Supportive Relationships: The Key to Student Success

By Butler Knight, Ed.S.

November/December 2010 Link Lines

Lack of adequate, ongoing relationships with caring and interested adults during late childhood through the adolescent years is a significant contributing factor to problem behaviors in youth.  Unfortunately, many of the students who most need caring and supportive relationships have histories of abuse and neglect that limit their ability to successfully internalize the care and support that adults offer (Mihalas, Morse, Allsopp, & McHatton, 2009).  Despite their seeming disregard for adult caring and support, these students report a desire to know their teachers and have their teachers know them (Whitney, Leonard, Leonard, Camelio, & Camelio, 2005). 

Teachers’ beliefs and expectations influence the quality of their relationships with students in both positive and negative ways.  For example, teachers frequently disengage from students during the middle school years, providing less emotional support based on the belief that students’ developmental desire for independence translates as a diminished need for a close and caring relationship with teachers (Mihalas et al., 2009). 

What would happen if, instead, teachers interpreted student resistance as an early warning signal of disengagement and subsequently enacted proactive and decisive interventions that enhanced a personal connection with a struggling student?  Most likely, such efforts would result in motivated rather than angry and disillusioned students.  Most important, when teachers commit to helping students, students learn that working hard, persisting, and accepting teacher feedback lead to success (Reeves, 2006).           

Lehr, Johnson, Bremer, Cosio, and Thompson (2004) identified the following key interventions designed to increase engagement and school completion for middle school youth with learning and emotional/behavioral disabilities:

  • Persistence plus (maintaining a focus on student progress and engagement with school; recognizing and attending to student needs across years via an adult connected to the student; consistency in delivery of the message from adults to students to do the work, attend classes, be on time, express frustration in an effective manner, and stay in school);
  • Monitoring (targeting the occurrence of risk behaviors through regular data collection);
  • Affiliation (fostering students’ connections to school and sense of belonging to the school community); and
  • Enhancing problem-solving skills (developing students’ capacity to solve problems in order to meet the demands of the school environment).

Let’s look at an example of how this can play out in real life with real students.

Ruth is a job coach who has worked with students with disabilities from elementary through high school for more than 25 years.  She works with a team of other job coaches, who provide daily on-the-job support to students who are learning the social skills and job skills necessary for successful employment.

I arrived early the morning of our scheduled meeting only to find this petite 4’ 10” feather-weight standing up to a 6’ 2” former football player, insisting that he follow the agreed-upon procedure for putting on his uniform and lining up to get on the van.  Ruth calmly reviewed the procedure, maintained eye contact with the student, reminded him of the appropriate social distance and better use of personal power, and insisted he follow through with the directions and procedures.  Ruth also acknowledged the student for his eventual compliance with the directions and procedures, and then reminded him that the employer would be reviewing the daily progress report for his use of problem-solving skills later that day. 

Ruth informed me that, unlike many of their students, Joe had just begun to work with their staff.  She and the rest of the staff were creating the continuity and consistency of expectations and procedures necessary for him to learn the job skills, but not without challenges.  In her work with students, Ruth imagines that students show up with an invisible contract that defines what they expect of her as their coach.  She believes that each of them wants her to teach them appropriate behaviors in a safe, predictable environment.  She recognizes that these invisible contracts have been broken countless times by others and that the students will be testing her to see if she is going to uphold her end of the deal.  In addition, she recognizes that teachers and other adults with whom students come into contact face many distractions and conflicting demands that can interfere with their ability to fulfill the invisible contract.  For this reason, she monitors her affect and communications to ensure they are clear, congruent, and kind.  

Lastly, she employs the Two-by-Ten Strategy to help her abide by the contract.  That is, Ruth devotes two minutes a day for 10 days in a row to having an individual, personal conversation with her targeted student about any subject he or she initiates as long as it is G-rated (Smith & Lambert, 2008). Not only does this create a positive and personal connection with the student, it also improves the behavior and attitudes of all students.  Ruth remarked, “This strategy has a way of changing the student’s anticipation of negative interactions and consequences into a mutual trust in the invisible contract.”

What are the contents of the invisible contracts your students bring into the classroom?  Spend two minutes a day over the next 10 days finding out more about the agreements they live by and conveying your genuine interest in their lives.  Explore additional resources and strategies to strengthen supportive relationships with students available at the following websites.

Online Resources to Explore

For more information on proactive behavior strategies, go to:

For more information on social emotional learning within the classroom, go to:


Lehr, C., Johnson, D., Bremer, C., Cosio, A., & Thompson, M.  (2004). Essential tools: Increasing rates of school completion: Moving from policy and research to practice.  A manual for policy makers, administrators, and educators. Minneapolis, MN: ICI Publications. Retrieved from

Mihalas, S., Morse, W., Allsopp, D., & McHatton, P. (2009). Cultivating caring relationships between teachers and secondary students with emotional and behavioral disorders:  Implications for research and practice. Remedial and Special Education, 30(2), 108-125.

Reeves, D. B. (2006). Leading to change: Preventing 1,000 failures. Educational Leadership, 64, 88-89.

Smith, R., & Lambert, M. (2008).  Assuming the best. Educational Leadership, 66, 16-20.

Whitney, J., Leonard, M., Leonard, W., Camelio, M., & Camelio, V. (2005). Seek balance, connect with others, and reach all students: High school students describe a moral imperative for teachers. High School Journal, 89(2), 29-38.