9 young people begin to gravitate towards the peer group and they become the most significant source of emotional support. When young people are in trouble they go to their friends first. We know that if you want to intervene in the mental health of young people, the most powerful thing they can have is a friend. That’s why we worry (and we should worry) about young children who struggle to form relationships or who seem isolated.
Being victimized by your peers at school is significantly linked to low levels of psychological well-being, low levels of social adjustment and higher levels of psychological disturbance. What’s more, we know that if problems remain into adolescence, they often last into adulthood. As the result, the most powerful thing you can do with a young person is intervene while they are at school.
How should teachers respond?
What we tend to do as teachers when we see someone experiencing peer difficulty is form a good relationship with the student. Research shows we need to do something quite different: the most effective intervention is to encourage interactions with all the people in the classroom. But this seems daunting doesn’t it? How can I achieve this? How can I maintain it? How can I control it? Isn’t this the job of the pastoral teams of the school? Teaching and learning, on these terms, becomes far more than supporting academic outcomes; it is the foundation to academic success and personal and social growth.
Most young people think they have a very good relationship with their teachers but McLaughlin found that there was a statistically significant group who have strong negative relationships with staff and they were often young people with mental health difficulties. That is not irreparable. We know that if a child is depressed and they can form good relationships with staff they will improve.
Research, which I explored in a piece for BERA recently, also shows that students with insecure attachments in the home tend to experience dysfunctional insecure relationships with staff but if teachers can “disconfirm” historical insecurities then those students “fare better socially, emotionally and academically” (O’Connor and McCartney, 1997). Moreover, Smith and Rutter found that where young people have strong relationships with teachers, they are less like to become involved in anti-social or criminal behaviour and far more likely to have increased engagement with school.
Positive school relationships correlate well with student motivation, student engagement and academic outcomes. More recent studies of relationships in school have found historical, “concurrent and longitudinal connections with school attainment and adjustment outcomes….popular/accepted students tend to do well academically and are more prosocial, and have higher self-regulatory skills” (Blatchford and Baines, 2010: p.239). In short the more connected a student feels to their peer group, the more likely they are to flourish. Michael Rutter adds that being connected is more than just the ability to make friends and is as powerful as being literate or numerate. The ability to connect is linked strongly with feelings of self-efficacy; I feel that I can be effective in the world. Such students in his study were ten times more likely to be employed and ten times more likely to be in a stable, longstanding relationship such as a marriage.
You see, relationships matter because “the ability to connect to classrooms and to each other is crucial because, in a sense, it is playing out in school, your later relationship with society” (McLauglin, 2015).
I was inspired by Colleen McLaughlin this week. I hope you will be too?
Robert Loe is the Director of the Relational Schools Project, an education research and consultancy group based in Cambridge and a member of the Relational Thinking Network. This blog originally appeared on the Relational Schools Project website.