Reciprocal Relationships & Empathy

Dear Academic Approach Families & Colleagues:

As we continue our focus on the research into teacher-student relationships, we want to share some insights into two types of relationships studied: instrumental and reciprocal.

Instrumental vs. Reciprocal
Arizona State University researcher Victoria Theisen-Homer analyzed relationship building in teacher-training programs. She found two relationship pathways that were prioritized in different programs:

  • An instrumental focus involved a more one-way relationship between teachers and students. These programs trained teachers to acquire information about their students for the purpose of motivation and behavior management. Theisen-Homer described the relationships as a means to an end; they were primarily constructed to build compliance from students in the classroom.
    • “Students learned that their value was tied to the degree to which they worked hard and behaved in line with what mostly white authority figures demanded.”
  • A reciprocal focus instead held teachers to a higher standard. In these programs, teachers were trained to acquire more in-depth information about their students. They also sought to understand their students more holistically and engaged in shared problem solving with them.
    • “These students not only learned to think for themselves, but also had adults who affirmed and responded to their thoughts and experiences.”

The differences in these two relationship pathways was clear. In the instrumental focus conditions, students felt valued only for their work and behavior–not as individuals. In the reciprocal focus classrooms, on the other hand, students developed stronger critical thinking skills. They also felt their own experiences were affirmed and valued.

We work with our instructors to build reciprocal relationships with their students, not only because they drive deeper learning, but also because they teach students to engage and advocate for themselves with authority figures. These strong self-advocacy skills benefit our students in high school, college, and beyond.

Reciprocation involves Empathy
Research have repeatedly found that in order to build reciprocal relationships (that yes, manage behavior, but also drive academic engagement and support deeper learning and self-advocacy), teachers must build empathy for and with their students.

Strategies for building empathy include:

  • Analyzing your own perspective and how your own cultural background or experiences may influence your attitudes and actions.
  • Modeling perspective-taking by putting yourself in the student’s shoes. Teachers practicing this skill not only better understand the challenges students face, they also recognize their strengths more readily.
  • Set high expectations for students and ensure they know how confident you are in their success.

Tomorrow, we’ll dive further into the broader implications these relationship-building pathways have on education.

Be well,
Matthew Pietrafetta, Ph.D., Founder & CEO

Matthew Pietrafetta

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