Teaching, relationship and children’s mental health

The problem

Are good teacher/student relationships important in promoting children’s mental health?

When the subject of children’s behaviour comes up, teacher/student relationship is always mentioned as an important factor in the development of good behaviour. Good relationships engender good behaviour, good learning and good memories of school too.

When we talk about behaviour it’s not usually good behaviour that’s the main topic.

Good behaviour gets treated as if we can take it for granted, there might be the odd sticker or treat but we don’t really shout about it.

The good relationships between teachers and students and the good behaviour and success in school that goes with it are the norm, unremarkable, largely unnoticed.

The hot topic is bad behaviour. Then, under instruction from the behaviourist psychologists it is pursued, single- mindedly.

“I like you, I don’t like your behaviour” we say to baffled students, as we give them another reason to feel uncomfortable. We wouldn’t say “It’s not you who’s getting another Saturday detention, it’s your behaviour” because that sounds too odd, but that’s what we intend them to comprehend.

Although we might have the mental agility to square that particular circle, children don’t and punishment is a significant factor in leading a student to dislike a teacher. It spoils their relationship. School can turn into a place where a student who makes mistakes can get labelled, isolated, rejected and feels the same in return.

Do they feel it in their heart or can they rationalize it as something impersonal, their behaviour not them? It’s an uncomfortable fact that many students who get tagged with the ‘bad behaviour’ label have additional learning needs or are looked-after children. Do we really expect them to survive the experience of loss, punishment and segregation cheerily unmarked?

We know all this but we persist in doing things to children who make mistakes, to make them change their ways, to force them to comply.

By now you might be thinking that I’ve gone too far. What I’m writing here is a parody, many teachers care deeply about their students, the more needy no less than the more robust. I’d say you’re right and I’d go further, most teachers care deeply.


The current process by which badly-behaved children (whatever we take that to mean) are managed by control and coercion is pretty well universal and teachers have no alternative but to follow the trodden path, no matter what their heart says.


There is an alternative that strengthens relationship and develops change at the same time. It’s called solution-focused support. It has built in to it the promotion of children’s mental wellness because it focuses on their resourceful, resilient, autonomous, self-actualising self.

The one we all want to see shining through.

The solution.


New book ‘Transforming behaviour in the classroom – a solution-focused guide for new teachers’ Geoffrey James (2016) Sage