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Better Student Relationships
February 11, 2016 | Volume 11 | Issue 11
Table of Contents
A Relational Bank Account That Pays Dividends
Christopher Pugliese and Eran Magen
"Well, I said to her, 'You know, kids don't learn from people they don't like'"
–Rita Pierson, legendary educator
Every student has a "bank" of relationships, with an "account" for every teacher the student interacts with. The balance in your relational account with a student represents the amount of goodwill that the student has toward you—or, put differently, the extent to which the student will inconvenience him- or herself to cooperate with you.
When you ask a student to do something he or she would not naturally do (for example, asking a hesitant student to offer an answer, or asking a student who is inspired to sing in the middle of your lesson to work quietly), you are making a withdrawal from the relational account, because you are asking the student to do something that the student would prefer not to do. If your relational account balance is high, the student will cooperate willingly. If your relational account balance is low, the student may cooperate—reluctantly. If your relational account balance is insufficient, your request will be denied. The relational account balance also has other important interpersonal consequences, as illustrated in Table 1.
Table 1. Consequences of Relational Account Balance
The student is more likely to …
Keeping a High Balance
To have the best chance of receiving a student's cooperation, always maintain the highest possible relational account balance by making significantly more deposits than withdrawals (this strategy reflects the widely accepted notion that praise statements should exceed reprimands by a ratio of 4:1). Make as many deposits as you can, and minimize your withdrawals. When withdrawals are necessary, make them as small as possible, and quickly replenish your account balance with deposits.
Making relational deposits and withdrawals is fairly intuitive. You make relational deposits by being nice and respectful toward students—for example, by offering genuine praise for accomplishments and effort, giving thanks when due, asking for students' opinions, implementing their suggestions, and taking personal interest in students' lives. You make withdrawals whenever you ask a student to behave differently than they would naturally behave, which is often necessary. However, you make excessive withdrawals by being mean, sarcastic, or disrespectful—for example, by shouting, shaming, or regularly expressing disapproval (see Table 2 for examples).
Table 2. Examples of Relational Deposits and Withdrawals
Good morning, Andy!
Derek, I want you to focus on your work.
Derek, stop badgering Tanaya. Really, you're acting like a 4-year-old .
Yes, excellent answer.
Maheen, please put away your phone.
Maheen, put the phone away! What's wrong with you?
Priyanka, how did your game go last week?
Okay, everybody, let's settle down so we can start the movie.
If I have to wait much longer, we're going to have a quiz instead of a movie.
Thank you for putting everything away so quickly.
Shane, this was a very good try, but I think you can do even better. Please do it again, paying special attention to sign reversals.
Shane, you missed every single sign reversal. Were you even trying?
Which material do you want to review together, and which do you want to leave for homework?
When a student refuses to comply (in other words, if your relational account balance is too low for the withdrawal you are trying to make), you risk going into relational overdraft. You could try forcing the student to cooperate—for example, by threatening, bullying, or coercing—but the resulting compliance is toxic and counterproductive.
Consider how different this scenario plays out when you have a high relational account balance with the same student. In this case, the student will willingly (even eagerly) cooperate with you, will come to associate the behavior with a sense of being liked and respected (and therefore will continue performing it out of internal motivation), and your relationship with the student will be strengthened further when you acknowledge the student's cooperation with a compliment or an expression of gratitude.
Reaping Relationships in the Classroom
Putting this framework into practice requires using every opportunity to make relational deposits, being highly selective about when to make withdrawals, making the smallest withdrawals necessary to achieve your goal, and quickly replenishing relational accounts following a withdrawal. Learning to pay this kind of attention to relational dynamics while running a class can be challenging. That's why Upper Darby School District partners with the Center for Supportive Relationships to provide intensive real-time coaching for teachers, delivered during lessons through ear pieces and smart watches. Coaches help teachers identify opportunities for making relational deposits and suggest ways to minimize relational withdrawals, so that teachers can strengthen their relationships with students.
The relational bank account is a useful way of thinking about relationships—not just with students, but also with colleagues, spouses, parents, and friends. Maintaining a high relational account balance leads to smoother, more cooperative relationships, less conflict, less stress, and a greater sense of mutual respect and enjoyment. So go ahead, make a relational deposit. It's a dividend-paying investment.
Christopher Pugliese is director of pupil services at Pennsylvania's Upper Darby School District, a highly diverse district serving approximately 12,000 students from kindergarten through 12th grade. Eran Magen is scientific director at the Center for Supportive Relationships in San Mateo, Calif.
ASCD Express, Vol. 11, No. 11. Copyright 2016 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.
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