Improving Student-Teacher Relationships

Is there a universal way of improving relationships between teachers and students?

Every teacher wants a healthy, positive and dynamic classroom climate where students are engaged and everyone ‘gets on’.

Cited in the Best Evidence in Brief from the Center for Research and Reform in Education, comes this interesting question:

What strategies help teachers get along with students? Qiyang Zhang at Johns Hopkins University notes,

“Amicable student-teacher relationships (STRs) contribute to students’ cognitive, social, and emotional development. In order to facilitate positive STRs, it is important to understand effective practices from past rigorous studies. A recent meta-analysis , published in Review of Educational Research , aims to identify the most effective and the most common practice elements for school- and class-wide STR programs.”

Laurie Kincade, Clayton Cook and Annie Goerdt in Meta-Analysis and Common Practice Elements of Universal Approaches to Improving Student-Teacher Relationships talk about past research showing STRs being  associated with student outcomes, including improvements in academic achievement and engagement and reductions in disruptive behaviours, suspension, and risk of dropping out.

They say that schools can support STRs universally and systematically by implementing universal, school-wide, and class-wide programs and practices that aim to facilitate high-quality STRs.

Their study applied meta-analytic and common element procedures to determine effect sizes and specific practices of universal approaches to improving STRs. They found universal programs with the largest effects were Establish-Maintain-Restore (ES=+0.64) and BRIDGE (ES=+0.65).

Let’s take a closer look.

Establish-Maintain-Restore (EMR)

An effective way to build positive relationships with students is the Establish-Maintain-Restore (EMR) method.

The goal of EMR is to build and maintain positive relationships with all students, and to focus intentionally on those students who may be most difficult for you to connect with.

The EMR strategy is therefore a specific framework for understanding the teacher-to-student relationship in three dimensions:

1. Establishing the relationship through positive interactions. When a teacher establishes relationships with all students, they feel connected, safe, and respected.


  • Spend time with students, show them you care
  • Four at the door (eye-eye, name-name-, hand-hand, heart-heart)
  • Random acts of kindness
  • Celebrate achievements and provide school-wide acknowledgments; catch your students being good!
  • Ask questions-find out their interests

2. Maintaining the relationships with continued support and encouragement. Research shows that we need to keep on top of things otherwise the quality of our relationships can diminish over time. Quite simply, people take one another for granted and can ignore good behaviours.


  • 5:1 positive to negative corrections (high-fives, pats on the back, verbal praise, thumbs up etc.)
  • Empathize with students when implementing a consequence: “I know you really enjoy hanging out with your friends but talking in class makes you fall behind on your work, if you continue to talk during class I will have to move your seat”
  • Positive notes home
  • Positive words/compliments
  • Identifying specific times to deliver praise

3. Restoring the relationship following episodes of teacher-student conflict. The aim of this phase is to intentionally repair any harm to the relationship once there has been a negative interaction between the teacher and student.


  • Meet with student privately
  • Ask for a do-over and or take responsibility
  • Engage in effective communication and tell them you care
  • Forgive the student and or ask for forgiveness when necessary

Cook et al (2019) found in their study that “the EMR method was associated with significant improvements in teacher-reported teacher–student relationships as well as improvements in observed indices of students’ classroom behaviour (academic engaged time and disruptive behaviour).”

What’s involved? Well, here’s a very handy menu of EMR practices and this helps to get a flavour of the types of things you might say and do in situations.

Is it all sunshine and rainbows?

Of course not. The report Improving behaviour in schools reminds us, “Universal behaviour systems are unlikely to meet the needs of all your students.”

Finding the shoe that fits might sound a bit fairy tale but the Cinderella approach to behaviour is to focus on what works for the individual.

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