Kevin F. McGrath

Five qualities of teachers who form close relationships with disruptive students

It is now well known to teachers and researchers alike that student-teacher relationships are powerfully predictive of social, behavioural, and academic success. Students who have positive relationships with their teachers are much more likely to enjoy school, to engage in academic work, and to be well behaved. Positive relationships with teachers can also protect students from peer rejection and from the effects of a negative child-parent relationship.

The unfortunate truth, however, is teachers often find some students harder to like than others.

Image adapted from a drawing provided by a disruptive boy in Year One. Source: McGrath, Van Bergen, & Sweller, 2017.

Let’s face it, some students drive teachers mad! Disruptive students can test even the best teachers’ classroom management skills, and can make those teachers feel far less effective than they actually are. They give teachers headaches, require constant discipline, and have an incredible talent for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Consequently, disruptive students are at risk of negative relationships with teachers – typically characterised in research as being relationships low in closeness and high in conflict.

For decades one thing has evaded researchers investigating student-teacher relationships: how do we support teachers to form close and supportive relationships with disruptive students? Despite challenging behaviour, and contrary to more general trends, some teachers and some disruptive students do report close relationships with one another. In our recent research, we wanted to know why. In doing so, we uncovered five qualities of teachers who were able to form close relationships with disruptive students.

1. Being reflective and forgiving

The teachers in our sample who formed close relationships with disruptive students spontaneously reflected on the causes of students’ disruptive behaviour. Hyperactivity, poor self-regulation, poor eyesight, speech difficulties, poor parenting practices to do with diet and sleep, and large class sizes were each provided as reasons for misbehaviour. Because those teachers often attributed the underlying causes of disruptive behaviour to things students had little control over, their reflections suggested that they were also more forgiving of those students.

Image adapted from a drawing provided by a disruptive boy in Kindergarten. Source: McGrath, Van Bergen, & Sweller, 2017.

Being reflective and forgiving are important skills for all teachers. Often, however, teachers need to react quickly to disruptive behaviour as it occurs. The frustration that follows these incidents, along with other pressures, such as high workloads, may distract teachers from thinking about why some students are so difficult. Although there is no easy answers, reflection time appears important not just for pedagogical planning but for relationship-building too.

2. Emotional perspective taking

While reflecting on misbehaviour, teachers who had close relationships with disruptive students also indicated a tendency to use emotional perspective taking. They put themselves into their students’ shoes to consider what their students were feeling and used that information to guide their responses to misbehaviour. They also were less likely to consider all disruptions intentional. For example, they spoke of students who were “unintentionally naughty”, who they had “a bit of a soft spot for”, who were “really genuinely sorry” when in trouble, and who were “loveable” despite having behaviour that was “maddening”.  

As a result of this perspective-taking, the teachers who had close relationships with disruptive students suggested that speaking calmly to disruptive students was a more effective strategy than yelling at them in front of other students. This way students may be more likely to feel heard and understood, and less likely to feel angry, ashamed, or humiliated.

3. Emotional regulation

To calmly speak to disruptive students, especially if they’re behaving in unsafe ways, is far from easy. It is perhaps not surprising that the teachers in our sample who formed close relationships with disruptive students also tended to show superior emotional regulation themselves.

For the teachers in our sample, such emotional regulation sometimes meant hiding their true feelings, and at other times it meant reducing the intensity of their emotional displays. Such emotional regulation can be exhausting, however, placing teachers who work with disruptive students at risk of burnout. For teachers to manage these challenging situations effectively, it is critical that emotional support is offered to both teacher and student.

4. Empathy

A common theme raised by teachers who experienced close relationships with disruptive students was that of students’ home lives and of the difficulties students had to endure outside of the school gates. These responses typically combined being reflective, using emotional perspective taking, and regulating their own emotions, and enabled teachers to express empathy and share the feelings of their students. This was particularly true for teachers who described being able to relate to a disruptive student either because they themselves had a difficult upbringing, or because they were a parent.

5. Making referrals

In addition to being reflective and applying their own emotional skills, the teachers in our study who experienced close relationships with disruptive students also discussed referring their students to other experts in order to better understand and support those students.

These other experts included school counsellors, optometrists, occupational therapists, and otolaryngologists. The teachers who discussed making such referrals also had more years of teaching experience, so were perhaps also more knowledgeable about potential impairments and difficulties. Importantly, this problem-solving approach framed the disruptive behaviour encountered in the classroom as both separate from the student, and fixable.

It is not a ‘secret recipe’

It is possible for disruptive students to benefit from close, supportive relationships with teachers, and we now have insights as to why. Close relationships appear particularly likely to form when teachers are reflective, use perspective taking, regulate their own emotions effectively, show empathy, and make referrals to other experts.

Of course, the qualities described above may not be a complete recipe for building close relationships with disruptive students. There are other qualities that may support relational closeness too. In addition, these qualities may not be a secret recipe. Such qualities come naturally to some teachers, who already use them successfully in the classroom. For other teachers, however, we recommend that these five qualities be considered in teacher education training and professional development. For teachers who are willing to invest in close relationships with disruptive students, the benefits for both teacher and student are tremendous.

Here is our full paper Attributions and emotional competence: why some teachers experience close relationships with disruptive students (and others don’t)

Kevin F. McGrath is a Tertiary Supervisor and associate member of the Centre for Children’s Learning in a Social World at Macquarie University, and a Research and Evaluation Officer for the NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors. After working as a primary school teacher in Sydney, he completed a PhD in Education in 2016 at Macquarie University, where he received an Excellence in Higher Degree Research award and Vice Chancellor’s Commendation. His research interests include gender and education, disruptive student behaviour, and the student-teacher relationship.

Penny Van Bergen is an Associate Professor of Educational Psychology in the Department of Educational Studies at Macquarie University. She is Director of the Faculty of Human Sciences’ Centre for Children’s Learning in a Social World. Penny’s research focuses on children’s development of memory and emotion skills in social contexts. She studies how parents and families reminisce with children about the past, how children use emotion and perspective-taking skills when working with others, and how group-work in schools and universities may facilitate learning. Penny is particularly interested in children’s relationships with teachers, parents, and peers, and in mapping the kinds of social interactions that best facilitate learning and development. Her work has been featured in several media outlets (e.g. The Conversation, The Sun Herald, The Sydney Morning Herald, Sunrise, and the US-based “Parents” magazine).