Relational Teaching Approaches to Boost Student Engagement

There is a growing disparity in academic achievement between boys and girls—with boys, specifically boys of color, underachieving. In response to this widening gap, Michael Reichert and Richard Hawley (2013) studied relational teaching approaches and found that positive relationships between students and teachers ended obstructive, resistant behavior and increased student engagement and willingness to complete assigned tasks. Through their work and countless interviews with students (boys in particular) nationally and internationally, they found certain relational gestures that the most effective teachers had implemented. Many of those gestures, which we’ll outline below, are illustrated in this teacher’s brief example:

This student was mainstreamed into my English/Reading class. He was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder and he was very high-functioning academically. I took an interest in his hobbies, such as collecting Pokémon figures, to help forge a relationship with him. When he did independent research, he chose the question “Why are Black Holes Important?” A subject I knew little about. I researched this topic on my own, but allowed him to become the teacher and further elaborate and give insights on his research. Throughout the process, I gave him specific positive feedback on aspects of his research, while maintaining an interest in his hobbies. I asked a friend, a physicist, to be a second reader for his research paper, which was outstanding. The next school year he would always say hi to me in the hall, which he didn’t readily do with others. I won’t forget him. I’m sure I learned as much from him as he did from me.

The teacher above understood the value of the relationship with her students, and she employed numerous strategies in this scenario to utilize the relationship as an important educational tool. For example:

Reaching out—often improvising measures to meet a particular student’s need. She went out of her way to connect the student to an expert in his area of interest.

Demonstrating mastery of her subjects. Her expertise was writing, so she stayed focused on feedback related to the mechanics of the paper, while allowing the student to be the “expert” on the subject matter.

Maintaining high standards for both work and conduct. The fact that this student had an identified disability did not alter the high expectations this teacher held for him.

Responding to a student’s personal interest or talent. She allowed for a choice of subject matter aligned with student interest and showed curiosity about that topic.

Sharing a common interest with a student. She valued the interests of the student by asking questions and connecting in conversation with the student about his hobbies.

Sharing a common characteristic with a student. In this case, there was mutual respect and curiosity.

Accommodating a measure of opposition (resisting the temptation to personalize oppositional behavior, and responding with restraint and civility). She allowed the student to reach out on his own terms, according to his own readiness.

Revealing vulnerability. The teacher acknowledged that she didn’t know everything and thus sought help from an expert source.

Other research analysis shows that girls surpass boys in nearly every measure of academic success, yet they consistently report higher levels of psychological stress than boys, have stronger reactions to stress than boys, and have higher rates of depression, eating disorders, and other clinical disorders (Colarossi and Eccles, 2003; Grant et al., 2006; Jackson & Warren, 2000; Licitra-Kleckler & Waas, 1993; Pomerantz, Altermatt, & Saxon, 2002; Rudolph, 2002; Sontag, Graber, Brooks-Gunn, & Warren, 2008; Wenz-Gross, Siperstein, Untch, & Widaman, 1997; Zahn-Waxler, Shirtcliff, & Marceau, 2008).

The Center for Research on Girls has released preliminary results of their study titled 21st Century Athenas: Aligning Achievement and Well-Being, in which they set out to understand the unique challenges adolescent girls face and how relationships, stress, and other relevant factors contribute to well-being and success for girls. One of the significant findings was that “high-quality, close relationships with significant others are related to higher levels of well-being” (Liang & Spencer, 2013). So for boys as well as for girls, a strong, supportive relationship with a helping adult is a significant contributor not only to success but also to well-being.

As we mentioned earlier, the responsibility to develop, monitor, and maintain the helping adult-adolescent alliance falls on the adult. Teens are still developing their relational skills and are in need of strong role models and guides in this process. The specific tasks of any educator in maintaining a working alliance include the following (Rogers, 2009):

Serve as the expert who will guide learning. As such, a teacher orients, teaches with passion and curiosity for the subject matter, and recognizes and makes adjustments when learning objectives are not being met.

Maintain an awareness of the quality of the relationship. It is the teacher’s task to notice if a student who previously participated has shut down, and to discreetly share that observation with the student outside of class.

Address and repair strains or ruptures in the relationship. Teachers should listen to feedback, apologize when necessary, and thank students for honest communication. Additional studies discuss the impact of the student-teacher relationship on “student well-being” and “teacher well-being.”

The implications of increased well-being of both students and educators are enormous: decreased anxiety, depression, and stress-related aggression, and increased feelings of gratification, calm, and overall happiness. This may sound overstated, but we believe that if we all strive for improved relationships in our work with adolescents, the world will truly be a better place.

For more information, check out What Works With Teens.


Colarossi, L. G., & Eccles, J. S. (2003). Differential effects of support providers on adolescents’ mental health. Social Work Research, 27(1), 19–30.

Grant, K. E., Compas, B. E., Thurm, A. E., McMahon, S. D., Gipson, P. Y., Campbell, A. J., & Westerholm, R. I. (2006). Stressors and child and adolescent psychopathology: Evidence of moderating and mediating effects. Clinical Psychology Review, 26(3), 257–283.

Jackson, Y., & Warren, J. S. (2000). Appraisal, social support, and life events: Predicting outcome behavior in school-age children. Child Development, 71(5), 1441–1457.

Liang, B., & Spencer, R. (2013). 21st century Athenas: Aligning achievement and well-being. Series of independent research and information publications by the Center for Research on Girls and the Laurel School. Retrieved from

Licitra-Kleckler, D. M., & Waas, G. A. (1993). Perceived social support among high-stress adolescents: The role of peers and family. Journal of Adolescent Research, 8(4), 381–402.

Reichert, M., & Hawley, R. (2013). Relationships play primary role in boy’s learning. Phi Delta Kappan Magazine, 94(8), 49–53.Pomerantz, Altermatt, & Saxon, 2002;

Rogers, D. T. (2009). The working alliance in teaching and learning: Theoretical clarity and research implications. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 3(2). Article 28.

Rudolph, K. D. (2002). Gender differences in emotional responses to interpersonal stress during adolescence. Journal of Adolescent Health, 30(4), 3–13.

Sontag, L. M., Graber, J. A., Brooks-Gunn, J., & Warren, M. P. (2008). Coping with social stress: Implications for psychopathology in young adolescent girls. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 36(8), 1159–1174.

Wenz-Gross, M., Siperstein, G. N., Untch, A. S., & Widaman, K. F. (1997). Stress, social support, and adjustment of adolescents in middle school. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 17(2), 129–151.

Zahn-Waxler, C., Shirtcliff, E. A., & Marceau, K. (2008). Disorders of childhood and adolescence: Gender and psychopathology. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 4, 275–303.

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