Building positive relationships is critical to helping young people flourish

Opinion: Nurturing the relational in education takes courage for the school community

“Education does not change the world. Education changes people. People change the world,” said Paulo Freire.

The Irish education system plays a vital role in shaping how children and young people understand themselves and the world around them. While we often consider the educational purpose of our system, underpinned by teaching, learning and, of course, curriculum, less visible is the intersection between edu-cating and edu-caring permeating our schools through the power of the relational. Indeed, the relational in education plays a critical role in changing people, who then go on to change the world.

The UN Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) provides a critical tool by which we can hold our education system to account for ensuring that all young people have the opportunity to develop their “personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential” (article 29, 1 (a)).

Building and nurturing positive relationships within education is critical to realising this right, ensuring that all children and young people are afforded the opportunity to flourish and thrive to their fullest potential.


Education is deeply embedded within the complexity of the relational. This includes the formal and informal relational dynamics operating throughout the school day. It ranges from the everyday interactions within the school environment, the flux and flow of classroom dynamics, the complexities of young people’s social worlds to the more formal pedagogical relationships translating curriculum between teacher and pupil/student. Indeed, the relational provides the foundation upon which the more formal pedagogical interactions underpinning teaching and learning can be scaffolded. Nurturing the relational aspects of education are key to ensuring effective engagement in our system.

Mutual respect signals healthy and positive school relationships, while disrespect can often signal a damaging breakdown in the relational

While it is challenging to capture the essence of the relational at the heart of education, there are particular dimensions key to nurturing children and young people in school.

Trust is critical to nurturing the relational, as relationships cannot grow or flourish in its absence. It is within trusting relationships that children and young people feel cared for and about, which is important for effective educational engagement. Mutual respect signals healthy and positive school relationships, while disrespect can often signal a damaging breakdown in the relational.

To empathise with, be compassionate to, and acknowledge the complexities of young people’s stories is especially important to ensuring effective engagement in education. Schools provide safe spaces within which young people can engage, be cared for and learn. The relational is further deepened when young people feel understood, listened to and heard. We cannot underestimate the power of listening to, hearing and acting upon young people’s voices in education for promoting their active citizenship at national and global level.

Valuing and affirming young people as they present their authentic selves through the relational is especially important in shaping their identities in education and as Irish and global citizens.

This is realised through encouragement and support, ensuring that young people feel accepted within the school community and beyond. Indeed, being accepted for who you are is one of the most powerful and empowering experiences for young people in education.

Nurturing the relational in education takes great courage and vulnerability for everyone in the school community. It takes courage to create safe spaces to be vulnerable, to open hearts and to build and nurture relationships. However, nurturing these core relational dimensions in education can only contribute to a positive sense of wellbeing in our children and young people enhancing effective educational engagement. The work of edu-caring and building the relational in school requires an investment of time, emotional as well as physical resources and patience to meet the young person where they are at, at any given time.

The relational dimensions of education are framed/constrained by the temporal and spatial aspects of schooling – that is to say time and space within education shapes how we grow and nurture relationships.

The physical closure of schools during the pandemic highlighted the challenges and barriers to effective educational engagement in the absence of the relational. While the work of teachers, SNAs, school leaders and school communities is embedded within the relational, programmes such as the school completion programme and the home school community liaison scheme under Deis (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools) provide safe spaces to further nurture the relational to support and re/engage our most at-risk and vulnerable pupils/students in our system.

The education system has an ethical and moral responsibility to nurture our young people's hearts and minds in a manner that empowers them to shape their lives and their worlds around them

Such schemes are the fulcrum of care within our Deis schools, guiding and supporting young people and their families.

Schools and young people’s lives are dynamic, constantly in flux and changing from moment to moment. This requires responsiveness, professional agency and creativity in addressing the individual needs of pupils/students to ensure they flourish and thrive within our education system and society. It is critical we empower professional agency and creativity within education to facilitate context-specific responses to the complex and multifaceted dimensions of our young people’s lives.

It is essential to acknowledge the powerful role the relational plays in education. The everyday interactions within our schools play a critical role in shaping how children and young people engage in education with profound implications for their life course experiences and outcomes. The education system has an ethical and moral responsibility to nurture our young people’s hearts and minds in a manner that empowers them to shape their lives and their worlds around them. Indeed, as Bell Hooks argues : “To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students isessential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.”

Dr Deirdre McGillicuddy is a mother of three primary school children, a primary school teacher and assistant professor in education in University College Dublin