When the pandemic forced most kids into remote learning last spring, children lost vital physical connections with their teachers. Gone were the morning high-fives, hallway conversations, and over-the-shoulder homework corrections they were used to.
In the fall, most kids started the new school year remotely. They had new teachers but few opportunities to get to know each other: no real face-to-face contact, with many students shutting off their cameras during class.
“This year, teachers have had to teach without the benefit of pre-existing relationships, and that’s been incredibly difficult,” explains Jessica Lahey, a teacher with more than 20 years of experience and the author of The Gift of Failure and the forthcoming The Addiction Inoculation: Raising Healthy Kids in a Culture of Dependence.
As a result, the emotional cues tied to building and strengthening teacher-student bonds— which Lahey describes as the “secret sauce of education”—are at risk.
Pandemic or not, students perform better when they have a good relationship with their teacher. And studies have shown that a supportive teacher-student relationship positively impacts students beyond the classroom, while a negative one can stymie a child’s academic and social-emotional development. (Here’s an article on how parents can improve social-emotional development in kids.)
The same studies show that the effects of student-teacher relationships—positive and negative—are amplified among at-risk students. “For a lot of the students who are in poverty or in struggling communities, the relationship between student, teacher, and parent is key to getting them out of their situation,” explains Sonya Thomas, founder of PROPEL, a support network aimed at helping low-income parents navigate the public school system and counteract high drop-out rates.
When kids, teachers, and parents have positive relationships, Thomas says, opportunities for higher education and future career success open up. The goal is to create an environment where all students—no matter their background or socio-economic status—thrive. And while the road back to the traditional classroom remains uncertain, parents and students can work to improve student-teacher relationships even with the challenges of virtual school.
How to tell if your kid has a good relationship with their teacher
A good relationship between a teacher and a student is one where the child feels motivated and encouraged, Lahey explains. She points to research from psychologist Edward Deci that found that connection is a key component of motivation.
For virtual learners, those connections can be hard to come by. But experts like Alysia Roehrig, a professor at Florida State University whose research focuses on educational psychology, say a child who is eager to attend class, speaks with pride about the assignments they’re working on, or shares things they’re learning outside of the classroom likely feels supported in the classroom.
Still, don’t confuse connection with friendship: Your child doesn’t have to be the teacher’s pet. In fact, Roehrig says that kids with “tough” teachers who are “warm but demanding” report higher feelings of connection. She points to studies that show that those kids have better behavioral and learning outcomes than their counterparts.
That’s because a child’s ability to learn is connected to their emotional state. When your child lacks a positive emotional connection to their teachers, the experience has a corresponding negative effect. “When kids are connected in a real and deep way … they learn more,” Lahey says. “On the other hand, when kids are bored or don’t care about the teacher, subject, or find the learning environment boring, the learning centers in the brain just don’t turn on.”
The danger, Roehrig says, is that your child’s lack of a connection with their educator can have long-lasting negative results. Spotting a poor relationship means watching for and listening to your child’s cues about how school makes them feel. Has their excitement about a subject shifted dramatically? Do they mention a lack of response to their questions? Do they outright complain about the way a teacher speaks to them? Is there a pronounced anxiety when the class is discussed at home?
Most kids aren’t excited by a lot of homework or a teacher who’s tough, but if you notice a consistent theme of feeling picked on, afraid, or embarrassed, it’s worth investigating. “Kids know when their teachers respect them,” Lahey says. “And when they don’t, learning simply does not happen.”
How to support positive relationships
The good news is that you can improve your child’s relationship with their teacher, even during a pandemic.
Look for similarities. At the heart of any connection are recognized commonalities. Students may have no idea what they have in common with their teachers because casual conversation is harder in the virtual setting.
“When students and teachers know they share similarities—in ideas, tastes, preferences—they report stronger relationships and increased communication,” Lahey says.
If you think your child could benefit from a closer connection with their teacher, have them send a “things you might not know about me” letter. Parents can do the same with a note that updates their teacher on how their child is managing. It sets up a “we are all in this together” approach, Roehrig says, who also suggests including your child’s strengths and weaknesses and any scholastic struggles that might provide the teacher with insights beyond what she sees (or doesn’t) on screen.
More communication is always a good thing, says Gahmya Drummond-Bey, a teacher and global curriculum designer. “It really helps when parents encourage my students to write me letters or notes, even if it’s just about their day. It gives me something to respond to and helps us to continue to build our connection.”
Promote virtual participation. Not every child is comfortable turning on their camera or speaking up in a virtual environment, but parents can brainstorm other ways that they can communicate without fear.
Roehrig says that her son doesn’t like when his questions show up in the classroom chat, so instead she encourages him to send his questions directly to the teacher or use emoji reactions on screen to show he’s engaged. Setting goals to do this regularly (“Let’s make a plan to turn on your camera once this week.”) and making time to discuss how it feels when it’s over could help inch your child into more participation.
Your child could also suggest that their teacher make more use of smaller breakout groups. Roehrig says that studies have shown that students are more likely to turn on their cameras in smaller groups making connections easier.
Encourage your child to self-advocate. If kids are having trouble with a classmate, didn’t get the grade they expected, or don’t understand the course material, help them find ways to speak up.
It might feel easier for a parent to step in on their child’s behalf, but experts say that teaching kids how to respectfully voice a concern (including practicing what they’ll say ahead of time) empowers them for the future.
“Teaching kids to self-advocate, to tell adults what they want and need, is one of the most important skills we impart,” Lahey says. “When kids graduate from my classroom able to raise their hand, ask to meet with me outside of class, argue with me in favor of their rights and needs, I know I’ve fulfilled my duty to them.”
Recognize when to intervene. Not every difficult relationship can be solved by the student, reminds Roehrig. One example: relationships in which parents suspect that implicit biases—whether racial, socio-economic, or gender-based—may be at play.
Studies have shown that Black boys are often judged more harshly by teachers for the same behaviors that white boys are excused for. If this is the problem, parents will need to intervene. “This is a real thing,” Roehrig says. “We can't really change it unless we become aware.”
Parents also need to recognize that while efforts to improve a relationship is a good first step, it’ll require teacher buy-in for real improvement to happen. Bumping into an unresponsive teacher? Don’t be afraid to seek help elsewhere. A guidance counselor or outside support network similar to PROPEL can help.
“It should be a partnership,” says Thomas of the parent-student-teacher relationship. “It's important that we work collaboratively and that we have a partnership that empowers parents just as much as it empowers our teachers, so that they can make the experience a quality experience for our children.”