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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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How to Help your Students Find Purpose

Posted By Amanda Leaman, Thursday, January 22, 2015
Updated: Thursday, January 22, 2015

How to Help your Students Find Purpose

By Ann Saylor


By intentionally starting conversations with students using simple questions, we can prompt them to begin to discover their passions and interests.


Young people yearn for life to have significance; they want life to matter. They have energy and a sense of possibility—anything is still possible. One of the greatest gifts we can give students is to help them discover and feed that inner spark that encourages and leads to a purposeful life—the spark that helps them understand themselves more fully and helps them find a way to make the world a better place.


Here are three simple strategies you can try:


ONE: TalkAsk youth questions; get them thinking about passions and interests. You might BE the person who helps them “catch the bug” for (fill in the blank: writing, art, singing, martial arts, making furniture) because you share your enthusiasm and passion for what you love to do. Or, you might BE the person who opens the door and helps them find what truly makes them excited. So, begin the conversation. It doesn’t have to be hard, it can simply be comparing different interests and how much each one matters to you and to them, and why. The conversation can be hidden within an activity to make it fun and engaging.  

Questions you can try:

Is this activity enjoyable to you? Do you have any goals around this? Anything I can do to help? Help them see how they can connect their spark to life; open their eyes to possibilities.
  • If students are good at spelling, encourage them to enter a spelling bee or help a friend study for a spelling test.
  • If they enjoy puzzles and engineering, suggest that they look into “Destination Imagination” or “Odyssey of the Mind.”

Try it by noticing when students light up! 

Watch for situations like these. When you see a student light up, ask pertinent follow-up questions to help them explore their interests and talents.

  • Eric just spent two hours editing video footage and then proudly showed others the resulting five-minute clip.
  • Mary, who has been bored in science, suddenly lights up when you start talking about the ocean.
  • Xavier shines when he gives campus tours to prospective students because he loves relationships and sales. 


TWO: Explore. We can help youth identify their best moments and begin to think about who they are and what makes them tick by creating moments and offering activities to try new things. As you offer activities (field trips, speakers, projects, service opportunities, games...), look for the “hot” spots—those moments where students get excited and sustain that reaction. If possible, offer more opportunities around those spark flashes to further engage young people. 

Try the Sparks Walk activity: 

Have participants sit in a circle of chairs facing each other. There should be one less chair than there are number of people sitting. That extra person stands in the middle and starts the game. Play begins when the circle leader says, “Take a walk if you love to . . .” and completes it by saying something he or she loves to do. (Examples might be “hike,” “travel,” or “play piano.”) Everyone who shares that interest must take a walk and find a new seat in the circle (not an adjacent seat). The person who doesn’t find a new space becomes the new circle leader and calls out the next statement, which must be about something he loves. After playing, talk about sparks, passion and purpose.

THREE: Connect. Once young people have started to explore and discover their own skills, talents, personalities and passions, they need to find ways to put those strengths to work—to create, to invent, and to serve by giving of their talents and energies. Look for ways to connect youth with other supporters and opportunities to further explore and develop their interests. You might connect youth as pen pals, interns, volunteers, lunch buddies, or even virtual conversations. Encourage students to be brave and try new things.

Questions to Ponder:

  1. What time do I dedicate for young people to identify and apply their individual interests and passions?
  2. How much time do I set aside for them to explore and take action in the community—through service, social justice and activism?



About the Author: Ann Saylor, with colleague Susan Ragsdale, is author of Groups, Troops, Clubs and Classrooms: An Essential Handbook for Working with Youth (2014), which they wrote as a resource for teachers, youth workers, and others who work with young people to foster their flourishing. The book contains a wealth of activities—all with explanations and many with variations—to help build positive relationships and empower young people by helping them know, appreciate, and build on their strengths. The book can be ordered through many online book sellers. See more about Ann and Susan at


Tags:  [Grade: Lower]  [Grade: Middle]  [User Group: Administration]  [User Group: Teachers]  meaning  purpose  spiritual  well-being 

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