The Pat Clifford Award

2011 – CEA Pat Clifford Award Winner: Positive teacher-student relationships play a unique role for students with special needs

Dr. Jessica Toste’s work in illuminating what we know about classroom collaboration between teachers and students wins her CEA’s 2011 Pat Clifford Award for Early Career Research in Education.

The Canadian Education Association (CEA) is pleased to recognize Dr. Jessica Toste, postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Special Education at Vanderbilt University and adjunct professor in the Department of Educational & Counselling Psychology at McGill University, for showing how teacher-student relationships can make a significant contribution to student success, particularly among those with special needs.

Positive relationships between students and teachers have consistently been found to be predictors of school success, including general gains in academic achievement. Dr. Toste’s work recognizes and defines the influence of an effective working relationship between students and teachers, particularly important for students with learning disabilities.

Dr. Toste’s research applies the theory of Classroom Working Alliance, which includes the emotional aspects of the student-teacher relationship; the bond defined by a sense of a mutual trust, liking, respect, and caring. It also includes the collaborative aspects of the relationship; agreement about learning goals and activities/experiences that will help the student reach these goals. A positive alliance involves a strong sense of partnership between the teacher and the student.

“When students with special needs felt they had a strong collaborative relationship with their teacher, it actually counteracted the negative outcomes that they were more likely to have in school,” says Dr. Toste, “and overall, students who rated highly in collaborative relationships tended to have very different outcomes in school.”

Dr. Toste has validated Classroom Working Alliance with elementary-aged students and their teachers. Although Dr. Toste’s work focuses on students with learning disabilities, it is highly relevant to all students.

The Clifford Award Selection Committee was genuinely impressed with the originality, depth, and relevance of Dr. Toste’s work.