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FREW Consultants Group        
Monday, August 30 2021

Competence V's Warmth

At the beginning of most teacher’s careers some wise veteran will give the well-worn advice – ‘start in tough, let them know you’re in charge and then you can ease off’.  The idea is to show the kids who’s the boss in the classroom.  This advice holds some truth, you are the teacher and you should be the leader in the classroom but this ‘being tough’ can be counter-productive especially for young children and those who have a poor sense of self resulting from abuse and/or neglect.


From the very first time you meet a new class you have to be a professional teacher and this means you have to ‘teach’ the kids you have in front of you; you have to provide the optimum environment for all the children.  That environment consists of four factors that underpin a successful learning experience.  Each is important but some more than others depending on the maturity of the student. The diagram below illustrates the relationship between these factors where:

  • Pedagogy – This is the lesson content, style of delivery, assessment, etc. those things you should learn in preservice training.
  • Structure – This is the system of predictable consequences for the behaviour that is on display.  That behaviour includes the use of appropriate social skills as well application to set tasks. 
  • Expectations – In an effective classroom everyone knows what to expect, that is the standards of behaviour and work effort.
  • Relationships – Although last on this list, relationships is the most important for developing children, particularly those whose history of abuse/ neglect makes issues of trust tenuous.


(These factors are featured throughout the over 170 past Newsletters but ones for a quick review are:

  • Relationships               26February 2018
  • Creating Structure      12 August 2019 
  • Expectations                17 February 2020)


If you look at the four characteristics three would come under a broad heading of competence, pedagogy, followed by structure and expectation and the relationships represented as the emotional warmth or emotional competence between the student and the teacher.  These are shown below.

If you ask people if they had a teacher that really inspired them most, not all will be able to identify that special person that inspired them and if questioned about why you generally get answers like ‘they believed in me’!  


This connection is particularly important for younger students, they are the more in need of the teacher accepting them.  Schools do this quite well with kindergarten teachers providing a very pastoral approach to their student and as they mature the relationship between the teacher and student evolves into connection with their peers becoming more important.  By the time students are in their final years the subject competence of the teacher becomes much more important.  The following graph illustrates this point.


However, and this is important for those following our work, students who have suffered a history of abuse and/or neglect, do not follow this orderly progression.  They rarely, if ever experience a warm attachment with those who should provide it. 


Having these students in your class presents you with a great challenge.  These kids are hard to like, their behaviour often appals others and so, you need to discipline yourself to accept them unconditionally.  Applying the structure and expectations, the environmental competence allows you to do this.  These kids will ‘break the rules’ but the application of structure and expectations lets you reject the behaviour while completely accepting the child.


Even if you can do, this these kids will fight you at every turn.  They are suspicious of anyone who shows kindness; they are hypervigilant looking to avoid being disappointed by others.  Too often, people try to support them but easily give up and reject them. 


If the teacher is informed and motivated enough they can engage the student and a warm relationship can develop.  When this happens, they will follow the same trajectory as most kids, that is they may be thirteen when they start to trust but they can build from there.  The trust required can only be gained over a long period of time so you need to hang in with them for longer than they expect!


The importance of this connection between warmth and competency is not confined to the classroom, although I would say it is critical in the classroom it is considered essential in all activities where leadership is involved.  Amy Cuddy, professor at Harvard Business School points out that workers require their leaders to be both warm and competent but the warmth must come first.  The illustration below is a modification of the model she and her colleagues presented.

This shows that:

  • Teachers high on warmth and competence are appreciated by the students
  • Teachers that are high on warmth but are incompetent disappoint the students
  • Teachers who are competent but lack attachment create resentment because the students don’t think they care
  • Teachers who are incompetent and detached are disliked by the students


 It’s worth reviewing the things I think underpin a professional relationship a teacher can have with their student. These are:

  • Consistency, students get a sense of security and control if they can trust that they will know what happens when they make a mistake
  • Mutual trust and respect – this is paramount in building positive relationships
  • Understanding and meeting students’ needs
  • Taking the time to communicate and this does not only mean talking to them but actively listen to what they have to say
  • Maintaining consistently high standards in your behaviour
  • Responding to and nurturing a child’s passions or talents
  • Not taking setbacks personally
  • Showing vulnerability – show that you are not perfect and accept the consequences of your mistakes

So, returning to that ‘wise advice’ given to so many beginning teachers, ‘starting hard and establishing your authority before you show your warmth’ is not the best way to start with any class or student.  Sure, this approach will work for older, resilient students but for youngsters, and those damaged students, being tough risks losing the chance to make that emotional connection and you might never get this back. 


Always let your warmth come through from the beginning BUT always understand you have to set up all your competencies, pedagogy, structure and expectations.  This takes time and while you do this the relationships will hold everyone together!

Posted by: AT 09:17 pm   |  Permalink   |  1 Comment  |  Email
Thanks! Teaching 21 years and this is so true :)
Posted by Brooke on 04/09/2021 - 09:58 AM

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John R Frew
Marcia J Vallance

ABN 64 372 518 772


The principals of the company have had long careers in education with a combined total of eighty-one years service.  After starting as mainstream teachers they both moved into careers in providing support for students with severe behaviours.

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