Why we need to turn to the science of learning to strengthen student-teacher relationships


As we settle into the new school year, it is clear that our students remain touched by the unfinished learning related to the pandemic. Perhaps most notably, with report after report reporting troubling gaps in last year’s annual assessments, it is evident that unfinished learning has had a catastrophic impact on students’ academic progress, especially for students of color and economically disadvantaged students who struggled academically before the Covid-19 pandemic. But going back to school is not the only crisis our educators and parents are facing. Students report dramatically increased anxiety, stress and suicidal thoughts, leading many to label the impact of Covid-19 on mental health as a “second pandemic.” Unsurprisingly, the confluence of these double crises is straining the capacity of the school system during what has been a particularly difficult “back to school” season this fall, as educators struggle to meet the wider range of needs. academic and socio-emotional of their students.

These challenges may seem unrelated, in part because we have created a false dichotomy between academic learning and socio-emotional learning. But developmental and learning sciences tell us that they are, in fact, inextricably linked, and that one factor in particular – strong, positive relationships between students and teachers – can influence academic and self-achievement. – saying non-academic. Indeed, it may be fairer to view our current challenge of “unfinished learning” as a by-product of “disrupted relationships” and not just wasted teaching time.

For example, research shows that one of the best predictors of resilience in children is the presence of at least one caring, caring adult relationship. Positive relationships increase oxytocin, a “love hormone,” and reduce cortisol, a “stress hormone,” calming the brain and helping students engage more deeply in learning. According to a discussion paper from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, when students have strong relationships with school-based mentors, they are more likely to be successful in their classes, earn more credits, and earn an education. higher cumulative grade point average. A Search Institute study shows that young people have fewer risk indicators and more flourishing indicators when they have strong support, including warm relationships with their teachers.

The importance of this research for our education systems is clear: to meet the academic and socio-emotional needs of our students, teachers, now more than ever, need to know their students. They must understand their students’ experiences as well as their passions and dreams, appreciate their learning contexts and value what they carry with them to foster learning environments where they can flourish. Strong relationships are the only way to achieve this.

And where there is research and a clear need, innovators and entrepreneurs quickly follow suit. Despite all the chaos and damage caused by the pandemic, one potential “silver lining” is that it can be a catalyst for innovation in this most humane field. We’re seeing it in the workplace with a new range of tools designed to help employers stay connected and support the well-being of an increasingly remote workforce.

Nowhere is this trend perhaps more noticeable than in K-12 education. Gradient Learning recently launched its Along solution, a free digital journaling and thinking tool that enables teachers to better connect with their students to ensure they are both seen and heard. New wellness audit tools allow educators and administrators to better understand students’ needs, their learning and life contexts, and the quality of their relationships with adults and their peers in the classroom. Online monitoring tools examine student online activity, then alert schools when children may need social-emotional or mental health support. And digital simulations are used to train teachers to identify and deal with signs of student distress.

Likewise, the organization I lead, LEAP Innovations, has worked closely with educators for years to better understand their students as a starting point for more in-depth personalized learning experiences. Based on this work and a growing body of research, we are developing tools that will be piloted in the Distinctive Schools charter network this fall to help teachers build positive relationships that translate into through more individualized learning paths, adapted to the needs, interests and ambitions of the students. .

If we are serious about tackling our dual crises – academic and socio-emotional – we need to tackle them in tandem. Just as science has proven the impact of teacher-student relationships on learning, science and innovation can guide us as we seek to strengthen these relationships during this turbulent time.



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