How might we prioritize the investment of stimulus dollars to promote and improve relationships?

By Devin Vodicka 

Photo by Rebecca Zaal on

We know from experience and from the research that strong relationships are foundational for student success.  Consider this excerpt from a recent paper that I was fortunate to co-author along with Kristin Gagnier (Director of Dissemination, Education, and Translation at the Science of Learning Institute at Johns Hopkins University) and Sabba Quidwai (education researcher and host of the Sprint to Success with Design Thinking podcast):

High-quality relationships between students and teachers, and students and their peers, have academic and social benefits. Positive emotional states that spark interest, engagement, excitement, and positive emotional relationships, that involve trust, value, and empathy, allow for learning. Students of all ages flourish when their teachers are responsive to their needs, emotionally supportive, and set high expectations for all students. Students learn, perform best, and develop skills and confidence when their educational experiences provide high support to foster engagement, show them they belong and are valued, and are culturally sensitive to the students’ experiences and needs. Feeling connected, valued, and respected by peers is equally important for students’ sense of belonging and engagement in school. Being supported and valued engenders feelings of physical and emotional security, which benefits learning. Emotionally supportive and trustworthy relationships can buffer against the impacts of adversity and trauma (such as violence, crime, abuse, psychological trauma, homelessness, racism, food, and housing insecurity). Negative emotions, such as anxiety, lack of confidence, fear, and negative relationships, that involve coercion and punishment, reduce one’s capacity to learn.

The need for strong relationships is even more pronounced now that we are seeing an end in sight to the isolation and multi-layered challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.  During this past year of social distancing, families and students have exercised agency and explored new options, leading to unprecedented enrollment declines, doubling of home-school population, and the rise of innovative options such as “pandemic pods.” While there is no doubt that academic achievement is a central concern as we emerge out of the pandemic, I wonder if any amount of “high dose tutoring” will be sufficient to address the profound need for human connection. How might we re-orient our thinking to place relationships as the central challenge and opportunity for the post-pandemic era? 

By the way, I should also be clear that we in education sometimes fall prey to a false dichotomy that presents academic achievement and social development as mutually exclusive.  As indicated in the research, high-quality relationships contribute to positive academic outcomes.  Instead of seeing these are competing priorities, a more helpful view would position relationships as foundational to develop knowledge and expertise.  This perspective is reinforced by the research that demonstrates how relationships contribute to feelings of safety and security which are also known to be preconditions for cognitive development.  With this more appropriate framing, we should approach the opportunity of improving relationships as a prerequisite for academic achievement.  

The first step in reframing relationships as a primary focus of our efforts is to clearly identify and communicate an expanded view of student success.  Based on the research that we’ve conducted, I have synthesized our desired outcomes into an Impact Framework that includes agency, collaboration, and problem solving.  Collaboration includes empathy, respect, understanding, and other critical skills that cultivate positive relationships. I also believe that these outcome frameworks must be locally adapted to contextualize the most important outcomes in a given learning community.  The key here is to use research and local input to develop a model that provides clear guidance to students, staff, and to the community. 

In addition to clearly articulating the current desired outcomes for students – which inevitably include social dimensions and a greater emphasis on relationships than industrial age metrics such as seat time – we as adults must embrace similar aspirations for ourselves.  Focusing our leadership efforts on developing strong relationships with our professional colleagues creates the conditions for students to thrive.  

We took that approach while I was Superintendent in Vista Unified School District.  We set improved relationships (aligned with our district value of collaboration) as one of the key organizational goals.  We then partnered with UC San Diego to study the patterns of our interactions and conduct surveys that provided us with diagnostic information to guide improvement efforts.  

In partnership with the Arcadia Unified School District and again with UC San Diego, we extended this approach over a multi-year project called Better Together. In addition to using data to inform improvements, the study yielded some incredible findings:

  • Overall, it appears that students’ trust in their educators (principal and teacher trust) has the highest average association with all areas that together make up the student’s school experience.
  • Parallel to the findings in the student survey data, the results show that principal trust has the highest overall association with areas that together make up the teacher’s daily experiences in their work, including collaboration between teachers, communication with parents, instructional practices, and equity beliefs.

The research clearly reinforces what we often know through intuition: relationships are important for all of us. Establishing clear learning outcomes tied to the social dimensions of our development is imperative and then we must model the competencies that we aspire to see in our students. 

We should approach the task of building relationships with urgency, clarity, and with an orientation to continuous improvement.  That will require us to first clearly define our whole-child learning outcomes and then develop comprehensive measurement systems that align with our aspirations.  For examples of systems that are engaging in this process, check out Logan County Schools in Kentucky, Menlo Park City School District in California, and South Kitsap School District in Washington.  

In addition to measuring what matters for students, we as adults must model the way. Leading for relational trust through consistency, compassion, competence, and communication is imperative. 

Before we spend all of the stimulus funding on academic interventions, consider bringing your community together to define (or redefine) student success. Develop systems to measure what really matters for learners. Engage with partners to help you take a strategic and data-informed approach to developing better professional relationships. 

Relationships are at the heart of meaningful learning.  We can and must attend to the social dynamics of learning by providing opportunities for students to develop their emotional awareness and skills by providing a safe, secure environment that promotes interaction in pursuit of creative problem-solving and conflict resolution. 

Now is the time to align our actions and our systems with what we say that we value in education.  Let’s leverage the post-pandemic opportunities to elevate what makes us human by prioritizing relationships.  

Here are some additional resources that might help.

Check out the book Learner-Centered Leadership: A Blueprint for Transformational Change in learning Communities for more insights, reflections, and suggestions.

Use #LCLeadership to share your ideas

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