Helping Schools Thrive Through Positive Relationships | #cultureofwellbeingDGinset

This blog post is my contribution to the #cultureofwellbeingDGinset digital INSET day organised by the wonderful Clare Erasmus.

Relationships are in all aspects of our lives. I’m not talking just about romantic relationships, but all human connection and how we interact with others. If you look at various academic disciplines such as social and positive psychology, neuroscience, anthropology and sociology, you will find ample research to point to the importance of people in our lives. Human beings are wired for connection and empathy. In the excellent 3rd chapter (‘Broken hearts and broken legs’) of his brilliant book ‘Social: Why our brains are wired to connect’, Matthew Lieberman describes social pain:  The same parts of our brain are activated when we feel socially excluded as when we feel physical pain. In his poignant TEDx talk, Robert Waldringer highlights the importance of human connection, and specifically the quality of our relationships, to our health and even how long we live!  

If good relationships are so important to our lives, it stands to reason we need to have positive relationships in the environment we spend most of our time in (e.g. teachers, pupils and non-teaching staff need to be in a school environment that promotes positive relationships). The path to positive relationships doesn’t, however, always run smooth! Tajfel and Turner’s social identity theory (SIT) stipulates that we define ourselves and where we belong in society by the groups we belong to, and our social identity is strengthened if we perceive the in-groups we belong to as being superior to other, out-groups. In a school environment, as any other environment with multiple in- and out-groups, this therefore means that positive relationships take a little bit of work.

Let’s look in a bit more detail at why having positive relationships is so important, and how we can improve the quality of relationships within the context of education / schools.

Why is it important to have positive relationships, especially in a school context?

According to Sue Roffey's ‘Developing positive relationships in schools’ chapter in the ‘Positive Relationships: Evidence Based Practice across the World’ book, it is important to the promotion of psychological health for schools to provide an environment that includes strong links to the wider community as well as “connectedness and caring relationships between all stakeholders” (p. 147).  You can also read Sue's excellent #cultureofwellbeingDGinset blog about Social Capital in schools, here

There is extensive research supporting the importance of peer relationships in school in order for pupils to have good physical and mental health, do better academically, be more engaged in their learning, turn up at school, and progress to having positive and successful relationships as adults. According to Helen McGrath, having school strategies in place to reinforce relationships between teachers, between pupils, and between teachers and pupils, can reduce bullying. Additionally, a group of researchers (Reynolds, Lee, Tuner, Bromhead, and Subasic, 2017) found that the strongest impact on academic results comes from having a sense of group belonging, for example to a school community. They describe this as “fundamental to academic success” (p 92), and whilst this digital INSET is about wellbeing, the case for working on positive relationships in schools is even stronger when you consider that it has such a positive impact on wellbeing AND academic achievement (and if I were to take a cynical view, I’d add that the latter is more likely to satisfy Ofsted inspectors!). I won’t go on and on about all the research, but there is plenty of it, and if you’re interested in finding out more, please get in touch and I’ll be happy to point you to more sources. Suffice it to say, there is ample evidence to support that positive relationships in a school environment have a positive effect on critical thinking, self-esteem, well-being, school attendance and participation, and more. There is also evidence to support that when schools focus on relationships, teachers also benefit from increased performance and motivation.

So, how do we put more focus on relationships within the school culture?

In mine and Elizabeth Wright’s (also a #cultureofwellbeingDGinset blog contributor) book ‘Character Toolkit for Teachers: 100+ classroom and whole school activities for 5-11 year olds’, due to be published by JKP in May, we have dedicated a full chapter to activities to promote positive relationships, so this blog post would be far too long if I were to go into all of them in detail. I’d like to give you some food for thought though, so you can come away from my #cultureofwellbeingDGinset slot with some practical ideas to implement in your school.

First of all, think about your own interactions with others.  Do you smile?  Do you make time for conversations?  Do you listen with an open heart and an open mind? Then, open up your thinking to all the different settings and contexts in a school where you can influence the quality of relationships, such as the classroom itself, 1-2-1 work with pupils, CPD/INSET sessions (Elizabeth and I can help with that), and whole school activities. Consider activities such as walls of gratitude where pupils, staff and parents can display gratitudes (general life, daily events, and people-related ones), encouraging pupils and staff to write each other gratitude letters, making time for and encouraging acts of kindness, having days when everyone is encouraged to smile more, or make eye contact with everyone, etc. You can also take inspiration from some great initiatives that have been implemented all over the world. Here are a few examples (get the tissues ready!):

Human Library

Seeds of Empathy

‘All that we share’ (Danish TV Advert)

‘Worlds Apart’ (Heineken Advert)

Eye Contact Experiment

I want to leave you with this thought: At the heart of positive human connection lies love. Not romantic love, not attachment, but pure love that can happen in the briefest of moments between strangers, as well as with the people you care about the most. In her fantastic book ‘Love 2.0: Creating Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection’, Barbara Fredrickson takes a scientific look at love. She describes love as “that micro-moment of warmth and connection” shared with another person, and as “our supreme emotion that makes us come most fully alive and feel most fully human…perhaps the most essential emotional experience for thriving and health” (p. 10).

Why wouldn’t we, therefore, want to ensure that schools are places where we make as many of these moments of connection happen as is humanly possible?

Frederika Roberts

FREDERIKA ROBERTS | HAPPINESS & RESILIENCE SPEAKER, LAUGHTER YOGA LEADER, AUTHOR |Frederika is a professional speaker and former President of the Yorkshire region for the Professional Speaking Association (PSA). Between them, Frederika's daughters have had 2 cardiac arrests, 3 open heart surgeries and countless hospital stays. Rather than letting this get her down, however, Frederika uses her experience, in addition to her skills gained through careers in teaching, recruitment and marketing, to help others overcome adversity, build resilience and lead happy lives. She has written a book, blogs for the Huffington Post, runs workshops and teaches Laughter Yoga.