Why It's Important To Build Resilient Relationships At School

Do we spend enough time helping our children navigate their tricky, complex relationships?

Tamara Judge

When I was a primary school teacher, helping children navigate their relationships felt like a massive part of my job. Barely a day went by that I didn't have a chat with a group of children about how to be a good friend, the importance of sharing and taking turns and generally, how to get along.

We even trained ‘pupil buddies' in conflict resolution, so the younger pupils had an older child they could go to for help and support with 'less serious' issues.

But are relationship issues ever 'less serious'?

One of my fellow coaching colleagues put it into context when she explained to us that her young daughter kept getting upset because her best friend kept sitting next to other people in class and leaving her out.

Now, it is tempting to trivialise this and I'm sure many teachers (probably including me at some stage) have told children to, 'just find someone else to play with'. Then my colleague asked me to imagine I was going to a meeting every day with my friends and workmates and they all sat together and there was nowhere for me to sit with them. How would I feel?

And the truth is, that I knew I would probably feel left out, hurt and rejected. Yep, even at my age, and with the ability to think rationally and masters level training to flip my thinking to be more positive.

Why? Because that feeling of belonging is one that we crave and rely on to make us feel loved and wanted; to feel connected and supported, and to help us cope in times of stress.

When I completed my master's research, I explored children's perceptions of what supports their wellbeing in primary school.

Guess which areas came out top?

You’ve got it; spending time playing/socialising with their friends and having positive relationships with their teachers.

This was consistent across all year groups from age 5 to 11 years. Having friends, being liked and having fun with friends and their teachers made them feel happy; and falling out with friends or having grumpy, shouty teachers made them sad and anxious. It really shouldn’t have been surprising, but there was something about seeing that data in black and white.

These insights changed how I thought about pupil friendship issues at school, and as a teacher I made it a priority to treat all issues seriously. And to do my best to give children the time to be heard and understood - something that can be tricky when you have so much to get through in a day!

I think it helped. The young people I worked with seemed to have fewer friendship issues, were using more positive language/strategies to work out their differences and were better able to manage how they felt when they did fall out; something I now work on with many of my young coaching clients.

I think getting young people's perspectives on their school experience is critical to understanding how we can help them feel happier at school and get more out of their time there. And clearly, having positive relationships with friends, classmates, teachers and parents is an important part of that.

So, do we (teachers) spend enough time helping young people to develop the resilience they need to navigate their tricky, complex relationships?

I know all schools teach pupils about relationships at an appropriate level, but how much time do they really spend teaching it? And, if it continues to be taught as a discrete subject, how helpful will it really be?

In my experience, we need to make constant reference to positive relationships, drawing attention to pro-social behaviours and asking pupils what they would do in a similar situation when issues do come up.

We need to help them understand their thinking and how it impacts their feelings and behaviour.

We need to allow ourselves to be vulnerable in front of pupils and help them understand that all human emotions are valid, and that we, like them, sometimes feel upset, angry or frustrated, but we can share our coping strategies to help manage those big feelings.

We need to be mindful of our own feelings and behaviours to ensure that we treat all young people with kindness, compassion and respect every day (regardless of what's going on in our own lives) and avoid being one of those 'grumpy, shouty' teachers that young people are scared of and hate spending time with.

Why? Because research tells us young people are more engaged, more productive, and more likely to learn when their wellbeing is high.

So, making time for them to develop positive relationships with their peers and teachers, and helping them to become more resilient in their relationships, is a crucial part of schooling and child development. And honestly, the earlier we can start building these skills the better. It’s why we are developing a positive education nursery program.

Here are some simple things I found really helped me connect with my classes on a more personal level:

  • Spend the first 15 min of the day engaging with young people and finding out what's going on in their lives. Allow them to chat with each other too, and rotate around the class each day, to try and speak to everyone in a week. (This also helps with early identification of safeguarding issues)

  • Work on your own personal resilience and mindset so you have lived experience and tools that you can share with pupils

  • Proactively look after your wellbeing so you have strategies you can use to help you unwind and relax. This will allow you to be more positive in the classroom

  • Give the young people 5 min to find out something new about someone in the class and share it

  • Spend the last 15 min of the day asking what people are doing that evening, or weekend and show genuine curiosity and care

  • Talk about your life outside of school and tell your class something you are looking forward to (appropriately, of course)

  • Play some non-academic classroom games and ensure that everyone can engage at their level

  • Read a book and explore/discuss the character's relationships, resilience and mindset

  • Draw attention to positive character strengths throughout the day and be specific. These may be demonstrated by pupils, colleagues or the people you are studying in History, English or Science

  • Get some fresh air during break time and have your coffee outside (in a safety cup #safetyfirst) so pupils can talk to you more informally

  • At lunch, consider joining in or starting a game. (Staff at my previous school - including me - spent one summer playing netball and basketball with the Y5/6's at lunch and it was a lot of fun!)

  • Be proactive and discuss friendship issues with the class and get their opinions about what they could do. Role-playing different scenarios can help with this

  • Be firm, consistent and fair when handling behaviour issues. And explain that 'fair' doesn't necessarily mean everyone getting the same, it means everyone getting what they need to succeed

  • Above all, be kind. A simple deep breath can help you maintain calm when you are feeling frustrated

I hope you found this article useful. If you are interested in finding out how we can support your school in building teacher, pupil or parent resilience and wellbeing please don’t hesitate to get in touch.