Teaching, Well at Work, Well-being

Second-Hand Harm

When teacher well-being suffers, so do teacher-student relationships

“What do you think Mommy would say if she saw you doing that? Do you think she would be happy?”  

“Just leave him, he has been crying for no reason all day. He does this every single time he is dropped off.”

Emotional well-being. Mental health. We know these are important – but we don’t always recognize that it is as important to pay attention to educators’ mental health as to students’. In fact, student mental health, in many ways, relies on the emotional well-being of the educator. How so? The emotional well-being of the educator is critical in building a strong and positive teacher-student relationship. There is widespread agreement in the literature that teacher-student relationship quality is directly associated with increased academic achievement, social-emotional development, and decreased behavioural challenges. Researchers have even found that highly sensitive teachers may “buffer the effects of a negative family context for children who have insecure attachments with their mothers by reducing children’s risk for aggressive behavior.” 1

When teachers’ well-being is compromised, there is increased risk of misconduct towards children in their care. Educators who identify higher levels of work and personal stress report a decreased use of effective approaches towards child guidance, and reduced amount of time being spent on developing positive relationships with children with challenging behaviours. 2

Children who exhibit challenging behaviour such as disruptiveness or inattention may add an immense strain to resources, and educators may quickly become frustrated with the children and engage in power struggles, negative reactions and verbally abusive behaviour. While it seems the teacher’s actions occur in response to challenging behaviour, there must also be careful consideration given to the opposite notion. Educators must be reflective of the role their own depression, anxiety, and stress may have in influencing children’s behaviour.

Despite anecdotal concerns expressed by students and their parents, sensationalized media reports, and legislation developed to prevent and address maltreatment by educators, raw and honest discussions of classroom management strategies that may be emotionally damaging to children are often lacking among colleagues and in empirical research. But these dialogues must take place if we are to destigmatize getting support and deepen the culture of trust among peers. This is why attending to educator mental health must be a shared priority for all those working in or researching education settings.

High quality teacher-student relationships are characterized by warm and respectful bi-directional interactions, strong emotional support, high levels of closeness and low levels of conflict. Educators in high quality relationships with their students provide a supportive environment that promotes emotional security and student confidence, even when difficulties arise.

On the other hand, in environments where there are high levels of conflict or negativity such as yelling, sarcasm, irritability, or rigidity, there are often low levels of positive, individualized communication with each student. While factors such as child-to-teacher ratios and rotation among teachers for different subjects influence the quality of teacher-student relationships, the capacity to build high quality relationships is equally dependent on the educator’s own emotional well-being. Of course not all, or even most, educators who are highly stressed engage in overtly negative interactions; however, they may become less engaged with and attentive to their students, with minimal individualized interactions or indifference/unresponsiveness to the unique needs of each student. Such “average” relationships are not benign; they parallel a reduction of potential regarding the child’s development in these areas.

Discussions of abuse by educators can be emotionally charged and embedded in controversy. The Government of Canada, Department of Justice (2013) states that emotional abuse and/or psychological abuse is “when a person uses words or actions to control, frighten or isolate someone or take away their self-respect.” 3 Educators across Canada are bound by codes of ethics and standards of professional conduct that acknowledge the educator’s special position of both trust and power. Though the criteria for these standards differ slightly across the country, the common goal is to treat children with dignity and respect at all times.

The vast majority of educators establish positive relationships with children that support their development. But it is important to acknowledge that some educators may be unaware of the impact of their behaviour on children. Abusive conduct does not require an abusive intent on the part of the educator, and ignorance or good intent does not lessen its impact.

Yelling at students, disguising and promoting an imbalance of power as part of regular practice (“Because I said so”), rejection, shaming, degrading, humiliating, or singling out one student to criticize and punish, using emotional messages intended to invoke fear or guilt – these are all emotionally and psychologically damaging behaviours that should not take place in educational settings. Ignoring a student, being unavailable or unresponsive to a student’s needs, are acts of omission that can also be damaging.

Damaging behaviours such as those listed above do occur, and are often associated with depression, anxiety, or stress in the educator. Educators who are struggling with mental health and/or emotional well-being may not recognize if they are conducting themselves in an inappropriate or potentially abusive manner, or understand the influence their actions may be having on the child’s own behaviour and mental health. Candid discussion among colleagues and administrators is essential for peer support to address expectations of appropriate conduct. So is increased support to help reduce stress in teachers who are struggling, and a reduction of the stigma surrounding the admission that help is needed.

When children have an emotionally positive experience in school, this can be expected to positively influence the child’s functions at home, school, with peers and in the community. As educators, we must begin prioritizing our own mental health, and taking the time to care for ourselves, so that we never lose sight of the impact we may have on a child.


1 E. Buyse, K. Verschueren, and S. Doumen, “Preschoolers’ Attachment to Mother and Risk for Adjustment Problems in Kindergarten: Can teachers make a difference?” Social Development 20, no. 1 (Feb. 2011): 33-50.

2 C. Li Grining, C. Cybele Raver, K. Champion, et al., “Understanding and Improving Classroom Emotional Climate and Behavior Management in the ‘Real World’: The role of Head Start teachers’ psychosocial stressors,” Early Education & Development 1 (2010): 65-94.

3  Government of Canada, Department of Justice, About Family Violence (2013). www.justice.gc.ca/eng/cj-jp/fv-vf/about-apropos.html#emo


Images: Rob Newell, courtesy West Vancouver Schools

Meet the Expert(s)

Shawna Lee

PhD Candidate in Educational Psychology at the University of Western Ontario

Shawna Lee is a PhD Candidate in Educational Psychology at the University of Western Ontario.  Shawna's professional background includes extensive work related to children's mental health service del...

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