Social and Emotional Connections with Students

Social and emotional connections are vital to keeping students engaged and in school.

Social and emotional factors profoundly affect student engagement and motivation as well as student perceptions of relevancy of task. All of these elements have a vital impact on learning. Wentzel, K.R. (1991) as quoted in A. Wigfield, J. Ecoles, & D. Rodriquez (1998). The development of children’s motivation in school contexts. Review of Research in Education, 23, 73-118. For example, when students lack social and emotional connections to learning, educators, schools, and their peers, it often leads to behavior issues or disengagement, which inevitability leads to declining achievement and, in the worst cases, students dropping out of high school. Finn, J.D. (1993). School engagement and students at risk. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Educational Statistics; and Steinberg, L. (1996). Beyond the classroom: Why school reform has failed and what parents need to do. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Schools are communities, and care can be taken to ensure that each and every student has a purposeful connection with at least one adult in the environment. That adult engages the student in conversation about life and their learning, and is a resource for the student. This strategy can be accomplished in myriad ways, but because it is a critical prerequisite for student success, it cannot be left to happenstance.

Having a social and emotional connection supports engagement, and on the surface, engagement as a prerequisite for learning seems obvious and straightforward. However, engagement is more complex and is typically defined in three ways: behavioral motivation (student participation in learning tasks); emotional engagement (reactions to teachers, other participants, activities in the learning task, and school as well as student attitudes, interests, and values); and cognitive engagement (the willingness to exert the effort that the task requires). Fredricks, J., Blumenfeld, P., & Paris, A. (2004). School engagement: Potential of the concept, state of the evidence. Review of Educational Research, 74(1), 59-109.

Looking at engagement across these three areas reflects the complexity of students’ experiences in the classroom. Research studies indicate that student perception of relatedness to teachers, parents, and peers uniquely contributes to emotional and behavioral engagement, as does a student’s "feeling secure" with teachers and having a feeling of "belonging," as defined by an individual’s sense of being accepted, valued, included, and encouraged by others. Similarly, a positive association has been established between students’ need for competence and their engagement-behavioral, emotional, and cognitive. Baumeister, R.F. & Leary, M.R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497-529, as cited in Fredricks, J. et al. (2004).

One of the key elements of learning, both in school and beyond, is student motivation. What determines a student’s choices, persistence, and efforts in learning? The answer to this question is social and emotional influences. Wigfield, A., Eccles, J. & Rodriguez, D. (1998). The development of children’s motivation in school contexts. Review of Research in Education, 23, 73-118. Researchers generally agree that learning is inherently social-it happens in the context of interactions and relationships with teachers, peers, family, experts, and others. Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. McCaslin, M., & Good, T.L. (1996). The informal curriculum. In D.C. Berliner & R.C. Calfee (Eds.), Handbook of educational psychology (622-670). New York: Macmillan.

Social interactions provide tremendous opportunities for students to deepen learning. They find kindred spirits who fuel joint explorations and productions, reinforce understandings, and provide divergent opinions and clarification of understandings as discussions ensue. In many cases, social interactions enable levels of learning that simply wouldn’t be possible for students to accomplish on their own. Successful leveraging of such opportunities requires some degree of social and emotional maturity on the part of the student-especially when interactions occur outside the school environment.

The school has several roles to play in building social and emotional connections among students. The obvious role is the establishment of learning environments that promote healthy social and emotion interactions. Educators have found that introducing healthy social interactions such as learning circles, collaborative learning, and active learning strategies into learning does increase academic performance. Guthrie, J.T., Van Meter, P., McCann, A., Wigfield, A., Bennett, L., Poundstone, C., Rice, M. E., Faibisch, F., Hunt, B., & Mitchell, A. (1996). Growth in literacy engagement: Changes in motivations and strategies during Concept-Oriented Reading Instruction. Reading Research Quarterly, 31, 306-325; as cited in A. Wigfield, et al. (1998). Ultimately schools should be building self-direction in learners, enabling students to learn successfully in informal settings outside of school.

“Reports from the young learners... highlight the dynamic, highly social, and self-sustaining processes that are an important aspect of knowledge and identity development... we should expect interest in learning to originate within and outside school and that adolescents have a significant role to play in sustaining their own development.”

— Bridget Barron

Actions at the classroom level that directly affect students’ cognitive, behavioral, and emotional engagement include: teacher support (interpersonal and academic); connections with peers (idea discussion/argumentation, peer critiques); classroom structure (one that ensures respect, high academic challenges, and socially supportive environments); autonomy support; and task characteristics (the nature of the task, including authenticity, level of interest and/or ownership it generates in the student, opportunities it presents for collaboration, level of cognitive complexity, linkages to the real world, and so on). In addition, student perceptions of work and norms established by teachers were positively correlated with behavioral, emotional and cognitive engagement.

One example of a school that is implementing many of these best practices is High Tech High, a charter high school in San Diego, California. High Tech High is at the top of its game with respect to academic achievement, critical thinking and problem-solving, student engagement, and the percentages of graduates who go on to succeed at higher education institutions. The school attributes its success to three key principles all interwoven into the fabric of the school: personalization, adult world connection, and common intellectual mission.

The school engages the students socially, emotionally, and cognitively-school leaders have come to understand, through research and practice, that the three are intrinsically interdependent. High Tech High. Charter school in San Diego California. Retrieved from on December 24, 2007. One of the ways the school ensures those connections is through the assignment of a staff advisor to each student. The advisor monitors the student’s personal and academic development and provides a point of contact for the family. This caring adult matters tremendously to the student’s success in school by socially and emotionally personalizing the learning environment. In the role of mentor, the advisor knows if the student is in school each day, is there to celebrate successes, and generally serves as an advocate.

Research Findings Related to Social and Emotional Connections

The literature on social and emotional engagement stems back to Vygotsky’s view that the process of learning is at once individual and sociocultural, and includes research from the cognitive, educational psychology, and social sciences. Kozulin, A. (2003). Vygotsky’s educational theory in cultural context. Cambridge University Press. Researchers generally acknowledge that socialization results in attitudes, values, and cognitive and linguistic skills-all necessary tools that children and adolescents use as they learn.

Recent research summaries also suggest that social and emotional competencies do make a positive difference in student learning. The Collaborative for Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) announced preliminary results from a study that summarizes the impact of social and emotional competence across 207 research studies. They report that, on average, students in programs that addressed social and emotional competencies outperformed control groups academically by 11 percentiles. Viadero, D. (2007). Social-skills programs found to yield gains in academic subjects. Education Week, 27(16), 1,15. Accessed on 1/22/08 from

The authors of the book, Building Academic Success on Social and Emotional Learning: What Does the Research Say?, agree, reporting that social-emotional competence predicts academic achievement and conversely, antisocial behavior correlates highly with poor academic performances. Zins, J.E., Weissberg, R., Wang, M., & Walberg, H. (2004). Building academic success on social and emotional learning: What does the research say? 3-5. New York: Teachers College Press.

Jennifer Fredrick’s and her colleagues’ recent article on student engagement offers context for the discussion around declining academic achievement and disenfranchisement of students from schools. Fredricks, J., Blumenfeld, P., & Paris, A. (2004). School engagement: Potential of the concept, state of the evidence. Review of Educational Research, 74(1), 59-109. The article discusses a multifaceted construct of engagement that clearly links social competence to higher levels of learning and emotional competence to higher levels of learning. A look at high school reform across the country is synergistic with the literature on student motivation and engagement.

There is sound research to suggest that to succeed, school reform must address social and emotional competencies. Hardy, L. (2007). Children at risk: Graduation Day. American School Board Journal, 194(9). Collaborative for Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL). Website accessed on Jan. 22, 2008 Bridget Barron of Stanford University goes a step further. She provides a qualitative look at student engagement in students who are using informal learning in combination with formal learning in schools to accomplish specific learning goals. Barron, B. (2006). Interest and self-sustained learning as catalysts of development: A learning ecology perspective, 193-224.