Why Relationships Matter for Urban Students’ Engagement

This post is a follow-up to “Do I Have a Voice? Student Ownership Drives Engagement Among Urban Youth.”

We all want to feel connected to and accepted by others. Research shows that positive relationships with adults in school have motivational and academic benefits for students. Nevertheless, researchers and practitioners both tend to emphasize academic and behavioral interventions as the route to engagement and pay less attention to the power of relationships in engaging youth. This is especially true in urban schools that serve a high percentage of low-income youth of color. Neglecting relationships is a missed opportunity to engage our most vulnerable youth!

This blog post describes findings from interviews with urban youth on relationships and engagement. Our research team at the University of Pittsburgh conducted interviews with a sample of 22 low-income students of color in middle school or high school. These findings build on my previous blog post on the importance of student ownership for student engagement.

In our interviews, most youth described developing positive relationships with their teachers. “Caring,” “supportive,” “fun,” and “welcoming” were the words students used to describe these relationships. Teachers played a key role in keeping students engaged by personalizing their instruction to match students’ knowledge, interests, and skills, a key component of student-centered learning. When students looked bored or were getting off-task, their teachers intervened and adjusted the activity to better meet their individual needs and interests. As a result, students reported that they felt supported, cared for, and included by their teacher, which in turn led them to feel more engaged.

Developing positive relationships with teachers was especially important for youth who were having academic and social difficulties. To better cope with the daily stressors, challenges, and setbacks they face at school, students explained to us that they needed both emotional and academic supports, which they received from some of their teachers. These teachers provided help on classroom tasks and assignments, offered encouragement, worked with their families to support students’ engagement, and connected youth to additional support personnel in the school.

One theme that emerged from the interviews was the importance of feeling heard and being known by the adults in the school. For many of the youth, it wasn’t the teachers who played this crucial role but the staff at the school, including the administrators, school counselors, and even the janitor. The students felt they could relax more and be themselves around staff. They also felt it was easier to talk to staff about their interests and problems without academics dominating the conversation.

Unfortunately, a few of the youth did have difficulty developing positive relationships with some of their teachers. This seemed to be most true of those students who seemed to be most disengaged. They felt that their teachers did not trust and respect them, judged them unfairly, and often made assumptions about their achievement and character based on other students’ behavior in school. Whether these students’ disengagement was an outcome of these experiences or vice versa is beyond the scope of this study, but we know from many other studies that feeling respected and fairly evaluated by teachers can be a core factor in promoting student engagement, especially for urban low-income youth of color, who often experience chronic marginalization in school. On the flip side, research also suggests that when youth feel disrespected by their teachers, they may actually become more resistant and disengaged over time.

In sum, relationships matter for engagement! Contrary to the stereotypes of many urban schools, most of the students in our study felt supported by their teachers and the staff at their schools. The adults in the schools personalized learning by really getting to know the students beyond academics and tailoring instruction to students’ individual needs. These supports, coupled with respect and fairness, helped them to feel more engaged over time.


Jennifer Fredricks is a Students at The Center Distinguished Fellow and the Dean of Academic Departments and Programs and Professor of Psychology at Union College. She authored Eight Myths of Student Engagement: Creating Classrooms of Deep Learning (Corwin Press), and is co-editing the Handbook of Student Engagement Interventions: Working With Disengaged Youth (Elsevier Press), which is due out in 2018.

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