Building Positive Relationships in Truly Disadvantaged Schools

By David Osher, Ph.D., Vice President, American Institutes for Research Aug 22, 2013

I have studied schools where teachers broke down in class, smoldered as they burned out in the teachers’ lounge, or quit. I also have seen these teachers’ behaviors turn around—along with student behaviors and academics. Examples:

  • A school in the South Bronx, New York, where student behavior and achievement improved, and teachers—instead of leaving—recruited their friends.
  • A school in the poorest part of Guam, where teachers—instead of running home at the end of the day—stayed around, interacted with students, and planned.
  • A school in the poorest ZIP code in Salt Lake City, Utah, where teachers—instead of locking themselves in their rooms before class—opened their doors and invited students in.
  • A school in East Tampa, Florida, where teachers and administrators walked their students home to the housing projects and made friendly connections with students’ parents.

Unfortunately, relationship turnarounds like this are all too rare, and few teachers or students get the supports that prompt students to describe their teachers (as students in one Chicago school did) as “another set of parents…like Aunties and Uncles.”

In any school, poor relationships between students and teachers frustrate teachers, contribute to teacher attrition, and hinder student learning. But relationship challenges and the teacher attrition they spur are more common and do more harm in high-poverty schools  

In Organizing Schools for Improvement, Tony Bryk and his colleagues characterized such schools as “truly disadvantaged schools”—those in neighborhoods with extreme poverty, racial segregation, and the highest levels of violence, child neglect, and abuse. In Chicago, students in these schools were three to four times more likely to stagnate in reading and math compared to students in better off, racially integrated schools.

A disproportionate number of children in truly disadvantaged schools live with traumatic stress and experience hunger or the unexpected loss of a parent or other extreme deprecations. Although, thanks largely to their relationships with caregivers, some children are resilient or are protected, others less fortunate come to school with compromised abilities to focus, self-regulate, interact with others, and learn.

The challenge of teaching such students multiplies with numbers and class size, which compromises teachers’ ability to support and form productive relationships with every student. As Sir Michael Rutter has shown, the proportion of aggressive peers influences other children’s tendency to become aggressive and to value aggression. Luckily, organizations like Turnaround for Children, the organization that helped put the South Bronx school on the right track, are addressing this issue.

The needs of students in high-poverty schools often overwhelm the school student support systems and teachers’ capacity to connect with and engage these students. Then problems start cascading. Teachers and principals may ignore, punish or remove the students, only to stimulate off-task behavior, disorder, and academic problems and ultimately demoralize staff—leading to teacher and leader burnout and attrition, and, eventually, students’ inequitable access to effective educators.

Three things often exacerbate these challenges: (1) a lack of a shared understanding among teachers and school leaders of trauma’s impact on child development; (2) a cultural disconnect among educators, students, and families that makes it harder for educators to identify student strengths and engage families; and (3) the pressures of high-stakes accountability.

To address these myriad challenges, teachers and leaders need systemic supports to expand both their social-emotional competence and their technical competence to build strong conditions for learning. The first means managing stress, handling anger, being self-reflective, and understanding, and preventing implicit bias. The second means understanding the impact of trauma and acting in trauma-sensitive ways, differentiating instruction, and classroom organization.

So how do we provide these systemic supports for teachers and leaders? A few successful strategies:

  • Focus school culture on providing caring environments where all students become academically proficient as well as social and emotionally competent.
  • Prioritize time for planning, and create communities of practice for teachers and leaders to draw support and expertise from one another.
  • Provide professional development on trauma-informed approaches to student engagement, positive behavioral support, social-emotional learning, supportive school discipline, and tiered academic and social-emotional support.

Now it’s your turn. We want to hear your thoughts.

Teachers and Leaders: What supports have you found most effective in helping you to meet the social and emotional needs of your students?

Everyone: What can state and district leaders do to support both educators and students in developing safe, supportive schools?


David Osher, Ph.D., is vice president of American Institutes for Research (AIR), co-director of AIR’s Human and Social Development Program, and an AIR Institute Fellow. He currently serves as principal investigator for the Technical Assistance Partnership for Child and Family Mental Health; the National Evaluation and Technical Assistance Center for the Education of Children and Youth Who are Neglected, Delinquent, or At Risk; the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments; and the National Clearing House on Safe and Supportive Discipline. 


You vaguely refer to "...a school in the South Bronx where student behavior and achievement improved."

Which school specifically are you citing for improved achievement?

Test scores show dropping proficiency across NYC.

Whose bidding are you doing?

Apparently, Turnaround for Children Inc.'s, because TFC is highlighting your whitewash on its Facebook page.

Might be nice if you could verify your claims.


My research on the Turnaround for Children School and five others took place between 2005 and 2008. Ted Cohen’s assertions relate to a school and a timeframe that I did not study nor mention in my blog post.

David Osher, PhD, American Institutes for Research

The record Turnaround for Children Inc. won’t discuss By Ted Cohen In the latest of a string of rose-colored commentaries promoted by Turnaround for Children Inc., a piece by David Osher continues to tout a foundation that by all measure fails its own “proficiency” test but yet continues to make bogus claims of success with its students. It is not only important but necessary to present “the other side of the story.” Turnaround for Children Inc., is a private nonprofit group claiming to reform education in reaching at-risk youth by getting to the root of the alleged trauma that triggered their academic failures. But Turnaround is painfully sensitive to review by anyone other than those who will support the foundation’s vacuous claims of success. Test data of schools in Washington, D.C. and New York City in which Turnaround has spent millions of dollars “reforming education” reveal that Turnaround’s efforts have failed. Indeed, test scores in those two cities have plummeted in the aftermath of Turnaround’s interventions. Osher’s claims of achievement in South Bronx are just plain wrong. Baseless. The facts speak otherwise. Turnaround’s initial reformist foray began in Orange, N.J. But suddenly, Turnaround suspended that program. IRS records reveal that Turnaround was forced to return its Orange funding. But Turnaround officials failed to disclose to the IRS financial details required by law. The documents, a public record, also reveal that Turnaround was forced to return the remaining part of the grant that funded the program. “Management decided to terminate its three-school program earlier than planned,” Turnaround officials told the IRS. In their IRS filing, Turnaround officials blamed the short-lived program’s demise on what they vaguely described as a “shift in organizational priorities.” But officials failed to disclose what they meant by the change or who instigated it. Turnaround officials say they suspended their request for the remaining funding they were to receive for the Orange project, but they made no mention of the amount of funding they had already received and the amount they were still due. Turnaround officials issued a prepared statement defending their Orange pullout. “Our hope was to expand the partnership, to deliver a significant amount of professional development to teachers and to increase our engagement district-wide,” said Kate Felsen, vice president of communications. “Unfortunately, Orange Public Schools did not have the capacity to take on the professional development we had to offer during the 2011-12 year. For this reason, we ended our partnership amicably.” Though Turnaround proudly announced the Orange project in its September 2010 newsletter, there is no evidence on the organization’s web site that Turnaround officials ever notified the public of the program’s suspension. If Orange school officials are to blame for Turnaround’s failure in their schools, then they are apparently taking the accusations in stride. Orange Supt. Ronald Lee failed to respond to questions until he received a formal open-records request. He said, “Turnaround proposed to expand its program to a transformational model that encompassed academic, foundational and behavioral elements in the 2011-2012 school year. At the same time, the district was continuing or launching a number of significant initiatives to improve instruction and student outcomes. We mutually concluded that the district’s initiatives would require and deserved the full focus of the district staff principals and teachers. Therefore, we discontinued the program in Orange at that time to allow these innovations to take hold.” Felsen, too, will not go beyond her prepared statement. When asked who funded the Orange effort and who will be funding the Newark plan, Felsen replied, “You have my statement.” Now, Turnaround For Children is interviewing schools in Newark, N.J. for purposes of “exploring a partnership.” What is Turnaround and what is its proposed role in Newark? The best source for information would be Turnaround, right? Wrong. Turnaround has refused to provide information about its failed foray into Orange schools and whether that experience foretells problems in Newark. Newark and Nw Jersey schools officials will not discuss Turnaround for Children Inc. unless it is part of a discussion they design and they host. Attempts by journalists to procure information from this so-called “transparent” group known as Turnaround for Children Inc. have been met with silence.

One of the portions of this blog that stood out to me the most is the selection of key factors that must be taken into account. While the trauma that students suffer is a main reference point, the author connected this with cultural connections which lead to the ability to identify student strengths and engage families, as well as the impact of high-stakes accountability. This is simultaneously a selective and multi-layered complex set of factors. This combination really points us in the right direction. If we focus on trauma alone, we may develop some good skills for helping young people, but we forget to look at some key limitations in our cultural outlook. Then, we end up unknowingly insulting children and families because of potentially pejorative assumptions that we make, potentially undoing our good work in addressing trauma. And if we just focus on building up our skills around trauma and cultural competence and forget about systemic pressures from high-stakes accountability, we are left with inadequate tools for the ways in which these high-stakes pressures drive against classroom time and professional learning time for supporting children's holistic development. Some adults may have the right skills and aspirations, but the system provides no room to follow through. Great list, much food for thought.

The unique relationship and dynamics between teacher and student cannot be easily quantified. The only truth that is self evident is that a positive relationship in which the student wants to succeed because he or she wants to please the teacher (surrogate parent) is paramount to successful learning. It is a shame that Common Core standards have omitted social and emotional learning objectives. This is a well-written blog that offers hope.

The most poignant section of the article is as follows:

"To address these myriad challenges, teachers and leaders need systemic supports to expand both their social-emotional competence and their technical competence to build strong conditions for learning. The first means managing stress, handling anger, being self-reflective, and understanding, and preventing implicit bias. The second means understanding the impact of trauma and acting in trauma-sensitive ways, differentiating instruction, and classroom organization.''

The social and emotional relationship between a teacher and student is of paramount importance in areas in which a child does not receive parental support or pride. Somehow, someway, a teacher needs to develop positive social and emotional relationships with such students before any learning can take place. This is a well-written article that promotes this empathetic model of teaching.Sadly, social and emotional learning standards were omitted from Common Core.

Tony Mullen
Classroom teacher, BED students
2009 National Teacher of the Year
2008 Connecticut State Teacher of the Year

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