• By Morgan Craven, J.D. • IDRA Newsletter • May 2024 • Morgan Craven photo

There are many strategies that research tells us help create welcoming school climates for students, families and adults, including robust family engagement programs; inclusive curricula and instructional practices; and research-based social-emotional support and conflict resolution practices.

At the root of these strategies is a common thread: achieving welcoming school climates requires seeing the humanity in others and creating the conditions for growing deep and meaningful relationships between adults and students in a campus community.

One problem we see again and again that prevents some school leaders from effectively fostering cultures of care and prioritizing relationship building is the belief that doing so is disconnected from their bottom line – student learning and success – and, in some cases, that doing so is even counterproductive to those goals.

For example, I was speaking with a teacher recently who reflected on advice she was given on her first day of teaching: Don’t let the students see you smile. If you smile, you signal to them that you are soft, and they will take advantage of you.

This is ludicrous advice. A smile is not soft. A smile helps to build a bond. It demonstrates kindness and care and makes the harder things that happen to kids in school easier to bear. A smile is the seed of trusting relationships that are necessary for deep learning, for identifying opportunities to address needs, and for proactive school safety.

Teacher and staff training protocols, even informal ones, that do not center meaningful relationships (with appropriate boundaries) and instead promote cold, detached approaches to adult-student engagement run contrary to research about the importance of relationship building to student success and strong school climates.

Strong relationships between teachers and students contribute to better student academic and social engagement (Rimm-Kaufman & Sandilos, 2015).  A review of almost 50 studies related to teacher-student relationships, including longitudinal studies, found consistent evidence of the connection between these relationships and positive school and student outcomes across a number of measures, including academics and attendance (Quin, 2017).

Teachers who report having strong, positive relationships with their students are better able to support their students’ academic success (with effects that last over time). Their students are less likely to experience attendance challenges and more likely to engage in learning. (See Rimm-Kaufman & Sandilos, 2015)

By contrast, weaker relationships and high teacher-student conflict negatively impact academic achievement and contribute to poorer social skills and more behavior challenges (see Rimm-Kaufman & Sandilos, 2015).

One study found that by simply practicing empathy as part of relationship building, schools reduced the use of suspensions by half in one academic year (Okonofua, et al., 2016).

Strong relationships promote self-confidence and leadership. The type of teacher-student relationship matters for academic success and students’ future self-concept and leadership.

A 2018 study found that when teachers were trained to build deeper, reciprocal, multi-faceted relationships with their students (rather than one-dimensional, compliance-based relationships), students were better prepared to think independently and engage with teachers confidently. Deeper relationships fostered students’ confidence in their “inherent value as human beings and their agency over their educational (and life) experiences… prepar[ing] them to engage with authority figures, and to someday hold positions of authority themselves” (Theisen-Homer, 2018a).

And, as the researcher notes, when compliance-based relationships are emphasized by teachers in schools that serve communities of color (as they were in her study), schools run the risk of perpetuating a belief among students of color that their value is highly tied not to their own individual assets but to the degree to which they are able to behave and fall in line with the demands of school leaders (Theisen-Homer, 2018b).

Strong relationships contribute to holistic school safety. When we envision safe schools, we see schools that are not only safe from physical violence but that also provide safe conditions for students to thrive academically and socially.

We envision schools where students see themselves in the curricula and instructional practices, schools that have swift and immediate responses to bullying and harassment, and schools that emphasize authentic family engagement (Craven, 2022).

These research-based approaches to school safety center relationship building. With strong relationships: personal and interpersonal challenges are detected and addressed early (without the use of punitive discipline practices); physical safety threats are more likely to be leaked to an adult and investigated; and families can work with schools closely to protect students and help them to thrive.

The findings of this body of research around relationship building in schools are consistent with IDRA’s own research and observations over decades of implementing student and family leadership frameworks and teacher training programs: We know that meaningful relationships matter for creating the welcoming schools that support student learning and success (IDRA, 2024; Montemayor, 2014).

While in Atlanta recently, I had the opportunity to listen to nine incredible high school students who are part of the Atlanta Public Schools student advisory council. An audience member asked the students what advice they would give to the adults in the room who want to better support young people. Almost every student said that their advice was pretty simple: Just show a young person you care about them, even small actions can be life-changing because they lead to more meaningful relationships. Ask how their day is going and actually listen to the answer. Don’t make assumptions about their behavior and who they are as a person based on one bad day. And, if they ask for support actually help them identify and access it.

To know students is to love and support them: deep and meaningful relationships help us empathize with each other and achieve a shared vision for the safe and welcoming school climates that help students thrive.


Craven, M. (June 2022). What Safe Schools Should Look Like for Every Student A Guide to Building Safe and Welcoming Schools and Rejecting Policies that Hurt Students. IDRA.

IDRA. (2024). Educator and Student Support: Teaching Quality. IDRA webpage.

Montemayor, A M. (October 2014). Families and School Holding Power – Parent-Led Surveys Present Insights. IDRA Newsletter.

Okonofua, J., Paunesku, D., Walton, G.M. (April 2016). Brief Intervention to Encourage Empathic Discipline Cuts Suspension Rates in Half Among Adolescents. Psychological and Cognitive Sciences.

Quin, D. (April 2017). Longitudinal and Contextual Associations Between Teacher-Student Relationships and Student Engagement: A Systematic Review. Review of Educational Research.

Rimm-Kaufman, S., & Sandilos, L. (2015). Improving Students’ Relationships with Teachers to Provide Essential Supports for Learning: Applications of Psychological Science to Teaching and Learning Modules. American Psychological Association.

Thiesen-Homer, V. (2018a). How Can We Support More Empowering Teacher-Student Relationships? Education Week Blog.

Thiesen-Homer, V. (2018b). Teaching for Human Connection: Relationships, Race, and the Training of Teachers. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Morgan Craven, J.D., is the IDRA national director of policy, advocacy and community engagement. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at morgan.craven@idra.org.

See our issue brief: What Safe Schools Should Look Like for Every Student – A Guide to Building Safe and Welcoming Schools and Rejecting Policies that Hurt Students, by Morgan Craven, J.D.

When we envision safe schools, we see schools that are not only safe from physical violence but that also provide safe conditions for students to thrive academically and socially.

[© 2024, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the May edition of the IDRA Newsletter. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]