By Joseph Degeling, Psychologist
As a school psychologist, I am always quite conscious when talking with teachers of the fact that I am not a teacher, and do not have the day-to-day experience of being in front of a room full of 30 children or adolescents, each with their own motives and attitudes to learning. I am also aware that whenever I talk about the teacher-student relationship, quite a few of my educational colleagues grumble “not this old chestnut again”, as well as thinking “this is not a strategy I can use in the classroom”! But I believe it is the most effective classroom management strategy, and one which maximises student learning and wellbeing whilst also decreasing teacher and student stress.
Classroom learning can only occur through the medium of a teacher-student relationship. We know that positive relationships are good for us – they mitigate the effects of stress, enable feelings of connectedness, make us feel good about ourselves, enable communication, promote mental health and so on. Physiologically, when we feel safe and secure in a relationship/environment our bodies produce less stress hormones which means that we are more able to concentrate and form memories: that is, learn (stress hormones decrease our ability to learn, form memories, and concentrate on complex cognitive tasks and so on). We also know that good teacher-student relationships are a fundamental aspect of the promotion of student wellbeing within schools.
So this all makes sense of course – but how can teachers use this knowledge to help them in the classroom? Here are some tips:
- Regularly reflect on and be mindful of the quality of relationships you have with your students: talk with senior colleagues about how to develop better working relationships with those difficult students;
- When entering a classroom try to look interested and happy to be there and express some interest in your students. Start with a joke, a funny picture or something humorous to lighten the mood;
- Have a “fresh start” approach to each lesson – no expectations about who the naughty kids are going to be, or what they are going to do!
- Think about the top 3-4 difficult kids in your class – make a concerted effort to have some positive connection with them: ask them about their weekend, find some point of common interest, simply smile and say hello to them;
- Your own stress can have a big part to play in your relationships with your students – when stress goes up, relationships become more vulnerable. Take steps to manage your own feelings – exercise, get a good night’s sleep, eat well, make sure you’re doing things you enjoy;
- Try not to engage in power struggles with your students – they will certainly try to bait you. Instead roll with the resistance, and direct them back on track;
- Persist with the above strategies – relationships won’t change in a single lesson!