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Relationships with peers and adults within the school are central in fostering young people’s social and emotional competence.
Adults at school
School adults, including teachers, principals, school staff, and teaching assistants, are in a unique position to observe how young people are doing day to day and form meaningful bonds with them through shared activities and interests.
Young people who report that their teachers care about them also report feeling more academically motivated and prosocial towards others.
Teachers play an important role in student’s overall school experience because they have a unique opportunity to monitor both students’ academic outcomes and socio-emotional development.
Research over the past decades has examined teacher - student relationships, especially teachers’ roles in preparing students’ for adult life . Teacher-student relationships are linked to students feeling safe and secure at school, and academic achievement.
Teachers are thought to influence students through how they relate to students, such as displaying empathy and warmth, and through instructional variables, such as the extent to which teachers encourage higher-order learning among their students. Aspects in teacher-student relationships are more strongly correlated with students’ academic and school engagement than specific pedagogical approaches that teachers use.
Students who report that their teachers care about them, are at a lower risk of dropping out of school and are less likely to have low academic achievement.
School climate is the overall tone of the school environment, including the way teachers and students interact and how students treat each other. Students’ comfort in their learning environment affects their ability to pay attention in class, motivation, enjoyment of school and achievement.
An optimal school environment for children is one that values their participation, provides time for self-reflection, encourages peer collaboration and enables them to make decisions about classroom norms and activities.
Increasing students’ sense of school community has been shown to increase children’s social competence, self-esteem, commitment to school and reading comprehension .
School belonging is the degree to which children feel connected and valued at their school. Young people who feel a sense of belonging at school also report greater happiness, contentment and calmness.
Young people who feel belonging at school have been found to perceive others more favourably and consider others more often.
As well as promoting happiness and calm, belonging is also associated with lower emotional distress and the reduced likelihood of substance abuse/mental wellness issues later in life.
It is during the middle childhood years that children begin to associate more with peers and less with family. Children absorb information from peers about how to behave and who they are. The ‘peer belonging’ section measures children’s feelings of belonging to a social group.
Peer relationships and social interaction provide opportunities for children to develop interpersonal understanding and moral reasoning. Relationships with peers provide a rich context for learning cooperation, gaining support, acquiring interpersonal skills and persisting through difficulties.
It is during the middle years that children begin to recognise social categories and observe social groups to which they do or do not belong. Feeling part of a group can boost self-esteem, confidence and personal well-being.
Children who do not feel part of a group or feel like an outcast are at risk of anxiety and depression and are also at higher risk of low school attendance and future school drop-out.
During the middle years peer relationships grow in complexity. Children begin to seek friendships based on quality (having a friend who cares, talks to them and helps with problems) rather than quantity. The ‘friendship intimacy’ section assesses the quality of relationships children have with their peers.
Close, mutual friendships provide validation for young people’s developing sense of self and promote their self-esteem.
It is common in middle and late childhood for children to have one favoured friend. A close friendship with at least one friend not only provides validation but also protects against loneliness or isolation.
Same-age friends are sometimes in a better position than adults to empathise or provide comfort to children who are experiencing stressful life events such as a transition to a new school, parent separation, or difficulties with other peers.
Cognitive engagement refers to student’s willingness to put in the effort needed to master skills and succeed academically at school, and has a strong motivational and self-regulatory component.
Cognitive engagement considers students’ psychological investment in learning and their use of learning strategies. Psychological investment entails a willingness to engage in learning activities and to enhance one’s knowledge and skills.
Cognitive engagement can be influenced by individual factors, peer relationships, home influences, teacher interactions and the schoolwide context
Learning strategies can range from using a surface-level strategy, such as memorisation for short-term retention of information, to applying more sophisticated strategies, such as monitoring, evaluating or task planning, to master the material and promote a deeper understanding and expertise.
Academic self-concept refers to students’ beliefs about their academic ability, including their perceptions of themselves as students and how interested and confident they feel in school. Boredom and disinterest within the classroom are often cited as contributing to acting-out behaviours, which often emerge at this time in development.
How children perceive themselves as students affects their motivation and interest in school and ultimately their school performance.
Academic self-concept typically declines from Grade 4 to 7. At this age boys are also less likely to report being academically oriented than girls.
Compared to low self-esteem (general self-concept), low academic self-concept is more amenable to intervention. Experiencing success and receiving consistent positive feedback from parents and teachers greatly influences how children view themselves as learners.
Engagement refers to being absorbed, interested, and involved in an activity or the world itself. Very high levels of engagement are known as a state called “flow”, in which one is so completely absorbed in an activity that all sense of time is lost.
Flow can be described as a psychological state that accompanies highly engaging activities where time passes quickly, attention is fully focused on the task at hand and time seems to disappear.
Being engaged, having flow, is important to avoid students disengaging from school. Disengagement can be seen in poor attendance and dropout, substance abuse, and criminal offending.
Concentration, attention and engagement, all hallmarks of flow, have been shown to be higher when instruction is perceived as challenging and relevant. These findings suggest that students are more likely to become engaged when academic work intellectually involves them in active processes of meaningful inquiry.
Over the past few decades, the significant short-term and long-term effects of bullying have come to light. Children who have been victimised in school are at greater risk of lifetime social emotional maladjustment, substance abuse, violence and aggressive behaviour and suicide. Four forms of bullying are measured: social, verbal, physical and cyber victimisation.
Bullying is refers to one student or a group of students acting intentionally and repeatedly to cause harm or embarrassment to another student or group who have less power.
The same socio-cognitive advancements that allow middle years children to form more meaningful relationships with peers also enable them to become better manipulators. Relational aggression (manipulation, gossip and exclusion) spikes during the middle childhood years.
In the middle years, children become preoccupied with belonging to particular social groups. Children of this age are not only aware of what group they belong to but are also able to observe the social rank of different groups. Social acceptance becomes a priority at this time and can lead children to participate in bullying by initiating aggressive acts or doing nothing to intervene when bullying occurs.
Being bullied has an enduring effect on a child’s self-esteem. Negative thoughts about the self continue long after the bullying stops.
Email: education.wecsa [at] sa.gov.au