Creating Student Success From the First Day of School

Developing positive teacher-student relationships with students with autism.

Posted by Brenda Smith Myles Ph.D. on Aug 20, 2018

As Jahil approached his classroom on the first day of school, he was very nervous. Last year, he and his teacher didn’t always get along. He never felt that he belonged, and if he were honest, he didn’t always care. Mrs. Fredericks, his new teacher, stood outside the classroom door. When she saw Jahil, she smiled and said, “You’re Jahil, aren’t you? I’m excited that you are in my class. By the way, cool shoes.” Jahil smiled and immediately relaxed. He thought to himself, “She’s not too bad.”

In that simple yet important interaction, Mrs. Fredericks set the stage for an emotionally healthy classroom where Jahil can learn and grow.

In their seminal study on teacher-student relationships, Aspy and Roebuck (1977) found that five teacher behaviors were strongly related to students’ social and academic gains: a) accepts student feelings, b) uses praise, c) accepts and/or uses student ideas, d) provides instruction e) justifies authority. The authors further reported that it is “… worthwhile making sure that teachers use high levels of interpersonal skills in interactions with their students because benefits accrue to the students in terms of increases on both mental health and cognitive indices.” (p. 223)

In that one interaction, Mrs. Fredericks recognized Jahil’s feelings of anxiety, showed acceptance, and used sincere praise. This is an evidence-based practice. Recent research, including a meta-analysis of over 350,000 students, supports the findings of Aspy and Roebuck (1977) and reveals that the quality of early teacher-student relationships has a long-lasting impact. (Cornelius-White, 2007)

Positive teacher-student relationships in elementary school increase the likelihood that all learners, including those with autism, will experience fewer episodes of negative behavior. In addition, students who have a positive relationship with teachers also have higher academic achievement, fewer behavioral problems, better social skills, and greater social inclusion (cf. McCormick & O’Connor, 2015; O’Connor, Collins, & Supplee, 2012; Robertson, Chamberlain, & Kasari, 2003), including into high school. (Murray & Malmgren, 2005) This clearly impacts the long-term trajectory of school and, eventually, employment. (Baker, Grant, & Morlock, 2008; O’Connor et al., 2012)

Teachers have a strong influence on their students. That is, students’ perspectives and attitudes are formed in response to those of their teachers. Cornelius-White found that when teacher use supportive behaviors, students are more like to have positive outcomes in learning, behavior, and social-emotional growth.

From the beginning of the year, what can teachers do to create positive teacher-student relationships? Research has identified simple yet powerful ways to build supportive alliances with students (Cornelius-White). When establishing supportive relationships with students who have autism, these same strategies apply; however, they may need to be modified to be effective for the autistic neurology (Myles, Aspy, Mataya, & Shaffer, 2018). The following strategies will help you think differently about developing a relationship with an autistic student.

1. Be empathetic

Rely less on facial expressions and body language to understand how a student feels and to show how you feel. Learn basic visual supports for communicating emotions.

2. Support independent and interdependent functioning, not dependence

Be prepared to explicitly teach skills for independence and interdependence. Don’t assume that autistic students know what most students have learned through “osmosis.”

3. Be supportive of student needs

Recognize that needs of students with autism may not be typical. Sensory and cognitive differences lead to different needs.

4. Be trustworthy

Recognize that students with autism may take your words literally. Explaining when words are figurative or when something will be true most of the time can help to maintain trust.

5. Be positive

Studies show that people with ASD often read resting faces as showing anger. You may need to use visual supports and clear words to show your positive attitude toward a student.

6. Feel close to students

Write the student brief notes about how he is important to the class and you. Talk sincerely with the student about her special interests.

7. Accept student ideas

Students with ASD sometimes think in ways that surprise neurotypical teachers and peers. Nonetheless, they need to feel validated and included.

8. Praise and reinforce

Use student special interests as reinforcers.

9. Accept student feelings

Recognize that students with ASD sometimes have difficulty recognizing or labeling their own feelings. They also often have difficulty modulating their emotions. Be prepared to provide calming strategies. Recognize that discussions about emotions may be especially challenging.

10. Involve student in decision-making

Help student to set goals for learning academic, social, and behavior skills. Graph improvements with the student, so that she can understand her progress.

11. Encourage high-level thinking

Use visuals, such as T-charts, graphic organizers, and lists, in instruction. Allow students to respond verbally instead of in written format.

12. Be responsive to learners’ developmental, social, and personal needs

Teach social and daily living skills so that the student can interact successfully with others.

13. Promote student success

Modify academic work so that it is presented at the student’s level. Structure social activities for success. Incorporate special interests in student work.

14. Limit conflict

Establish clear rules and routines. Students with ASD tend to function best when their world is predictable. Clear rules and routines will decrease student anxiety and thus decrease conflict.

How important are teacher-student relationships for learners on the spectrum? Very. Teachers set the stage for student social success: “Students with ASD who have a positive relationship with their teachers have a higher level of social inclusion, have more peer relationships, and experience fewer behavior problems.” (Robertson et al., 2003)


Aspy, D. M., & Roebuck, F. N. (1977). Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like. Amherst, MA: Human.

Baker, J., Grant, S., & Morlock, L. (2008). The teacher-student relationship as a developmental context for children with internalizing or externalizing behavior problems. School Psychology Quarterly, 23(1), 3-15.

Cornelius-White, J. (2007). Learner-centered teacher-student relationships are effective: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 113-143.