student success

Training Teachers in Relationship Building Is Key to Any School Discipline Reform

Reformers and education experts in Washington have spent months debating school discipline policy. But these debates have overlooked a key element successful practitioners have long understood, and that the research is beginning to support: the relationship skills of teachers. A  growing research base suggests the social and emotional components of learning, such as the ability to develop and maintain positive relationships with others, drive student success. Students need positive, nurturing learning environments where they feel safe and understood in order to succeed, and with proper training, teachers can create these environments. Strong relationships also prevent misbehavior and disrespect because students are more likely to follow rules if they have a robust connection with their teachers. Indeed, positive relationships with caring adults are essential to creating strong school and classroom cultures, especially in high-poverty schools. But teachers do not get nearly enough training on how to build strong relationships and be a champion for their students. In fact,  only 55 percent of teachers reported receiving training in social-emotional learning, according to a nationwide survey. This is especially concerning given the  growing mismatch between the demographics of students and the nation’s teaching force.


Professional development that strengthens educators’ social-emotional skills can create happier, healthier classrooms and schools, and address discipline disparities. A few years ago, my colleague Bob Pianta and I helped start a program called  My Teaching Partner. Based out of the University of Virginia, the program for middle and high school teachers strengthens teachers’ social and emotional skills. Specifically, it improves a teacher’s ability to develop healthy relationships with their students. In the online program, teachers examine models of great interactions between teachers and students before the school year starts. Then, over the course of the year, these teachers work one-on-one with virtual coaches to reflect upon and improve their day-to-day interactions with their students. Seemingly simple things, like giving students a bit of choice in the classroom or just asking a student about her interests, can improve teachers’ relationships with students. After completing the program, teachers had the skills to create more positive, engaging classrooms, according to our research. Teachers who completed the program also had higher expectations for their students. This is important because what teachers expect from their students can affect their  performance, and teachers are less likely to expect disruptive students to perform well. But teachers who completed the program  maintained high expectations for all of their students throughout the year. Equally striking, we had several teachers who had been chronically afraid of losing control of their classrooms (with good reason). Yet, as their relationships with students improved, so did the students’ behavior. The classrooms became calmer, allowing the teachers to teach but also to try out more creative approaches to reaching their students. Somewhat surprisingly, teachers who spent even the relatively few hours it took to complete the program saw  significant academic growth in their students. In a study of 12 Virginia public schools conducted by myself and some colleagues, students whose teachers completed the program showed large improvements on their performance on state standardized tests compared to similar teachers who were not in the program. We believe this growth stemmed from the fact that teachers simply had the tools to build stronger relationships with their students. To be sure, My Teaching Partner is just one program that can help teachers develop relationship-building skills. Educators like  Christopher Emdin and Rita Pierson have been talking about the importance of relationships in education for years. So have many other programs. Moreover, training in relationship building should not replace professional development in curriculum, pedagogy or family engagement. Teachers’ proficiencies in these areas also help them work successfully with all students. But there is increasing evidence that too many teachers are not adequately equipped with the skills necessary to build relationships with their students. Professional development that builds teachers’ own social-emotional skills helps educators build better relationships with their students, and proactively create more positive classrooms, which keeps more students in class and learning. Training in relationship building, is a key component of any school discipline reform.
Robert Pianta is the Dean of the Curry School of Education, Novartis U.S. Foundation Professor of Education, Professor of Psychology and founding director of the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning at the University of Virginia. His interests are at the intersections of education and human development. He has done work to change how educators think about teacher-student ...

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