The importance of the social and emotional competencies of educational staff

Wednesday 11 February 2015, by Maša Vidmar

The teacher’s social and emotional competencies are linked to healthy student-teacher relationships which, in turn, create better student social, emotional and academic outcomes, including lower levels of ESL. Such competencies of the teacher can be acquired in pre-service or in-service teacher education.

Social and emotional competencies (SEC) are characterised by a high level of self-awareness (e.g. recognising one’s own emotions), social awareness (e.g. understanding that others may have different perspectives), good regulation of one’s own emotion and behaviour, relationship skills and responsible decision-making (CASEL, 2013). Teachers’ SEC are vital for students’ (social, emotional, academic) outcomes and teachers’ own well-being. However, the teacher’s SEC are often overlooked in educational research and teacher trainings.

A review of scientific findings in this article shows that teachers’ SEC are crucial for developing healthy student-teacher relationships and a positive classroom climate, both of which are factors protecting against ESL. Students who perceived the relationship with teachers negatively were found to be at greater risk of ESL (Lessard et al., 2004; Wahlgren et al., 2015). Further, teachers with interpersonal skills facilitate fewer disciplinary problems in the classroom (Crosnoe et al., 2004) which decreases the risk for ESL. We highlight the role of teachers’ relational competence, which can be viewed within the general framework of teachers’ SEC. Relational competence is defined as the teacher’s knowledge, attitudes and skills that enable them to establish and develop relationships with their students that are characterised by trust, respect, empathy and tolerance (Longva & Klokkehaug, 2013). Relational competence entails the following: respect for the other’s individuality, own authenticity in contact with the student and responsibility for the relationship with the student (Juul & Jensen, 2010). It allows teachers to understand students’ motivations and respond to their needs. As such, relationally competent teachers are more proactive and authoritative; they notice changes in students’ engagement and use emotional expressions and verbal support to promote enthusiasm for learning. It also supports effective ways of dealing with stress and encourages self-awareness and self-management.

Over the past decade, relational competence has become part of professional development interventions (Sabol & Pianta, 2012) and initial teacher education training (Nielsen, 2017). Thus, the topic of teachers’ relational competence is emerging as relevant for quality education, including ESL. It is therefore extremely important to be aware that teachers’ relational competencies can be systematically supported and developed as part of the struggle against ESL.


In the last decade, there has been growing theoretical, empirical and public attention to the promotion of students’ social and emotional competencies (Greenberg et al., 2003; Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor, & Schellinger, 2011; OECD, 2015; Schonert-Reichl, Hanson Peterson, & Hymel, 2015; Sklad, Diekstra, De Ritter, & Ben, 2012; Weare & Nind, 2011; Zins, Weissberg, Wang, & Walberg, 2004), including mindfulness and other contemplative practices (Greenberg & Harris, 2012; MLERN, 2012; Roeser & Eccles, 2015). Studies show that giving attention to these aspects reduces ESL (e.g. Cornelius-White, 2007) and bolsters students’ academic performance, life success as well as active citizenship, health-related behaviours, subjective well-being and other domains (e.g. see the review in Durlak et al., 2011; Jennings & Greenberg, 2009). Nevertheless, not many education systems provide guidance to teachers on how to develop the students’ social and emotional competencies (OECD, 2015).

It is suggested that teachers’ own social and emotional competencies (SEC) are vital for developing the social and emotional competencies of students (Schonert-Reichl, Hanson-Peterson et al., 2015) as well as for students’ learning and development in general (Jennings & Greenberg, 2009; Jensen, Bengaard Skibsted, & Vedsgaard Christensen, 2015; Jones, Bouffard, & Weissbourd, 2013). To better understand the role of teachers’ SEC and well-being in education, almost a decade ago Jennings and Greenberg (2009) proposed a theoretical model supported by an extensive literature review. Teacher’s SEC influence students’ classroom outcomes via three mediators: (1) the quality of the student-teacher relationship; (2) modelling SEC for students; and (3) classroom management (ibid.). Taken together, this helps create a healthy classroom climate which in turn fosters students’ social, emotional and academic outcomes, including staying at school (see Figure 1). Various contextual school or community factors (not depicted in the figure; e.g. principal leaderships) may also impact teachers’ SEC.

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Figure 1. The relationship between teacher social and emotional competencies and classroom and student outcomes (adapted from Jennings & Greenberg, 2009). The relations shown in bold represent the focus of this article.

In this article, we review the literature on the role of the teacher’s SEC for the student-teacher relationship and ESL. We start by conceptualising social and emotional competencies, then we review the scientific findings linking the teacher’s SECs to the quality of student-teacher relationships and examine the links to student outcomes with a focus on ESL. We highlight one specific SEC – relational competence – and its potential for tackling ESL. Finally, we conclude by outlining some implications for teacher education.


This scientific review article is based on computerised literature searches conducted in the Arizona State University library’s search engine using the key words: teacher’s social and emotional competence, relational competence, student-teacher relationship, early school leaving, drop out etc. In the next step, we examined references cited in the articles (i.e., “backward search” procedures).

Social and emotional competencies (SEC)

SEC are a broad construct denoting a wide array of competencies, ranging from specific (e.g. managing emotions, managing stress) to more general ones, for example emotional intelligence (emotion knowledge and expression/regulation, empathy, perspective taking), interpersonal skills (understanding social cues, interpreting others’ behaviour, interacting positively with others) to cognitive regulation (focusing and shifting attention, inhibiting dominant/inappropriate impulses and activating appropriate, cognitive flexibility) (Jones et al., 2013). In research and practice, CASEL’s (2013) five competency clusters for students and teachers (Schonert-Reichl, Hanson-Peterson et al., 2015) are most often used: self-awareness, self-regulation, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. Socially and emotionally competent teachers have a high level of self-awareness (e.g. they recognise their emotions, emotional strengths and weaknesses), have social awareness (e.g. they understand others may hold different perspectives, are aware of the effect of their own emotional expressions on others), take responsible decisions in which they consider how their decisions will impact everyone and exhibit prosocial values, they are good at managing (regulating) emotions and behaviour as well as establishing and maintaining relationships (e.g. regulate their behaviour in emotionally challenging situations in a way that supports a positive classroom climate and their own health, set limits firmly and respectfully).

According to the model presented in Figure 1, the teacher’s SEC establish a cyclical process; when positive, this results in positive outcomes for all, but when the teacher’s SEC are low this makes all phases of the cycle become more negative, leading to teacher burnout (Jennings & Greenberg, 2009).

Why are teachers’ SEC important: The student-teacher relationship and teacher well-being

The idea of the teacher’s SEC being important reflects the fact that learning in schools is relational (Schonert-Reichl, Hansons-Peterson, et al. 2015) and teaching is an emotional practice (Hargreaves, 1998). Thus, the teacher’s SEC influence teacher-student relationships and the centrality of relationships in human development is revealed in many theories and studies (e.g. Bowlby, 1969; Vygotsky, 1978; Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978). SEC allow teachers to understand students’ motivations and respond to their needs. Teachers are more proactive and authoritative, they notice changes in children’s engagement and use emotional expressions and verbal support to promote enthusiasm for learning (Jennings, 2015). Teachers who are calm, positive and content are more likely to respond warmly and sensitively, even when students behave in a challenging way (Jones et al., 2013). The wealth of correlational and longitudinal studies conducted in different countries with students of different ages suggests that teacher-student relationship patterns are linked to students’ social, emotional and school-related adjustment and functioning; moreover, improving and strengthening the child-teacher relationship can have a dramatic impact on children’s outcomes as well as the teachers’ own mental health, job satisfaction, sense of efficacy (for a review, see Pianta, Hamre, & Stuhlman, 2003).

Several longitudinal studies show that a teacher’s report of a supportive relationship with a student has positive effects on students’ behavioural and academic adjustment (e.g. Birch & Ladd, 1996; Curby, Rimm-Kaufman, & Ponitz, 2009; Hamre & Pianta, 2001; Hughes, Cavell, & Jackson, 1999; Ladd, Birch, & Buhs, 1999; Meehan, Hughes, & Cavell, 2003; O’Connor & McCartney, 2007; Pianta & Stuhlman, 2004; Valiente, Lemery-Chalfant, Swanson, & Reiser, 2008). Results of international studies (e.g. PISA in OECD, 2013 & OECD, 2017) also support these findings. Namely, in all countries and economies students from a similar socio-economic background and with an equal performance who reported better student-teacher relations (greater teacher support, fairness of the teacher) also reported a stronger sense of belonging to their school. And, on the contrary, different studies show that student-teacher conflict or other types of poor relationships negatively affect students’ academic adjustment (e.g. Heatly & Votruba-Drzal, 2017; Portilla et al., 2014; Troop-Gordon & Kuntz, 2013) and achievement (Anderman, 2003; Pittman & Richmond, 2007). Similarly, Bryk and Schneider (2004) found in their 7-year study of 400 elementary schools that the quality of social relationships among the school community – principals, teachers, students and parents – is central to their functioning, and strongly predicts positive student outcomes. Hattie (2009) in his review listed student-teacher relationships as being highly influential for student achievement and the effect of high quality relationships between the teacher and students seems to have lasting positive effects on students’ learning and motivation (Hattie & Yeates, 2014). Teacher-rated teacher-student closeness, conflict and dependency predicted student engagement (Doumen, Koomen, Buyse, Wouters, & Verschueren, 2012). A student-teacher-relationship-based intervention conducted in a high-risk school environment impacted the student’s academic achievement (but not their social and emotional adjustment, although some promising trends were observed; Murray & Malmgren, 2005). Along the same lines, in the literature review commissioned by the Norwegian Ministry of Education it is concluded that the ability to form and maintain quality relations between the teacher and students and an overall view of students as having potential teaching skills (along with solid didactical competencies and classroom management skills) seem to make a difference in the classroom (Nordenbo, Larsen, Tiftikci, Wendt, & Østergaard, 2008). It is important to note that there is minimal agreement between the student and teacher ratings of their student-teacher relationships (Murray, Murray, & Waas, 2008).

Student-teacher relations have an exceptionally powerful influence over teachers’ job satisfaction (OECD, 2014) and are also related to teachers’ sense of efficacy (Yoon, 2002). Many teachers and student teachers find relations and interaction with the pupils to be the most difficult aspect of teaching (Jensen et al., 2015). Thus, in addition to the promotion of social, emotional and academic outcomes in students, another line of scientific interest in the teacher’s SEC and student-teacher relationship stems from the increasing concern for teachers’ well-being (e.g. Spilt, Helma, Koomen, & Thijs, 2011; Vesely, Saklofske, & Leschied, 2013), especially in the context of the growing demands placed on teachers. Teachers and schools are now expected to have much broader areas of responsibility than in the past, e.g. taking individual aspects of students’ development into account (including different languages and student backgrounds, disadvantaged students and students with learning or behavioural problems – the inclusion paradigm), leading the learning process in the classroom (including the use of new technologies and advances in student assessment), contributing to the school’s development and maintaining connections with the local community and wider world (OECD, 2005). This can lead to stress and burnout (Jennings & Greenberg, 2009). A meta-analysis of effects and causes in teacher stress revealed the strongest association between external stressors (e.g. student behaviour, school structure, colleagues, personal life) and the teacher’s (negative) emotional response, confirming the central role of the teacher’s SEC (Montgomery & Rupp, 2005).

The link with ESL

Theoretical models of ESL (e.g. Battin-Pearson et al., 2000; Fall & Roberts, 2012) and longitudinal studies (e.g. Jimerson , Egeland, Sroufe, & Carlson, 2000) establish that personal, family-related and school-related factors contribute to ESL. Although the former influence the probability of ESL, school-related risk factors have received a lot of scientific attention as they represent the best targets for intervention (Lessard, Poirier, & Fortin, 2010). The student-teacher relationship is one such school-level variable found in many (but not all) studies as a determining factor relating to the student’s choice to stay at school or drop out.

In a study by Battin-Pearson et al. (2000), low school bonding at the age of 14 (i.e. low commitment to school, low attachment to teachers, low attachment to school) predicted ESL at age 16 indirectly via poor academic achievement. Students who perceived their relationship with teachers negatively were found to be at greater risk of ESL, an effect even more pronounced for boys (Lessard, Fortin, Joly, Royer, & Blaya, 2004). Along the same lines, Crosnoe, Johnson and Elder (2004) found that the affective dimension of student-teacher relationships (students’ positive views of their teachers) contributed significantly to higher academic achievement and fewer disciplinary problems. Some studies did not find the importance of student-teacher relationships to be an ESL factor as perceptions and attitudes of students to their teachers were generally similar whether or not they were at risk of dropping out of school (Lessard et al., 2010). Low perceived teacher support significantly contributed to school maladjustment (Demaray & Malecki, 2002).

The integral role of the student-teacher relationship for ESL was also found in qualitative studies of individual stories of potential ESLers and those who already dropped out. Finding a teacher who cared and was supportive made students feel acknowledged, which helped in prolonging their stay at school. On the other hand, a sense of being alienated from their teacher and escalated conflicts with teachers directly resulted in pivotal moments in leaving school (Lessard et al., 2008). Similar findings were reported by Tidwell (1988) and Murray and Mitchel (2013). Clandinin et al. (2010) conducted interviews with 19 young people who had already dropped out of high school. Some participants felt as if their teachers did not care about or support them, resulting in negative relationships while, on the other hand, support and understanding underpinned positive relationships. Similarly, the perceived care and support from teachers in complex models of indirect effects (i.e. via identification with school, behavioural engagement, academic engagement, academic achievement) contributed to lower ESL levels (Fall & Roberts, 2012). On the contrary, in another study ESL boys reported no particularly negative experiences with their schools, teachers or the way they were treated (Beekhoven & Dekkers, 2005).

We may conclude that in the case of ESL the teacher-student relationship is an area worthwhile strengthening. Research by Wahlgren, Mariager-Andersson and Hovmand Sørensen (2015) suggests that the development of teachers’ socio-pedagogical competence has a positive effect on dropout rates and is therefore a good starting point. In a 3-year development project, teachers improved their ability to create networks among students, to talk to students, to read the social interaction of a group and to give academically relevant feedback, which led to more positive relationships and lower dropout rates.

What is the next step?

Given the fundamental role of educators’ SEC demonstrated above, it is clear that these competencies need to (and can) be built, developed and trained. [1] This is not to undermine the importance of substantive knowledge and knowledge about teaching methods, class management and child development, but to put it on an equal footing. However, there is a false assumption that all educators naturally possess SEC; an assumption that needs to be overcome (Jones et al., 2013). For example, in the USA analyses of state-level teacher certification requirements reveal that the promotion of teachers’ SEC is given very little emphasis in teacher education standards (Schonert-Reichl, Hanson-Peterson et al., 2015). Practices and policies to support and promote teachers’ SEC are vital, including teacher pre-service and in-service training or programmes.

A limited but growing number of interventions/programmes is designed to support teachers’ SEC (e.g. RULER, MTP, CARE, SMART, see Jones et al., 2013 for details). For example, a recent study (Schonert-Reichl, Roeser et al., 2015) showed the ‘value-added’ of a combined programme for cultivating students’ socio-emotional competencies – one in which educators receive support for their SEC and then implement a socio-emotional learning programme for students. In another study, the mindfulness-based programme CARE for Teachers improved teachers’ SEC (e.g. emotion regulation) as well as the quality of their classroom interactions (Jennings et al., 2017).

However, while these interventions are promising, what really needs to happen is that SEC become embedded in day-to-day interactions at school for everyone – students, teachers, staff and administrators (Jones et al., 2013). This means that SEC must develop in the context of daily life in the classroom/school as emotional and social challenges and other teaching opportunities arise.

Focusing on a specific SEC of the teacher: Relational competence

An attempt to achieve the ‘all-present-social-and-emotional-competence’ is seen in the Danish Relational Competence project (2012–2016; Nielsen, 2017) that drew together multiple stakeholders, levels and perspectives (i.e. teacher students, faculty professors, in-service teachers, pupils, experts from non-government organisations).

Relational competence is a concept proposed by Juul and Jensen (2010) and can be viewed within the general framework of the teacher’s SEC (see CASEL, 2013; Jones et al., 2013). Relational competence is defined as the teacher’s ability to see an individual student as a unique being and to thus attune their own actions (behaviour) without abandoning their leadership role and authenticity in their contact with the student. As stated by Juul and Jensen (2011), the basis for high-quality relationships is that students/children are understood and treated as individuals – as autonomous persons who play an active role in building and maintaining relationships. This process is not only about a communication technique, but about the dialogue which is based on the sincere wish and competence of the adults to react openly and with sensitivity; it is “an ability to meet students with openness and respect, to show empathy and be able to take responsibility for one’s own part of the relation” (Jensen et al., 2015). The adult has to consider both: his inner reality and their understanding of the child. The quality of the relationship depends on how authentic adults (teachers) are in such communication and how included the children (students) feel. Moreover, it is the professional’s ability and will to take full responsibility for the quality of the relationship (Juul & Jensen, 2010; for a more detailed description, see Vidmar & Kerman, 2016).

The concept of teachers’ responsibility for the student-teacher relationship refers to the fact that student-teacher relationships are asymmetrical (Pianta, Hamre, & Stuhlam, 2003) and that teachers are responsible for creating contact and for the quality (reciprocity, dynamics) of the relationship. Thus, when a positive, supportive and accepting relationship with a student or a group of students does not develop, the teacher asks himself what is he doing that hinders this positive relationship from being built (and adapts his/her behaviour accordingly). Teachers are role models for how to communicate. Thus, teachers need to know how to form, maintain, improve and strengthen quality relationships; how to work consciously and systematically by viewing the relationship as a space for development and learning. The teacher is responsible for creating contact with the child, as well as the reciprocity and dynamics of the conversations. The teacher holds the biggest responsibility for a creating good interaction and good learning environment, and for engaging in development-supporting relations (Jensen et al., 2015; Juul & Jensen, 2010, 2011).

Teachers’ relational competence was systematically developed within the longitudinal cooperative Relational Competence project (Nielsen, 2017). The project aimed to develop educators’ relational competence (including attentive presence of mind (mindfulness) and empathy); educators from different levels were involved: (1) the teacher-educator level (professors at the faculty of education); (2) the teacher-education level (pre-service teachers, i.e. students); and (3) the school level (in-service teachers and other professional staff in schools) (Nielsen, 2017). The fact the relational competence training took place over the course of 4 years and was aimed at the participants’ personal development ensured that the training’s effects would be better integrated and internalised. Moreover, the fact that not only student teachers but also their professors at the faculty and teachers working in schools participated in the training increased the chances of sustainability. The results show that the training actually increases future teachers’ relational competence, but that learning and development takes time – after the first two years of the project, the researchers deduced that it had increased relational competence (Jensen et al., 2015). Participants were aware of the possibility to distance themselves from the teacher’s role and became both more aware of and actually involved the pupils, their reactions and experiences in the teaching as well as put greater attention on their own reactions and approaches and recognised them as key factors in teaching (Jensen et al., 2015). The participants learned how to effectively manage students via different exercises (Laursen and Nielsen, 2016). The study’s final results show that participants acknowledged the importance of the relationships and the concrete tools and approaches for developing these relationships with students as well as the role of continuous reflection, although so-called inner exercises created challenges for some participants (Nielsen, 2017).


Social and emotional competencies are characterised by a high level of self-awareness (e.g. recognising one’s own emotions), social awareness (e.g. understanding that others may hold different perspectives), good regulation of one’s own emotion and behaviour, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. Students develop their SEC in everyday interactions with their teachers and other educational and non-educational staff at school. Thus, teachers’ SEC are crucial for developing healthy student-teacher relationships and a positive classroom climate, both of which are factors protecting against ESL; the teacher’s SEC are also vital for the teacher’s own well-being.

Relational competence can be viewed within the general framework of SEC. It includes the knowledge, attitudes and skills that enable someone to establish and develop learning relationships characterised by trust, respect, empathy and tolerance (Longva & Klokkehaug, 2013). As such, on one hand relational competence allows teachers to function effectively in class as they can adjust their behaviour to the situation (Juul & Jensen, 2010) and, on the other, they are more able to engage, inspire and motivate students. Further, they know how to become more available when students need help with learning and understanding the material being taught. Relationally competent teachers are able to identify and promote young people’s special interests and skills to acknowledge that schools value the diversity they bring. Relationally competent teachers are present in their relationship with students and do not escape into the omniscient position of the subject they teach. Relationally competent teachers go beyond autocratic and rigid behaviour management in response to misbehaviour – they take responsibility for the misbehaviour. Within this framework, what is happening is not used as a diagnostic tool (what is wrong with a child, how to fix it), but as a reflective tool (what is the happening telling me). In this way, the education experience is personalised and can also help identify any academic and personal problems (Bridgeland, DiIulio, & Burke Morison, 2006). We may therefore conclude that in the case of ESL teachers’ relational competence is extremely important. And not only does the teacher’s relational competence support the development of more positive and close relationships with the students, which in turn motivates them to remain in school, but it also increases the teacher’s own quality of life and will to more effectively face the different problems that emerge during the educational process. Over the past decade, relational competence has become part of professional development interventions (Sabol & Pianta, 2012) and initial teacher education training (Nielsen, 2017).

By using the above conclusions as a starting point, researching and acknowledging behaviour and thinking patterns which affect teaching efficacy and potential realisation are becoming essential for enhancing relational competence. It is important is to realise that teachers’ and students’ empathy, awareness and self-accord can be strengthened and systematically developed by adopting specific approaches (Jensen, Juul, Høeg, Bertelsen, Stubberup, & Hildebrandt, 2016) in and outside the learning process.


[1It is important to note that a supportive school culture is also very important for enhancing teachers’ SEC (Jones et al., 2013).

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