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Relationships in Early Grades Affect Academic Success

Posted By Amanda Leaman, Friday, April 10, 2015

The extent to which a teacher establishes a warm and supportive climate in the very early grades appears to have an academic effect on students even a few years later.


The April 2015 issue of Developmental Psychology offered a new look at the intertwined factors of teachers liking students, students being liked by peers, and academic progress. CSEE rarely refers to individual studies, but the findings in this case are strongly in line with other things we know about relationships, and they help clarify some issues.


A group of Finnish researchers looked at academic skills (reading and math) in 625 kindergarten students, and followed the children through the next four grades. The data included teacher reports regarding their feelings toward individual students, and the reports of students' peers regarding peer acceptance through their early grades. The findings were curiously interlinked:

  • The kids with the strongest academic skills in kindergarten tended to be those that the teachers liked most; this is not surprising in itself.  However, 
  • The amount a child was liked by his or her teacher also affected how much the child was liked by peers;
  • In turn, how much peers liked a student also appeared to have an additional effect on the student's academic development. 

Though this could look like a chicken and egg scenario, the researchers saw teachers as being in the best position to improve the cycle: "a warm and supportive teacher can increase a student's peer acceptance which, in turn, is positively associated with learning outcomes." Although a teacher may make an effort to treat every student in the classroom equally, they said, peer acceptance of a student also played a role in how much a teacher liked kids later. Therefore, it's not just important for teachers to form supportive bonds with students, it's similarly important for teachers to help students know one another better, and form stronger bonds with one another. "Both positive teacher relationships and positive peer relationships," the researchers said, "have a unique association with academic skills." And the influence seems to last into subsequent years.


The researchers concluded that interventions aimed at enhancing "teachers' abilities to connect in emotionally supportive ways with students could prevent" a certain number of negative classroom experiences later in a student's academic career.



Here are three ideas that might be helpful:


  • Learn more about students private lives, in a way they will not perceive as prying.
  • Look beyond the good student relationships you already see in your classroom. Offer ways to help students get to know and appreciate others in the classroom that they might not know as well. One way to do this is with a "Getting to Know You" activity, like the one below, which we offer courtesy of Thomas Lickona, at the Center for the 4th and 5th Rs.
  • For older students, check out the number of helpful strategies in Hal Urban's bookLessons from the Classroom: 20 Things Good Teachers Do.



Divide students into groups of three. Here are instructions for each group.


  1. Each of you tell the others where you were born, what the last school you went to was, and what your biggest goal for this school year is.
  2. Think about:

    * a person you admire, and why

    * a skill or an accomplishment you are proud of

    * a time you helped someone, not a relative or a school service project

    * something you dream of doing some day


  3. Go round and share responses to the above.  (Take no more than 3 min. each) Take brief notes on your group members' answers.
  4. Do a group self-quiz:  Try to remember what the other two people said to each of the above.
  5. If you have time at the end, go around to discuss: What did you find valuable about this activity?

Tags:  [Grade: Lower]  [Grade: Middle]  [User Group: Teachers]  meaning  peers  purpose  relationship  well-being 

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