By Heather Hill
Of the many worries troubling educators this summer, one of the most pressing is: How do we safeguard students’ mental health as we go back to school?
We know that some students will arrive for the new school year deeply affected by the COVID-19 pandemic or by ongoing racial injustice in the United States. Others will simply be distressed by the “new normal” of school and community life.
Schools can and should screen for and respond to trauma. But even when trauma is not evident, students benefit from mental-health protection. Making sure teachers have strong relationships with their students provides such protection and fosters a fertile environment for learning.
Research suggests ways that teachers can build these important relationships—even virtually, since we now know that many schools will start the new school year online. Studies at the college level indicate that relationship-building in a digital environment may take extra effort. But it can be done, and the existing research from face-to-face settings is a good place to start.
Researchers often characterize teacher-student relationships based on:
• The degree of teacher sensitivity and attunement to children’s needs
• The consistency of teacher-student interactions
• The level of trust between teachers and students, and
• The amount of scaffolding the teacher provides for student academic growth.
Teacher-student interactions matter quite a bit for a range of student outcomes. Sensitivity, consistency, trust, and scaffolding support students’ engagement and effort, more peaceful relationships with peers, better academic outcomes, and fewer risk-taking behaviors.
Strong relationships with teachers can be especially protective for some students. For example, relationships with stable, caring adults have been shown to mitigate the risks of poverty. As with so many features of American education, however, the students who most need this resource may not be the ones who most often get it. In some (but not all) studies, nonwhite students reported worse teacher-student relationships than white students in the same school.
Given the importance of teacher-student relationships, one would expect a robust literature evaluating programs intended to improve them. This is not the case. A few recent, high-quality studies do, however, provide evidence for several promising approaches.
One approach focuses on improving teachers’ own mental health. Matthew Hirschberg and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that randomly assigning a group of aspiring teachers to a preservice course on mindfulness reduced those teachers’ implicit bias and fostered their provision of emotional, instructional, and organizational support to students. The 22-hour course emphasized kindness, compassion, and managing one’s emotions. Another mindfulness program, CARE for Teachers, saw similar results.
Still another approach aims to create emotional bonds between teachers and students. A study led by Jason Okonofua at the University of California, Berkeley, found that a short course in empathy cut student-suspension rates in half over the school year and also improved teacher-student relationships among students who had been previously suspended. Another study, led by Hunter Gehlbach, now at Johns Hopkins University, showed that when high school students and teachers received information about shared interests and personality traits, Black and Latinx students experienced improvements in end-of-quarter grades. This program draws from the social-psychology adage “likeness begets liking” and suggests that simple activities designed to reveal similarities between teachers and students may build understanding in classrooms.
None of the above programs teaches classroom management or pedagogical techniques; instead, they help teachers to process stressful situations with more ease and to remain open-minded about and empathetic toward students.
Another way to address teacher-student relationships is through directly addressing pedagogy. My Teaching Partner, a one-to-one coaching program based at the University of Virginia, uses self-recorded video and an observational rubric to help teachers reflect on teacher-student interactions and plan for improvements. Evaluations of the secondary school version of this program have shown strong impacts on the emotional, instructional, and organizational support provided to students, on student engagement, and on student-test scores. In one study, the program also eliminated the racial gap in disciplinary referrals between Black and non-Black students.
Culturally responsive pedagogies strongly emphasize teachers caring for and connecting with students and may be particularly useful in improving teacher-student relationships. In the Double Check program, also from the University of Virginia, coaches helped teachers review and then improve their use of culturally responsive teaching practices. As compared with teachers in a control group, teachers randomly chosen to receive coaching engaged in more proactive classroom management, experienced more cooperation from students, and were less likely to refer Black students for disciplinary action.
Schools not able to begin new programs right now might consider other changes to classrooms that have shown promise in correlational studies (rather than the more rigorous causal ones). “Looping”—the practice of keeping students and teachers together for more than one school year—is one of these. A correlational study by Brown University researchers found that having a repeat teacher improved student achievement at all grade levels and in high school boosted attendance and reduced disciplinary infractions. On the other hand, studies also show that in general teachers are less effective when teaching new grade-level material, so the decision to loop might be a difficult one for schools.
Several correlational studies also suggest the importance of establishing effective classroom routines early in the year. Strong classroom routines may reduce teacher-student conflict, encourage student engagement, and enable a caring classroom environment.
In the coming school year, teachers face monumental challenges, including providing instruction across a mix of face-to-face, virtual, and asynchronous settings. Amid the disruptions almost sure to come, motivating students to engage and persist—work that starts with creating trusting relationships—will be more critical than ever.
Heather C. Hill is a professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and studies teacher quality, teacher professional learning, and instructional improvement. Her broader interests include educational policy and social inequality.