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Virginia Journal of Education

Keeping Them Afloat

How you support your students can make all the difference.


By Audrey Wittrup and Daniel Willingham

What do we think about most when look back on the teachers who had the most impact on us? Gallup may have an answer. When asked to describe the teacher who had the greatest impact on their lives, most American adults don’t choose words like “knowledgeable” or “demanding.” Rather, the most popular response was “caring.” Social support is undeniably one of the most important resources that we, as educators, have to offer our students. And such support offers more than just fond memories: Research has shown that caring and supportive relationships help students successfully tackle the challenges they face.

“No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship,” is the succinct way Dr. James Comer of the Yale Child Development Center, puts it.

Social support comes in a variety of forms and can range from overtly supportive expressions to more practical day-to-day support. It can happen for both students and entire classrooms, and it has been associated with a range of positive outcomes for students of all ages. At the individual level, teachers can make efforts to get to know their students personally and to acknowledge their academic contributions. At the classroom level, teachers can plan activities that foster a sense of community and communicate the real-world value of lessons and activities.

Social support is the sense of being helped, esteemed, and valued by others, a pivotal factor in confidence-building for young people. Psychologists typically refer to four types of supportive behaviors: emotional support (expressing caring and concern), appraisal support (providing evaluative feedback such as praise and encouragement), instrumental support (providing tangible aid such as financial help), and informational support (providing factual assistance such as advice or instruction on how to complete a task).

So, how can teachers develop the kind of student relationships that are characterized by trust, encouragement, and reassurance? We’ll attempt to answer that by looking at each of the four types of social support. Each is prompted by different actions on the part of the teacher and can have different benefits for the student.

Emotional support
Emotional support from teachers, researchers say, can promote students’ self-esteem and can also help combat negative outcomes such as depression and other mental health struggles. Perhaps the best and most direct way we can offer emotional support is by making a concerted effort to get to know each student in our classrooms. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but it can start by doing something as simple as quickly reaching the point of readily knowing each student’s name (and pronouncing it correctly). Learning your students’ interests and remembering details they share about themselves is a logical further step and will also help students feel known and respected.

In addition, knowing a little about what makes your students tick can also help make it easier for you to design your curriculum in ways that make it more relevant to their lives. This also demonstrates your care and thoughtfulness, and students who feel a personal connection to their teacher are more likely to be actively engaged in what you’re trying to help them learn.

Bearing in mind the differing perspectives of adults and young people can also be very important. For instance, teachers often look for cooperation and compliance as signs of respect—in other words, a student shows respect by doing what is expected. Adolescents, in contrast, view recognition as an indication of respect. You can show your respect for your students by acknowledging their individuality and taking their classroom contributions seriously.

Instrumental and informational support
Instrumental and informational support are also important ways you can build your students’ motivation and engagement. Research has shown these forms of social support are associated with a range of positive outcomes, including boosts in reading and math achievement, student engagement, and positive academic attitudes.

Instrumental support is the way you choose to physically provide things for your students, such as making it possible for them to use your classroom space outside of normal school hours or loaning materials to them when they need something. It’s a concrete way you show your students you’re willing to go out of your way to be helpful.

Informational support refers to guidance or information that can be used to solve a problem, and it can be anything from sharing information about opportunities (e.g., internships, part-time jobs, scholarships) to regularly exposing students to a rigorous and engaging curriculum. This kind of support can be especially valuable for your students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and who may miss out on valuable opportunities because they don’t have the social network other students may have access to. For many such students, you can be an important source of social capital; for example, you may be the only adult in their lives with a college-going history, making you a key source of information about realistic aspirations, the application process, obstacles that will have to be overcome, and what to expect at college. Never underestimate your impact as a role model, especially for students who lack them.

Appraisal support
Appraisal support from teachers can build students’ confidence and grow their ambitions, helping them believe that success is really within their reach and ability. Encouraging messages are a form of this kind of support that can actually change the way your students receive and understand your feedback on their work, researchers say. In studies conducted by psychologists at Stanford University and the University of Texas at Austin, teachers randomly attached one of two sticky notes to student essays they had graded before returning them. Half of the sticky notes contained a generic message letting students know the comments were meant to provide feedback on the paper. The other half of the notes said, “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know you can reach them.” The encouraging note significantly boosted students’ willingness to rewrite the paper—from 62 percent to 87 percent for White students, and from 17 percent to 71 percent for Black students. These results suggest students are motivated to improve when they perceive critical feedback as a desire to help them, not merely as a way to justify a grade.

Ripple Effects
When you seek to build positive relationships with your students and provide social support, you’re likely doing so in hopes of meeting their developmental, emotional, and academic needs. But the effects can mean even more in your classroom: when teachers model supportive relationships, students tend to follow their example and develop more supportive relationships with each other, fostering a collaborative and inclusive environment. Elementary school teachers who demonstrate high levels of general support have classrooms with more reciprocated friendships, studies have found. Further, when secondary school teachers succeed in incorporating developmentally relevant principles into their classroom interactions, adolescents tend to report improved peer connections.

You can help meet your adolescent students’ developmental needs by providing them with both autonomy and structure. Try giving them choices in their learning by offering options for completing projects or assignments and through establishing clear expectations by giving them grading rubrics in advance and/or clear, specific feedback. Adolescents often struggle to balance their emerging needs for independence with their enduring needs for support. You’re well-positioned to provide the support they still need without threatening the independence they’re struggling to achieve.

Social support should be considered in the broader context of students’ relationships with other adults. Students who have warm, encouraging relationships with their parents and other adults in their lives are the students who are most likely to have and derive benefits from close relationships with their teachers. Conversely, those who have a history of difficult relationships with adults are the ones who find it most difficult to trust a teacher. Past breaches of trust can make it challenging to form new relationships with adults. Thus, sadly, students who most need social support can be the most difficult to reach.

When you attempt to connect with challenging students, try to remember that even if they’re not responsive, they still hear the messages you give them. These efforts can make a difference, even if it’s not immediately apparent, in that students may be more likely to trust their teachers in the future. Spending time with students individually is a good first step and can help to build trust. This can happen before or after class, or during lunch. Research shows that when adolescents perceive their teachers as trustworthy people, they show less defiant behavior.

When a supportive connection can be made, it’s powerful and can be especially significant for students who otherwise experience the school environment as alienating. In fact, for high school students at risk of academic failure, positive teacher–student relationships can reduce rates of dropping out by nearly half.

It is worth noting that it’s impossible to offer all forms of social support to all students simultaneously. Young people are adept at recognizing inauthenticity. Try to identify the types of social support that draw on your natural strengths and focus on the students you suspect may not be receiving adequate support from others in their lives. While no teacher can provide all forms of support, we can all provide some. Students will have other opportunities during their schooling to receive other forms of social support from other teachers or adults.

You’re in the classroom to help ensure young people lead fulfilling and productive lives, and it’s not enough to focus exclusively on curriculum and instruction. Socially supportive gestures can have profound impacts. Social support may provide students with a sense of psychological safety that allows them to take risks, ask for help, and experience failure in the service of their learning.

Wittrup is a researcher and graduate student in the Clinical Psychology Program at the University of Virginia. Willingham is a professor of psychology at UVA and the author of several books, including Why Don’t Students Like School? and Raising Kids Who Read.



What’s the Temperature Like in Your Classroom?

Some questions to reflect on, adapted from VEA’s Effective Classroom Management Participant Manual:

Do you care deeply for your students? Do you know their names? What are they most passionate about? What does their IEP say? Have they had behavioral or attendance issues? Another way to show that you really care is to have high expectations for each student and truly believe he or she can meet them. A good relationship will smooth out a lot of bumps.

Do you require everyone to truly respect each other? Do you guide students effectively when they don’t interact with each other appropriately? This includes things such as allowing students to keep their hands raised and moving in excitement while one student is trying to process the question posed.

Do you encourage students to support each other? Students will risk answering a tough question when they feel safe from the belittlement of classmates. Students can support each other’s successes (pat on the back, “Good job, man,” applause/cheering, etc.).

Is your class safe and do you have overall “with-it-ness”? Are you aware of the subtle things taking place in your class?

Do you hold yourself to the same standards that you hold your students to? So you show them respect? Do you refrain from sarcasm?



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