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Positive Student-Teacher Relationships Benefit Long Term Health, Study Finds

teacher teaching student

Getty Images / Klaus Vedfelt 

Key Takeaways

  • A recent study found that positive student-teacher relationships have long-term health benefits in early adulthood.
  • Positive relationships with teachers can teach students how to be confident and that mistakes are a sign that they are learning, not a sign of weakness.
  • Teachers also benefit from these connections, as they play a part in who their students become. 

There’s no doubt that teachers can have a profound impact on our lives. A 2020 study published in the journal School Psychology found that there are long-term health benefits to having positive student-teacher relationships, confirming what students and educators have known all along.

“Students spend a great deal of their time awake in school. A teacher’s classroom is sometimes the safest place some of our students get to be,” said Methany Thornton, a Georgia-based middle school language arts teacher with over 20 years of teaching experience and the 7 Mindsets coordinator, an SEL (social-emotional learning) program that teaches students and school staff how to deal with their emotions in a healthy way.

“Teachers have the ability to create a classroom where students feel comfortable learning while making mistakes and know that they can just BE who they are.”

What the Study Found

Researchers used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (ADD Health)—a “school-based, nationally representative, and longitudinal study of the health-related behaviors of adolescents and their outcomes in young adulthood”—to analyze school-based relationships. They specifically looked at the differences between student-student relationships and student-teacher relationships.

Rachel Hirsch, High School History Teacher

In adolescence, our world tells people that they are unpleasant, unkind, and not a valued part of the world other than as consumers. I hope that positive relationships with teachers can counteract these ideas so that as teenagers, students will feel that they are very valuable, full of good ideas, and powerful in their kindness, and can take that out into the world and into adulthood.

— Rachel Hirsch, High School History Teacher

The ADD Health was administered in four waves, starting when students were in grades seven through 12, then again one, six, and 13 years later. There were approximately 15,000 student surveys, including sibling pairs, looked at in the analysis. The average age of the respondents during the fourth wave was 28 and the gender makeup was relatively equal. About 57% of the participants were white and approximately 28% said they lived in rural areas.

When controlling for family background using sibling fixed-effects models (which remove variables like parental styles, attachment and involvement, genetics, schools, neighborhoods and more), the study found that students have better long term health if they had positive, supportive relationships with their teachers.

“Results of this study are novel because the role of student–teacher relationships as a determinant of health (especially in adulthood) has been largely ignored in psychology and health research alike. While previous studies showed that peers are the single biggest social factor in predicting adolescent health and health behaviors, this study revealed a somewhat different picture,” the study said.

They did not find the same link between student health and positive peer relationships (with the exception of depression).

“Although the peer relationships are great, other students aren’t always compassionate and at times can’t be trusted with the knowledge of heavy topics,” Thornton said. “Adults listen and only share with the counseling staff to get students help. The adults can also handle the heaviness of topics such as sexual abuse, bullying, grief, [and more] with maturity and no judgment.”

Limitations

There are some limitations to this study. Namely, “it limits generalizability of within-family estimates to a specific subpopulation, in this case families with multiple children,” the author noted. In addition, the sibling fixed-effects models don’t account for certain family characteristics, such as personality and psychosocial resources and constraints. 

The study also couldn’t directly test the mechanisms that provide the link between adult health and social school relationships. They were also unable to consider other adult health behaviors that could have contributed to the results, such as physical activity, diet, and sedentary lifestyles.

Lastly, the ADD Health examines multiple facets of health (including substance abuse, depression, etc.), and therefore relies on self-reporting. It also doesn’t dive deeper into other psychological health factors, such as eating disorders, addictive behaviors, and more.

Building Student-Teacher Relationships

There are many reasons why teens who have supportive relationships with their teachers enjoy better health as an adult. Rachel Hirsch, the dean of faculty and a history teacher at The Cambridge School of Weston in Massachusetts, has been teaching high school history for 20 years. 

She said that teens who have good relationships with their teachers tend to engage in education as a way of connection and support—by seeing mistakes as opportunities to further connect—rather than just a transactional, judgmental interaction.

“If a student learns (through the experience of positive student-teacher relationships) that they are valued for who they are, for what they bring as a human to interactions, and that their school work is an extension of their humanity and value—but not the measure of it—then they [tend to be] more resilient, inclined toward connection and collaboration, and likely less fragile or defensive when they don’t know something as an adult,” she said.

Relationships are not a one-way street, though. Both students and teachers play an equal part in creating positive, long-lasting connections. Sharing ideas and asking questions, beyond simply responding to what the teacher has asked, are just two of many ways students can start to engage with the teachers, Hirsch suggested. Students will form genuine connections mainly from voluntary vulnerability and openness with teachers. 

“Good teachers will be very, very careful with students' vulnerability and good schools will help teachers be very careful. If you are willing to take this risk as a student, I think that many students will find that most teachers are eager to be supportive and careful,” Hirsch said. 

Negative Relationships Also Have Impacts

When students have poor or negative relationships with their teachers, Thornton said that students could withdraw socially, engage in disruptive behaviors, and perhaps suffer academically. 

Negative student-teacher relationships are linked to a greater chance of having physical health issues, psychological illnesses, and adulthood health-harming behaviors.

Hirsch added that students tend to shut down or are scared of making mistakes and being vulnerable when the relationships aren’t good. Learning might seem weak to them “because if you learned, it meant that at some point you didn’t know, and that was a failure.”

That being said, Hirsch also noted if students have interactions with teachers that feel uncomfortable, they should trust their instincts.

“[Students] don't owe teachers positive relationships,” she said.

The Power of Student-Teacher Connections

Hirsch and Thornton have both experienced firsthand what goes into building positive relationships and have seen how those relationships have influenced their students.

Once a week—before the COVID-19 pandemic—Thornton would have weekly coffee, tea, and hot chocolate chats with her students. She said they had deep discussions about topics relevant to her students and the character they were reading about, such as “racism, discrimination, acceptance, and standing up for what is right.”

Methany Thornton, Middle School ELA Teacher

We cannot teach our students' brains until we’ve spoken to their hearts.

— Methany Thornton, Middle School ELA Teacher

Thornton witnessed firsthand how this diverse group of students slowly established trust in her and in each other. Students who hardly interacted at the start of the year became a family, and the friendships that were established in Thornton’s classroom—student-to-student and teacher-to-student—carried into high school.

“I have also incorporated dance battles as an alternative to fighting, rap battles to teach figurative language, and YouTube videos of me ‘spilling the tea’ to review chapters of the current novel,” she said. “Out of all of this, the most important work I do is to make sure that my students aren’t tired or hungry. I keep snacks, water, and an area where my students can go if they need quiet time right in my classroom.”

Hirsch is proud to have seen many of her former students pursue careers as educators, working in nonprofit organizations, and in other ways that “involve solving problems and helping people find pathways for their humanity and dignity despite systemic oppression.”

Many of these students have told Hirsch that having their ideas valued by their teachers instilled confidence in them, and that even if their opinions are different from the crowd’s, they can openly express them, 

"In adolescence, our world tells people that they are unpleasant, unkind, and not a valued part of the world other than as consumers," Hirsch said. "I hope that positive relationships with teachers can counteract these ideas so that as teenagers, students will feel that they are very valuable, full of good ideas, and powerful in their kindness, and can take that out into the world and into adulthood."

Should Teachers Receive Interpersonal Training?

The study's author suggested that going forward, it may be wise to not only monitor academic performance, but also interpersonal relationships between students and teachers.

They noted that whole-classroom management strategies might not be sufficient for training teachers to form bonds with their students; rather, teachers should be trained in social-emotional development and interpersonal skills. 

“We cannot teach our student’s brains until we’ve spoken to their hearts,” Thornton said. “It is imperative that we train teachers to foster healthy relationships in the classroom, to create a place where community is built amongst the students, and to make sure that students’ basic needs are being met before attempting to teach any content/curriculum.”

Learning how to healthily handle and cope with emotions reaches far beyond the classroom as practical daily skills students will use throughout their lives. Teachers can help instill this in their students.

As a third year teacher, Hirsch sought out personal development as a teacher. While she had connected well with her students in her first years teaching, she said she was convinced it was because she was young and friendly, not because she was the good teacher she wanted to be. 

“In that year, I learned a lot of great tools and techniques and I definitely deepened my understanding of pedagogy," Hirsch said. "You can’t teach around interpersonal elements—they are the medium through which teaching and learning happens. This is also why racism, classism, ableism, sexism, [and] homophobia makes it impossible for students to learn. It undoes the medium for learning by undoing authentic and respectful connections.”

Positive Relationships Are Good For Teachers, Too

Building strong, positive student-teacher relationships may also have beneficial effects on teachers’ psychological well-being.

Teachers play an integral role in bringing up responsible, respectful adults and have the ability to reach students who “think they are untouchable,” Thornton said. She said it’s wonderful to witness students discover who they are and what they are capable of, and stand up for one another. 

“Why would you be a teacher if you weren't going to have the positive experience of positive student-teacher relationships?” Hirsch questioned. “The pay is not that good, the working conditions are often pretty rough, and the level of prestige seems to only be significant at the beginning of a pandemic and not in the middle. Having positive connections with kids is the meaning for compensation for the work.”

What This Means For You

Positive student-teacher relationships have benefits for students’ long-term adulthood health, such as instilling confidence and teaching students that their ideas are valuable. It’s worth spending the time to engage and develop positive connections with your teachers. It’s also okay to step back if you recognize that a certain relationship isn’t comfortable.

These relationships also positively affect teachers, instilling a sense of accomplishment in pride in them as they nurture and watch their students go on to accomplish amazing feats.

“Student-teacher relationships remind me of what I see on the Great British Baking Show where you put in all the ingredients and you put it in the oven and you hope that it will all work out and be wonderful, but if you try to force it to be wonderful it will fail, and even if you do everything right, sometimes it will fail," Hirsch said. "But that doesn't mean you're a terrible baker, and your baked goods don't owe you the satisfaction of being good.”

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  1. Kim J. The quality of social relationships in schools and adult health: Differential effects of student–student versus student–teacher relationships. School Psychology. Published online October 29, 2020.