Teachers, staff and school leaders play a vital role in the behaviour and wellbeing of the young people they work with. While many different factors can impact mental health, one of the most significant is relationships. Positive relationships with peers, teachers, and other adults can make a massive difference in young people's behaviour at school, both in the short term and the long term.

A recently published longitudinal study of over 8000 students in 84 UK Secondary schools evidenced that

"Better student-rated school climate, at the student and school level was associated with lower risk of depression,fewer social-emotional-behavioral difficulties and higher wellbeing [in young people]"Hinze, et.al, (2023)

This new research demonstrates that positive relationships an integral part of developing school climate are essential to not only promote wellbeing but also protect against the onset of mental health problems developing in young people.

Positive relationships are essential for young people's mental health at school and are integral to any whole school approach to mental health and wellbeing.

"Our findings suggest that schools could enhance the mental health of young people through creating a school climate that students view as positive, including positive peer relationships, caring and respectful adults, and effective school leadership and involvement." Hinze, et.al, (2023)

This leaves us to ask, how can schools create positive behaviours essential for engagement and learning and how can schools work to cultivate them?

What is a positive relationship?

Positive relationships are characterised by mutual respect, trust, and support. In the context of schools, this means that students feel seen, heard, and valued by their peers and teachers. Positive relationships are built on open communication, empathy, and understanding. When a young person feels connected to others and has a strong sense of belonging in their school community, they are more likely to have good wellbeing and achieve academically. The ability to build, have and maintain positive relationships is an essential component in to flourish in life.

Benefits of Positive Relationships for School Mental Health

"Positive relationships in schools are central to the wellbeing of both students and teachers and underpin an effective learning environment." (Roffey, 2012)

The benefits of positive relationships for young people's mental health cannot be overstated. Here are just a few reasons why they are so crucial:

Decreasing stress and anxiety in teenagers

Positive relationships can be a powerful buffer against stress and anxiety. When young people feel connected to others and know that they have people they can rely on, they're less likely to feel overwhelmed by stressors. Relationships can provide a source of support and comfort, helping young people feel more capable of handling life's ups and downs.  School mental health leads can help students work on building positive relationships with peers, teachers, and other supportive adults.

This can be done through providing training to colleagues in how to use coaching skills such as active listening, kindness and empathy and how to build trusting relationships with young people.

Our Wellbeing Club Programme for Mental Health Leads provides online training and resources for developing positive relationships at school.

Increase self-esteem

Positive relationships help young people develop a sense of self-worth and confidence, which can have a positive impact on their mental health. When a young person feels seen, heard, and valued by those around them, they are more likely to have a positive self-image. This can lead to improved self-esteem and a healthier sense of identity. Schools can play a crucial role in building positive relationships and self-esteem with their students by regularly acknowledging and affirming their strengths, talents and achievements. A culture of child-centred praise and recognition goes a long way to building self-esteem and positive relationships.

Greater sense of belonging

Feeling like you belong is an essential component of good mental health. When young people feel like they belong to a community and are accepted, they're more likely to feel valued, seen, and supported. This sense of belonging can come from a variety of sources, including peer groups, extra-curricular activities, and class communities. As educators, we can encourage students to get involved in school activities and work to create a sense of belonging in our classrooms. We can also foster a culture of inclusivity and acceptance, ensuring that all students feel like they belong.

Improved academic outcomes

Positive relationships can have a significant impact on academic outcomes, too. When students feel connected to their teachers, they're more likely to be engaged in class, participate, and ultimately, achieve their academic goals. Additionally, students who have positive relationships with their peers are more likely to work collaboratively and feel comfortable asking for help when they need it. By prioritising relationship-building in our classrooms, we can help our students succeed academically.

Building student resilience

Finally, positive relationships can help students build resilience. When young people face challenges, having supportive relationships can help them stay optimistic and focused on their goals. These relationships can provide a source of motivation and encouragement, even in the face of adversity. Schools can help students learn to build and maintain supportive relationships, which can serve as a foundation of resilience throughout their lives.

Improved behaviour and attitude to learning

Positive relationships can also have a significant impact on student behaviour and attitude to learning. When students feel connected, respected, and valued by their teachers, they're more likely to behave positively in the classroom. They may also feel more motivated to learn and engage with class material. By prioritising positive relationships in our classrooms, we can create an environment where students feel safe, supported and able to engage.

Amplifying other strategies for developing school wellbeing

Positive relationships are the foundation of any approach to developing school mental health, research from Positive Education; the wellbeing science of positive psychology in education, tells us that positive and coaching-based relationships amplify the impact of any other strategies for developing positive mental health.

Positive student-teacher relationships

Positive relationships between students and teachers are critical for student success. When a young person feels connected to their teacher, they're more likely to be engaged in learning and feel supported in their academic journey. Research shows that when students have positive relationships with their teachers, they are more motivated, have higher self-esteem, and achieve better academically. Schools can strive to build positive relationships with our students by actively listening, showing empathy, and providing support and guidance. By doing so, we can create an environment that fosters academic success and wellbeing for all.

Impact of Positive Relationships at School

One of our Wellbeing Club Member schools Parkwood E-ACT academy have been developing wellbeing for the last three years. The development of positive relationships is the foundation of their whole school approach to mental health.

Hollie Hobson Wellbeing Officer and SMHL shares how she has used the Wellbeing Club programme to lead staff training that developed active listening, restorative approaches and coaching approaches to develop student wellbeing.

"I went through active listening, it is my absolute favourite CPD for staff. Our language is so important at the moment, and we are clearly having issues with students and language because we aren't having that positive response sometimes. And that doesn't mean being lenient, and it doesn't mean being soft. But it means being direct with exactly what you're saying being very clear. And in every single thing we do, whether it's reintegration meetings, whether it's following consequences, whether it's dealing with a student in crisis, our language is so important for that change in that student. And it's really important to be consistent, and fair. So we really focus on that training that you gave around active listening".

"The amount of resources information you get, I've completely ran with that. And all I do is I watch the videos, I take the information or change it into some sort of CPD."

She then delivered the Active Listening CPD with all middle leaders who work directly in pastoral roles with students.

She describes how training in active listening has supported the improvement of positive student-teacher relationships

"A poor relationship is the first thing to break down is a sticking point..., a lot of kids come into my session to say, this teacher is picking on me. And then like when we break it down, it's their interpretation that situation when they're being challenged. So it's a relationship challenge as well."

And how staff have invested time in building personal relationships with pupils that are supporting improved behaviour and wellbeing

"Our staff are really good at saying I'll come and talk to that child...because really important to build that [relationship] back up and realise that being that or having consequences isn't a personal attack, it's part of life."

This is having a positive impact on staff wellbeing and workload as behaviour issues are addressed through proactive and restorative approaches

"For staff, I think it's more like empathy. And it helps with communication, which I think right now, like I say, back to the amount of stress and workload and difficulty Ofsted, things like that, it can feel a lot like you're on your own. So by utilising the training or talking about relationships and understanding that positive relationships can make a change and make your life slightly easier as well. Because it takes away that conflict. I think the problem at the moment is so much conflict in the world, that you constantly feel like sometimes you feel these kids are in fight or flight all the time. And they're just ready for that [conflict]. And having that positive relationship and listen to what the students going through. It really helps."

Strategies for Cultivating Positive Relationships

So, how can we work to cultivate positive relationships in our schools? Here are a few strategies to consider:

Encourage open communication

Create a safe and supportive environment where young people feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings. Ensure that students know they can come to you if they need support or just someone to talk to.

Lead by example

Model positive relationship skills, such as active listening, empathy, and respect. Students are more likely to adopt these behaviours when they see them demonstrated by their teachers and other adults in their lives.

Promote teamwork and collaboration

Encourage students to work together and support one another. This can be done through group projects, peer mentoring programs, or simply creating opportunities for students to interact outside of class.

Provide support

Be there for your students when they need it most. Whether it's dealing with personal issues, academic struggles, or just needing a listening ear, being a supportive figure in a young person's life can make all the difference.

Acknowledge and celebrate successes

Recognise and celebrate when students excel academically, socially, or emotionally. This can help strengthen their self-esteem and foster a positive relationship with their teachers.

Clear and consistent language

As highlighted by Hollie Hobson, using clear and consistent language is crucial in building positive relationships with students. This means being direct, yet fair and empathetic in our communication.

Foster a restorative approach

Utilise restorative approaches to conflict resolution and behaviour management. This involves creating opportunities for students to repair harm done when conflicts arise, rather than resorting to punishment, dentations and punitive acts.

Using coaching approaches

Adopt coaching approaches to support student wellbeing and success. This involves empowering students, helping them set goals, and providing guidance and feedback along the way.

Invest in staff professional development

It is important to continuously invest in staff professional development. This could include attending training sessions on active listening, restorative practices, or coaching techniques to improve our relationship-building skills with students.

By implementing these strategies, we can create an inclusive and supportive learning environment where positive relationships between students and teachers can flourish.

Our Wellbeing Club programme provides a library of train-the-trainer training and resources that support the development of school mental health and wellbeing for students and staff, one staff member accesses the training and then can share the training with colleagues and the whole school community, this makes professional development affordable, sustainable and fits the needs of your school community.

Peer-to-peer positive relationships

In addition to building positive relationships with adults, peer-to-peer relationships can also play a crucial role in supporting young people's mental health. Encouraging students to support and look out for one another can help create a sense of community and promote empathy and understanding among students.

Our Wellbeing Ambassadors programme provides tools and resources that support schools to lead peer-to-peer interventions that promote positive wellbeing.

Staff and Teacher Positive Relationships

Positive relationships among staff and teachers are also crucial for creating a supportive school community. When colleagues have strong, positive relationships, they can better support one another and work together to create a positive learning environment for students and reduce staff or teacher stress. Schools can foster these relationships by providing opportunities for staff to connect and collaborate, such as through team-building exercises or staff social events.

Our Staff Wellbeing Toolkit shares training and resources into how to develop staff and teacher relationships essential to support staff wellbeing and resilience.

Prioritising positive relationships

In conclusion, positive relationships are essential for young people's mental health at school. By prioritising relationship-building and using coaching-based approaches you not only reduce behaviour issues you build interactions that facilitate wellbeing.

By building a culture of inclusivity and support in our classrooms, encouraging participation in school activities, and prioritizing relationship-building, you can help students feel more connected, resilient, and capable of achieving their goals. With this foundation of positive relationships, our young people will be better equipped to face the challenges of life with confidence and optimism.

To find out more about our whole school approaches to developing wellbeing access our free Introduction to School Wellbeing webinar.

To learn how to plan, develop and embed your whole school approach to mental health and wellbeing join Wellbeing Club.

There is also an extended example from the case study School Parkwood E-ACT mentioned in this article, in our Wellbeing Club programme along with examples of effective practice from other schools, tools, resources, ongoing CPD and expert school wellbeing consultancy.

References

Hinze, et.al, (2023) Student- and School-Level Factors Associated With Mental Health and Well-Being in Early Adolescence, Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry

Roffey, S. (ed) 2012 Positive Relationships:  Evidence Based Practice Across the World.  Springer

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