I Believe I Can Connect: Improving Teacher-Student Relationships by Targeting Teachers' Relational Self-Efficacy Beliefs
Carly Robinson

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship

Award Year



Harvard University

Primary Discipline

Unequivocally, students with more positive teacher-student relationships attain countless more desirable outcomes than students with less positive relationships. But, cultivating positive relationships is not easy. We all have worried we will not be able to connect with new people or get a relationship back on track after a conflict. Teacher-student relationships, in particular, pose unique challenges: teachers and students are assigned to each other more or less at random each year, their power differential is exacerbated by an age gap, and teachers have to evaluate students. Despite these challenges, teachers rarely receive training or support on how to cultivate positive teacher-student relationships. Thus, it is completely reasonable that teachers may lack confidence in their ability to develop and maintain these consequential relationships with students. Research on self-efficacy shows that people's beliefs about their ability in a domain impact their performance in that domain, yet no one has studied teachers' confidence in their relationship building skills with students. In my dissertation, I introduce the concept of teachers' relational self-efficacy, which I define as teachers' beliefs about their capability to successfully form, maintain, and repair relationships with students. My theory-driven research addresses the policy- and practitioner-relevant question of how we can improve teacher-student relationships in the classroom. First, through a longitudinal study, I provide evidence that we can measure teachers' relational self-efficacy and that it predicts subsequent teacher and student perceptions of the teacher-student relationship, as well as a constellation of other valued student outcomes. Then, I experimentally test an intervention that increases teachers' relational self-efficacy and measure the downstream impact on teacher-student relationships and student achievement.
About Carly Robinson
A Ph.D. Candidate at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, Carly Robinson's research program sits at the intersection of social psychology, education, and policy. She focuses on shifting consequential beliefs within students' support systems to mobilize behaviors that help students. For example, she has helped shift parental beliefs about what ``average`` attendance patterns look like to encourage parents to get their children to school more often. Currently, Carly is developing and testing interventions that target teachers' and parents' beliefs to improve student academic and motivational outcomes. These interventions shift teachers' beliefs about their classroom practices to promote positive teacher-student relationships and parents' beliefs about their role to help them more effectively engage in their children's education. Additionally, her methodological work emphasizes open science practices, such as preregistering hypothesis-testing studies. Carly's research has been covered by various news outlets including the New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Hechinger Report, and Education Week. She has also helped communicate her findings to a wide range of educator- and general-public audiences through writing for the Shanker Institute, EducationNext, Digital Promise, and appearances on podcasts such as CPRE's Research Minutes and NPR's Hidden Brain. A former New York City teacher, Carly received a B.A. in Psychology from Williams College and a Master's in Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania.

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