Building compassionate teacher-student relationships

Kate Brierton

Dr. Kate Brierton is an Independent Clinical Psychologist and school Governor.  She recently joined us for a webinar, which looked at the difference strong compassionate relationships can make, and how different emotional states and attachment styles can affect relationship-building.  In this article, she shares the qualities needed for building positive relationships, and you can catch up on a recording of the webinar.

Compassion and relationships

A compassionate approach to emotional wellbeing emphasises the importance of human connection for flourishing and thriving.  Therefore, it is only natural that high quality relationships between teachers and students are correlated with academic achievement, motivation and behaviour in the classroom. You can discover why relationships are so important and learn more about the evolutionary and neuroscientific roots to compassion by listening to my webinar on the compassionate teacher-student relationship.  However, for this blog I’m going to reflect on the qualities of positive relationships – and provide you with practical ideas for building supportive, compassionate relationships with your students.

Early attachment and relationships

The relationship formed between an infant and its main caregiver influences all later relationships.  If a caregiver is sensitive and responsive, the infant feels secure in the relationship. However, if caregivers are unable to give appropriate care, the infant may learn that others do not always respond to their needs consistently and they become insecure. This means students of any age may have different ways of relating to you, based on their early experiences.  Some may be confident and open when interacting with you; others may appear more anxious or avoidant.  Innate temperament can also have an effect; some individuals are naturally more anxious or autonomous.  This can make it challenging to relate to every student in the class!

Trust, safety and respect

The aim of building compassionate relationships with students in the classroom is to create an environment of safety, trust and respect.  Students flourish when the soothing system in the brain is activated, promoting feelings of belonging and connection.  When developing secure relationships with your students, you should aim to be responsive and validating.  Does the student feel that you understand their needs?  Do you validate and appreciate their contributions? Are you attuned to their emotional state?  This does not mean that you must be the student’s best friend or accept poor behaviour; students will feel more comfortable with you when practise good boundaries and keep discipline in the classroom.  However, being warm, approachable and responsive will help to develop strong relationships.

What are you saying but not saying?

Teachers often carefully consider what they say in the classroom, but how often do you think about what your body language is communicating?  The attachment system develops during infancy before language development, so it is very sensitive to non-verbal communication like voice tone, facial expression and body language.  Warmth in both voice tone and facial expression can reassure students and help them to see you as approachable.  Open, receptive body language, with sensitive use of eye contact (enough to make a student feel recognised, but not too much to make them feel uncomfortable) can go a long way to building positive, trusting relationships.

Top tips from teachers

1. Experienced teachers recommend getting involved in extracurricular activities, like clubs or school trips, so that students get to know you in a more personal sense.

2. Be an authentic role model: don’t be afraid to make mistakes in front of the students, and if you do something wrong or upset someone, apologise.

3. We are all human – and sometimes it’s tricky to be human! If you treat the students with this respect and honesty, and they will develop trust in you.

4. Don’t be afraid to use humour! Laughter is a beautiful way of bonding together.

5. Finally, remember make your own wellbeing a priority, as this will help you form to supportive and nurturing relationships in both your personal and professional life.

Watch Kate’s webinar for suggestions on building teacher-student rapport in your classroom:

Read Kate’s last blog on sowing the seeds of compassion in your school, which also has the recording of her last webinar on a whole school approach to wellbeing.

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