More Reasons to Listen: Learning Lessons from Pupil Voice for Psychology and Education

International Journal of Student Voice

A peer-reviewed, independent, open-access journal

Pennsylvania State University

Volume 5                            IJSV                           September, 2019

More Reasons to Listen: Learning Lessons from Pupil Voice for Psychology and Education

Helen A. Demetriou  University of Cambridge

Citation: Demetriou, H. A. (2019). More reasons to listen: Learning lessons from pupil voice for psychology and education. International Journal of Student Voice, 5(3).

Abstract: Pupil voice has highlighted the importance and impact of listening to children about a multitude of school-related matters. Whilst gaining an insight into pupils’ thoughts about school, listening to pupil voice relays to pupils that their opinions matter, and more importantly, that the pupils themselves matter. As a consequence, a number of factors increase and improve, such as self-esteem and experiences at school including learning and relationships with teachers. This paper draws parallels with psychological theories of attitudes and attachment, where the need to engage with the child in both teaching and parenting is paramount in order to create an environment where the child feels they are listened to and respected in order to thrive. Bringing together psychology and education, recounted here are personal and professional experiences of the effects of listening and what these disciplines can learn from pupil voice.

Keywords: listening, attitudes, attachment, pupil voice, psychology, education, teaching, learning.

Online Discussion Questions:

  • To what extent can the disciplines of psychology and education learn from each other in terms of our attachments with children as parents and teachers?
  • Rejection and neglect are often features of parenting and teaching. What can we learn from the study of attitudes about the importance of reviewing our perceptions and preconceptions of children?
  • Dewey proposed that pupils should take an active, child-led role in their learning. If he were around today, would he be impressed?
  • The voice of even very young pupils should be listened to. What implications are there for their social, emotional and cognitive development?


We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak. (Epictetus, Greek philosopher, circa 50AD)


What happens when we stop and listen to the voices of the people we nurture … and what happens when we don’t listen? In the context of teaching, pupil voice refers to ways of listening to the views of pupils and/or involving them in decision making. Consulting and listening to pupils about things that matter in school and which invariably affect them offers pupils a stronger sense of membership—the organizational dimension—so that they feel positive about school; a stronger sense of respect and self worth—the personal dimensionso that they feel positive about themselves; a stronger sense of self-as-learner—the pedagogic dimensionso that they are better able to manage their own progress in learning; and a stronger sense of agency—the political dimensionso that they see as worthwhile becoming involved in school matters and contributing to the improvement of teaching and learning. In the context of parenting also, these four dimensional goals are relevant where listening to the voice of the child should be no less prominent and efficacious. Where parents are the gatekeepers and determiners of change in the home, teachers are likewise in the school. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC; United Nations, 1989) and the subsequent Childrenemphasized the importance of children’s views being heard and taken seriously, as does UNICEF in its program of Rights Respecting Schools. Since the pioneering research at the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education that focused on the effects of pupil consultation, the concept of pupil voice has become integrated within education worldwide. Pupils, as a consequence of this approach to teaching and learning, are themselves the agents of pedagogical change. The result is a transformed and democratically aligned school structure in which pupils are proactive agents in their learning (Storey, 2007); and where teacher-pupil relationships are transfrormed with improvements in teachers’ practices and pupils’ experiences of themselves as learners (Rudduck & McIntyre, 2007).

I have researched and consulted in psychology and education for organizations such as the UK Department for Education (DfE), Ofsted (UK school inspectorate), QCA, the Gatsby foundation, and the Houses of Parliament (Shipton & Bermingham, 2018), and the outcomes have emphasized the importance and practice of listening to the pupil voice and using social and emotional skills in the classroom for the benefit of both teacher and learner. Listening to pupils talk about their experiences as learners has challenged assumptions and attitudes and provoked reflection and led to changes in schools, both nationally and internationally (Arnot, McIntyre, Pedder, & Reay, 2004; Demetriou & Wilson, 2010; Fielding, 2004; Flutter & Rudduck, 2004; MacBeath, Myers & Demetriou, 2001). Listening to the pupil voice, as proposed in the Cambridge Primary Review (Alexander, Doddington, Gray, Hargreaves, & Kershner, 2010), has shown that increased involvement of pupils in the day to day business of the school as a learning community is likely to enhance their engagement with learning and their progress as learners. Ofsted and the government department for education (DfE, 2014) have since included pupil voice in their agendas. The outcomes are now reflected in present day teaching with recognition by Ofsted (2016) that considers the quality of attachments in children among its inspection framework. The parallels with parenting suggest that we as teachers also need to develop and use our social and emotional skills for the benefit of the learner in order that learners feel valued and respected and believe in themselves and their social, emotional, and cognitive capabilities.

It all begins though with the important act of listening, and interestingly, the old English word for “listen” was “hlysnan,” which meant to “pay attention to.” In this reflective article, I cite both personal and professional experiences of listening to young people’s voices. My aim is to emphasize the importance of engaging with the young person through listening and increasing our understanding of their needs and thereby highlighting the impact of educators and caregivers alike. From social psychology’s study of attitudes, to developmental psychology’s focus on attachments, together with education’s more recent acknowledgment of pupil voice—all three theories and practices can learn from one another. As humans, we have the power to shape the outcomes of those we nurture. Paying attention to others, the attitudes we hold of them, and the attachments we form have an indelible and indefatigable effect on their outcomes. Moreover, these attitudes and attachments can be adjusted when we attempt to view young people in a new light.

Our Attitudes and Their Developmental Outcomes

Psychological research from experiments to observations has shown the direct effect that the quality and quantity of parenting can have on a child, resulting in varying degrees of security within relationships. “Too Much Mother Love” was the title of a chapter by Watson (1928) as a warning to mothers. In it he wrote:

When you are tempted to pet your child remember that mother love is a dangerous instrument. An instrument which may inflict a never-healing wound, a wound which may make infancy unhappy, adolescence a nightmare, an instrument which may wreck your adult son or daughter’s vocational future and their chances for marital happiness. Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit in your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight. Shake hands with them in the morning. (p. 87)

Such a stark view of parenting was subsequently overruled by a flurry of theorists and researchers. With little scope for leniency, Freud (1940/1979) reflected on the nature of the mother-child relationship, emphasising its profound influence in later life, as forming the blueprint for and determining the nature of all future relationships for the child: unique, without parallel, established unalterably for a whole lifetime and as the prototype of all later love relationships (p. 45). Many of Freud’s followers were in favor of the effect of nurturing, as were other famous names associated with attachment-related theories including Harlow (1961), Bowlby (1969), Ainsworth (1978) and Fonagy (2012), whose works resonate with the importance of the infant’s first emotional attachment to a caregiver as a prerequisite for subsequent healthy capacity to empathize and thus, in turn, form healthy relationships of their own.

We know that from a very young age children are impressionable and responsive to social cues (Demetriou & Hay, 2004; Sorce & Emde, 1981) and their social and emotional skills are developed through the significant adults they encounter. Moreover, the nature and quality of the mother-child relationship has been shown to determine the nature and quality of the relationships that the child itself will go on to form. Freud (1940/1979), for example, envisioned the mother-child attachment relationship as being the prototype or blueprint to all future relationships and being predictive of the child’s own parenting skills. In keeping with theories of psychoanalysis, Bowlby (1969) agreed with Freud that mental health and behavioral problems were direct outcomes of early childhood experiences, and in particular, attachment quality. Our attitudes and attachments are as vital in teaching, as is the potential severity of outcomes when we miss or misuse opportunities exhibited by learners. Coopersmith (1967) investigated the powerful effect of a parent’s unconditional positive regard on the development of self-esteem and the importance of that self-esteem in turn for that child’s development. In his study, the self-esteem of hundreds of nine- to ten-year-old boys was measured, and he found the boys with high self-esteem to be the most expressive and active but also the most successful and confident group, both academically and socially. In addition to this, Coopersmith found that these boys were also the ones who received positive affection from parents with firm boundaries on acceptable behavior, whereas low self-esteem was related to harsh or unloving parenting with a lack of parenting restrictions. Moreover, the longitudinal dimension of this research into adulthood revealed that it was the high self-esteem boys who were the most successful in their careers and relationships, thus confirming that healthy attachments during childhood are positively associated with more balanced and successful individuals, but also provide the blueprint with which children can go on to form their own successful relationships and life events.

I have witnessed both privately and professionally, in the context of both parenting and teaching, instances of neglect, rejection, and aggression on the part of the adult which have had enduring and pervasive effects. When a young child says she has had a nightmare, and the parent flippantly brushes the remark off by saying, “There are no such things as nightmares” (and it could be that the parent is trying to protect the child by saying this), the child interprets the parent’s response as dismissive and rejecting and internalizes their experience, and indeed themselves, as having little credence and credibility. As well as the nightmare scenario being left unresolved for the child, more significant are the feelings of worthlessness, anxiety, and rejection that are life-long, with the constant wish to please and avoid awkward situations. Another debilitating effect on a child’s development is the consequence of being rejected for as long as they can remember by the parent. In this scenario, when the parent has been rejected herself, sometimes the only course of action is to reject her own daughter. The daughter is eager to please, but the mother does not respond to any of her daughter’s well-meaning and altruistic actions. The result is trying to please other people they encounter and resolve challenging situations so that they are deemed worthy and to prove to themselves that they have a role in life and can take control. Both these instances resulted in the individuals experiencing psychological issues centered around control (due to the lack of control and structure in their younger years) that have endured as adults and which will probably be with them for the rest of their lives. The question marks and gaps in their early relationships, through lack of explanation and/or total rejection, have made the children query themselves and their own self-worth with feelings of inadequacy. The lack of parental response or attention can lead to feelings of worthlessness and dejection. The basic human need for acceptance has been denied, and the natural reaction is to seek that acceptance and approval elsewhere and/or constantly maintain control of situations, and repetitively aim to please through to adulthood and beyond when there is a constant need to prove to themselves that they are worthy to be accepted and approved by themselves and society.

At the other extreme, aggressive or dismissive parenting can lead to switching a child’s emotions off completely, so that they experience difficulties in loving themselves and forming stable relationships with other people. Such cases range from borderline personality disorder to psychopathy (Baron-Cohen, 2011), where, despite being able to have an empathic understanding of the other’s situation, there is a lack of emotional empathy for the other person. Again, because there has been a dearth of structure and control, this is sought after, but often with serious repercussions. Doing away with a “tick-box” system, the developing individual should be allowed to question and fail, as well as succeed, without being rushed or insulted, and to live where sympathy, support, and understanding are cultivated between parent and child. As Ginott (2003) claimed: “It is essential that a child’s life not be ruled by the adult’s need for efficiency. Efficiency is the enemy of infancy. It is too costly in terms of the child’s emotional economy” (p. 169).

Much of what makes a secure attachment relationship, whether it be child-parent or child-teacher in nature, is the importance of listening to the child, taking them seriously and respecting their views. Pupil voice research has escalated and shown the importance of listening to pupils for teaching and learning. As we can learn from attachment theory for teaching, we can likewise learn from pupil voice for parenting. Learners, like anyone else, not least children with their parents, want to be heard and validated. As a result, they are more proactive about their learning and themselves as confident and autonomous individuals. If someone can make them feel important through the mere act of listening, but also of course, acting on that listening, then they can feel good about themselves and their own learning, and teachers should not be afraid to listen (Cook-Sather, 2009). Indeed, student voice is most successful when it enables students to feel that they are members of a learning community, that they matter, and that they have something valuable to offer. Similarly, allowing children to have a voice and be heard within parenting, enables them to feel valued in the family context, where their concerns are heard and their opinions matter as much as any other person in that relationship.

“Seeing” Young People Differently: Moving Away from Preconceptions

Teacher expectations can influence student performance, and at one level can be explained through the Pygmalion effect. Pygmalion was a sculptor in Cypriot mythology who, despite being disillusioned with women, fell in love with an ivory statue of his own making. Begging the gods to give him a wife in the likeness of the statue, they grant the request, and the statue comes to life. From mythology to psychology, from shaping a sculpture to shaping the future and development of children, the “Pygmalion effect” was coined in 1968 by Rosenthal and Jacobsen (also called the “Rosenthal effect”), who showed that biased perceptions through teacher expectations can affect reality and influence pupil performance. Thus, whereas positive expectations influence performance positively, negative expectations influence performance negatively: “When we expect certain behaviours of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behaviour more likely to occur” (Rosenthal & Babad, 1985).

From the hurdles and challenges of our often-biased perceptions towards others, such stories and studies alike have shown that our initially tainted negative expectations have an effect on performance and outcome and can be overcome by changing our attitudes and the nature of our attachments. Even if we are not in possession of the full facts, if we value pupils’ abilities, we can create a climate of success. Teacher expectations can influence pupil achievement, and they may subconsciously behave in ways that facilitate and encourage pupils’ success. Rosenthal believed that even a mere attitude or mood could positively affect the pupils when the teacher was made aware of the “bloomers.” The teacher may pay closer attention to and even treat the child differently in times of difficulty. If we expect enhanced performance from children, then children’s performance will be enhanced, thereby supporting the idea that reality can be positively or negatively influenced by the expectations of others. This phenomenon is called the “observer-expectancy effect,” (Rosenthal, 1966) such that Rosenthal argued that biased expectancies can affect reality and create self-fulfilling prophecies. The attachments that teachers form as a result of their attitudes toward pupils can compound the effect of the learner feeling valued and worthy of the attention. Just as parents can learn from the Pygmalion effect in the classroom, so teachers can learn about the impact and relevance of attachment theory for teaching.

In education, Dewey (1933) practiced attachment teaching when he wrote of the necessity to address students’ emotions in education: There is no education when ideas and knowledge are not translated into emotion, interest, and volition” (p. 189). Moreover, Dewey (1899) prioritized the needs of the child when considering the curriculum, and his astronomical analogy places the child centre stage in education:

The change which is coming into our education is the shifting of the center of gravity. It is a change, a revolution, not unlike that introduced by Copernicus when the astronomical center shifted from the earth to the sun. In this case the child becomes the sun about which the appliances of education revolve; he is the center about which they are organized. (p. 151)

Dewey advocated the need for children to have the freedom to be at the center of their learning, where the teacher, content and secure in themselves can relinquish such a role to the child, while still having overall control and mastery, so that the child does not feel neglected or rejected, but rather gain enough autonomy and ownership of their learning, and where inspirations and aspirations can be fulfilled. Important also is seeing the learner as a social and emotional being (as well as cognitively adept), and realizing that the social and emotional aspects of a person change with time and are directly and sometimes adversely affected by and influenced by the educator. Such pupil-teacher relationships and their consequences for attachment are a mirror image of child-parent attachment relationships. The parallels with teaching are clear. In order to unlock the transformative potential of pupil perspective and participation teachers need to “see” pupils differently (Cook-Sather, 2014; Demetriou & Wilson, 2010; Mati, Gatumu, & Chandi, 2016). Moreover, as pupils develop a more “professional” language for discussing their learning, they are less likely to disengage, they are able to contribute effectively to the agenda for school improvement, and are more committed and effective learners.

But when teachers in their efficient, tick-box mode do not stop to reassess the situation and address the learner, the repercussions of the attachments are tangible, and the learners are very aware that they are seen but not heard. More often than not, children and learners are open to change, something that often teachers are not. I have experienced first hand such resistance to change with some of the teachers at crucial times during a pupil’s education. It serves as a warning to teachers and educators of the potential harm of sticking with a label of a pupil formed from first impressions. We try to instill the concept of the growth mindset in pupils, and yet often we are the culprits. Perhaps in this instance, it should be “do as I say and do as I do.” Admittedly, this particular pupil tended to be disengaged in certain lessons, and understandably, teachers would become frustrated. He lacked focus at GCSE and hence put very little effort into his exams. Having gained a focus and interest in his subjects at A Level, and also I suspect through maturity and development, by sixth form he became very driven and focused. In fact I am still amazed by the transformation and wonder whether it is indeed the same person! He excelled at A level and is now studying chemistry at his first choice of university. However, the journey to this point was not smooth as the new-found motivation, while being beneficial for the pupil to thrive and believe in himself as a learner and achiever, was not appreciated and cultivated by some of his teachers. The pupil was moving on, but the teachers were not moving with him. The teachers were the ones with the fixed mindsets. They had known him as a disengaged pupil, saw the pupil of old, and it seemed were not willing to give him the benefit of the doubt as a new learner. He said at one point: “It makes me regret staying at the sixth form because the labels stick.” And, having worked very hard and making good progress, he did not feel this was being recognized and was in vain. He told me: “It makes me feel I’ve worked all this time for nothing.” Even when he tried to change his ways, teachers’ unchanging, avoidant, and rejecting attitude led to a deflated, questioning pupil, whose self-esteem and motivation suffered, and who found himself in a hopeless and helpless situation.

Interestingly, the teachers who had not taught this pupil pre-A Level, worked with him, encouraged him and praised him, saw the potential, and gave support. He said: “It’s no coincidence that [teacher] is treating me differently.” Such treatment by the supportive teachers led directly to a greater motivation and self-esteem and determination to succeed. It really is no coincidence therefore, and I really want to emphasize the attitudes of teachers—and not just from main school to sixth form but also from day to day through the school career —seeing pupils afresh, not blinkered in their perceptions of pupils and giving them that room for maneuver. As with parents who move with their children as they grow, teachers also need to move with their students, listen to their needs and new-found voices and aspirations.

When a learner, or indeed any human being, is not listened to, they interpret this as being at the least inconsiderate and lazy and at worst rejecting and dismissive of themselves and their needs. Another case in point shows that such behaviors can happen at any point in a person’s education, and the responses of an educator who is not tuned into and listening to the learner has an effect on the learner, their perceptions of the teachers, and the outcomes of their learning. I have witnessed the direct effect of such teacher unavailability during my career when lecturers have been unavailable, rejecting, and dismissive with their students. When teachers do not listen to students’ needs— and in these instances, students’ specific requirements were not addressed, just like the young child who wanted her nightmare explained—students become confused and frustrated. If one’s needs are not met from a knowledgeable other whose task it is to provide the answers or at least some guidance, and especially when one has specific requirements, then the person feels rejected, unworthy of time spent helping them, and internalizes such responses with frustration, questioning themselves, when it is the teacher who is in the wrong. For these students in these circumstances, it proved a waste of time and inappropriate, they felt unguided and unsupported, and as a direct result, their assignments suffered.

The aforementioned examples reveal that from secondary school to university (and indeed before and after these time points in a learner’s education) teachers should attend to and adjust their responses to the needs of their students. In keeping with parenting where attitudes and attachments count and avoidance and rejection lead to confusion and uncertainty, teaching also should not be a guessing game where there is room for error and perplexity. Instead, the social and emotional skills that we try hard to instil in our young people from an early age should be exhibited by the influential adults in our lives. Ultimately, teachers (as with parents with their children) want to command respect from their learners. Much of that respect is garnered through listening to their learner, not dismissing and rejecting or neglecting—and such respect for the student leads in turn to respect by the student for the teacher. From the early years through to adulthood, during the impressionable years of learning, we are all receptive to the ways in which we are taught and this has an impact on our responses to that person, as well as our own self-esteem and learning outcomes. Across most, if not all, stages of education, it would be unacceptable to ignore or talk back to a teacher; the same is true for a teacher who does likewise to a pupil. Autonomy and independence should be encouraged, but guidance should always be at hand, regardless of age and ability.

What Pupils Say About Not Listening

The powerful Chinese proverb, “Tell me, I’ll forget; show me, I may remember; involve me, and I’ll understand,” fits well within a collaborative educational framework. When pupils are given a voice, they speak volumes, and not least about instances of bias, preconceptions, and when their voices and ideas are ignored or quashed. My research with Rudduck and associates (2005) has shown that pupils are very aware of the biases that teachers exhibit, and their ensuing resistance to change once they have formed an image of the learner. A 13-year-old girl described her teacher’s biased behavior:

One of my teachers, she is completely biased to girls. She doesn’t like boys and it’s not really very good because the boys never get asked for questions.

Issues of trust were expressed by a boy who described the differential treatment between girls and boys:

In my English class, it will be like a table full of girls that are always talking.… We talk quite a lot but they will move people from my table, but when the girls are talking they won’t move them. If a boy like [name] is late (because he has to get his brothers ready for school in the morning) then they would be in quite a lot of trouble. If you’re late they think you’ve been walking and mucking around. But one girl in class was always late and always left her bag on the table: if a boy did that he gets in trouble straight away.

Consulting pupils reveals the complex ways in which different groups of pupils in the same classroom understand notions of fairness in terms of gaining teachers’ attention (Arnot et al., 2004; Demetriou & Hopper, 2007). A year 5 boy said:

Our English teacher, he likes the three clever girls a lot because they are always answering questions. He never gives the other people a chance to talk.

Some pupils’ astute observations led them to speak passionately about the need for teachers to pay more attention to them when they were confronted with arrogant and hostile behavior:

I think teachers should pay attention to you more. Because I was telling one of our teachersI won’t name any namesabout someone bullying me, pulling my hair. But she wasn’t actually listening to me. She just said, “Oh run along and play now then. They should listen to kids a bit more. They should keep an eye out for you. There is one teacher who listens to you more than anyoneshe always comes and sorts it out straight away. When the bully is making sure that you can’t get your way to the teacher, the teachers should spot that. (year 3 girl)

Through engaging with pupils, taking their perspective and learning from their perspective, teachers can learn about what makes pupils tick, but also learn about themselves as teachers. Schools therefore should be encouraged to engage with their learners and enable them to express themselves about their experiences of school, thereby involving them in a partnership within a democratic community that inspires both teachers and learners alike and results in a transformative approach to teaching and learning. Disengagement and disillusionment as a child in the home and as a learner in the classroom is prevented by inclusion and acceptance. As pupils develop a more “professional” language for discussing their learning, they are less likely to disengage; they are able to contribute effectively to the agenda for school improvement and are more committed and effective learners. But it is important to have a good relationship with young people in which both teachers (and indeed parents) and learners can establish confidentiality, trust, respect, and empathy. Results of consultation have shown that pupils recognize ownership of their work and their learning, merely asking pupils about their learning improved it, pupils feel empowered, it equips them with a sophisticated dialogue, pupils respond better to staff, and pupils view consultation as an entitlement. A year 7 girl claimed:

We make the targets for us now and that’s better because I think we know more about ourselves than the teachers in a way, because we know more what our strengths and weaknesses are.

Such examples reflect the power of teaching, and indeed parenting, that emerges when we stop to listen to child as the voice develops and becomes powerful in its own right.

The Impact of the Voice for Teachers and Parents

Teachers have shared with us their genuine surprise at the process and outcomes of pupil consultation:

I think what’s been so interesting about this project has been the children’s perceptions…, actually listening and taking account of children’s views. We tend to make assumptions and think, “Oh that’s fine for them or That’s hard for them and we don’t necessarily get their views right. I think the project’s shown that children really think far more than we give them credit for. (head teacher)

This teacher’s realization is not so surprising, perhaps, if we transfer the impressionable and pervasive effects and lessons from attachment theory. Listening to the student voice enables students to take on an active role in their own education, where they are able to work directly with school leaders and teachers to develop better learning experiences. Some teachers mentioned the empowering effect of pupil voice and its transformative potential in harnessing teachers’ views about important issues in school, as reflected in the words of these three head teachers:

Merely the expectation that their views will be listened to and acted upon empowers pupils. They become aware of their capacity to change teacher perceptions and that teachers will listen to their views on the curriculum.

Our levels of achievement at the end of the cohort year were truly tremendous… I know this was due to the work we had been undertaking as part of this project because these children saw themselves as successful and had developed considerably their self-esteem. Three years ago, just after I arrived at the school, the results were some of the worst in the county (17% at level 4 in maths and English). This year we were fourth in the national league tables.

I think it’s essential to consult pupils about their learning… It’s educational in its own sense, it develops their ability to take responsibility for their learning.

Consulting and listening to pupils in school—but also children in the home—are essential. It is educational for teachers and parents alike—talking about issues that affect children, from nightmares, to bullying, and of course the positive experiences, too—responding effectively and listening develops confidence and responsibility in the child.

The fact that children are impressionable and hang on to every word means that, in teaching also, the response of teachers can have a deep-rooted effect. This is particularly salient in early years, but also arguably at any age where we form attachments with teachers. As a learner, experiences of rejection and neglect can be internalized as feelings of worthlessness, low self-esteem, and lack of motivation. In an effort to connect with and motivate pupils to enjoy and achieve in their subject, I have often heard teachers saying despairingly: “What can I do? I have tried everything.” Typically, such teachers have not in fact tried “everything” and have been too efficient, going by the book and tick-box approach, and have not stopped to listen and understand the pupil’s needs.

When teachers do stop and take time to empathize with their learners, the results are striking. Teachers have told us about the importance of connecting with pupils for teaching and learning (Demetriou, Wilson & Winterbottom, 2009). One teacher reflected on her own relationships with her own teachers when she was at school and the degree to which these relationships helped her with her learning. She spoke of the need to move the goal posts, appreciating that for her it was important to have camaraderie with her teachers, but also understanding that different pupils require different types of relationships with their teachers. This appreciation led her to tailor her own teaching to her pupils’ individual needs as “being more social with them … helps with teaching.” Another teacher attributed her success to the interest she showed in her pupils’ interests that were unrelated to her subject of science, as in the girls who liked dance, made baby outfits, had fluffy pens, or wore glitter. Making an effort to appreciate and empathize with her pupils’ interests transformed these quiet and disengaged pupils to gregarious and more motivated learners. Such approaches take time to reap results, but through circumnavigating the learner with a keen interest, these teachers were able to reach the learners, while at the same time learning about themselves:

I think I’m probably still learning about myself and teaching. I think I am becoming more reflective. Looking at students and asking why they think it is okay to do certain things … what has made you like that? So I start thinking about me and what made me do things and motivate and encourage me.

Another teacher I spoke to recognized the importance of tapping into the mindset of the learner first and foremost:

I’ve become less interested in science and more interested in learning and people…. We teach children, not chemistry…. Science is a vehicle…. It is a means to the same end, which is developing children.

The world of teaching is therefore not immune from the effects of attachment theory, and is arguably even more salient as teaching occurs with new attachments at different stages and ages. The learner is a beginner at any age—impressionable and tIe recipient of newly acquired knowledge. The way therefore that the teacher guides, instructs, and responds will have direct consequences on the learner’s impressions of the subject matter. Dismissive, avoidant, preoccupied, resistant teaching with unrealistic expectations or no expectations at all will not harbor respect, and learning will be stunted. Punitive measures also, as in parenting, will enrage children and build up hatred for themselves and the teacher. This reaction will obscure their listening or concentration—instead of the subject matter being the target of interest, rather, the teacher and their behavior will be the focus. The generation of rage should be avoided, and anything that enhances self-confidence and respect for oneself and others should be fostered. Relationships by their nature can be destructive. The nature of the teaching approach, as with parenting, will make or break the relationship and the learning processes therein. Instead of retaliating, teachers need to take a step back and listen to what the pupil has to say.

Stepping into the shoes of the child and taking their perspective goes a long way to understanding their point of view. Such responses provide support, inspiration, and respect. Attachments that quash self-esteem are hostile, aloof, and distant in nature. In them the caregiver struggles to express affection and is overly critical, and discipline is restrictive and authoritarian or permissive and inconsistent, and encourages dependency. In contrast, positive attachments that promote self-esteem are affectionate, warm, and accepting; include praise, encouragement, constructive help; provide discipline that is firm but fair; and give explanations for unacceptable behavior and the encouragement of independence. The latter will garner respect for the teacher or parent and inspire the individual. Successful parenting and teaching requires doing this with rather than at the child. The former makes the child realize that they matter, thereby energizing their internal working models for relationships and learning, and giving them the license for authority and involvement in their learning and development.

As educators, we should emphasize the importance of change and growth, both in the learning and the learner. Indeed, the word education comes from the Latin word educare meaning to train, to nourish. By listening as parents and teachers, we nourish and empower the child. However, sometimes when teachers do not listen to the learner, they restrict the nourishment and stunt this growth. Similar to the parent, whose response to the child will make or break the child’s outcome, so the teacher’s actions of ignoring, rejecting, or neglecting a learner will prove pivotal. Researchers have paid much attention to teachers’ emotional experiences and their impact on teaching and learning (Cross & Hong, 2012; Demetriou et al., 2009; Hargreaves, 1998, 2000; Zembylas, 2005). The field of education has acknowledged the importance of emotional intelligence and encouraged a focus beyond that of the acquisition of content knowledge. Coined by Salovey and Mayer (1990), they defined “emotional intelligence” as: “the ability to monitor one’s own and other’s feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and use this information to guide one’s thinking and action” (p. 189). It has been propelled to the forefront of education and has been recognized as being beneficial for children’s professional aspirations, as the more accurate understanding of emotion is believed to lead to better problem solving and, along with cultural and social intelligence, has been associated with positive and balanced work attitudes (Crowne, 2009). Practices such as listening to the pupil voice has been shown to enhance such holistic learning and has implications and lessons in turn for parenting.

Just as we should parent with and not at, teaching also should be with, not at. My involvement in the teacher professional development programme in Kazakhstan at the Nazarbayev University Graduate School of Education saw the country embrace Western styles of teaching. Some of my time in Kazakhstan was spent talking to the teachers on the training program. I gave talks about pupil voice: the concept, the research, and the applications, all of which were very positively received. But I also discussed teaching and learning with the teachers and the reasons they wanted to adopt Western styles of teaching. Despite growing up in a country with a very different education ethos, the teachers relished the thought of being able to teach with fresh, interactive, and formative approaches rather than the traditional rote-oriented, didactic, and summative methods. One teacher told me of her plans to implement peer support: “I have ideas to make weak students more active and to think critically. I asked the active students to help the weak student to work together and then weak student was to present presentation and I let them speak more than the active student.” And another teacher asserted: “We should educate pupils from their perspectives.”

The teachers took on the role, determined that it should work. “Our task is to make new teachers in a new world,” said one teacher, although another realized that it would take time: “Even though we all realize the necessity of the changes, and we realize this intervention is timely and useful, it takes time for us to change our mentality, but we should.” Such practices across continents ultimately reflect the words of a Chinese proverb: “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for the rest of his life.” The efficient but limited nature of the former cannot compete with the boundless potential of the latter.

Conclusion: Lessons from Pupil Voice from Psychology to Education

Disciplines have much to learn from each other, and psychology and education are no exception. For many decades we have known about the psychological implications of the parent-child attachment on a child’s social and emotional development. More recently, we have learned about the effectiveness of listening to the pupil voice in teaching and learning. Establishing and optimizing attachments between parent-child and teacher-learner make for successful relationships where respect and self-esteem are activated and nurtured. This process creates is a healthy social and emotional balance that nourishes the child and learner, as well as the parent and teacher. The aim is to reap autonomous, confident individuals who are socially and emotionally aware and adept. Two theories and practices in psychology and education—attachment theory and pupil voice, respectively—have been much researched and implemented, but mostly within their respective disciplines. When we bring the respective practices of constructive responding and effective listening together within each context, where we teach and parent along with the individual, rather than at the individual, then parenting and teaching are invariably enhanced and transcended.

And so it is that, just as teachers can learn from psychology’s attachment theory, parents can learn from education’s pupil voice. Both approaches advocate listening, respecting and prioritizing the child, allowing for freedom with rules and boundaries to explore in order to reap respect and responsibility. Both relationships involve a holistic approach of social, emotional, and cognitive skills, and appreciating the child’s perspective, allowing for choice and voice, so that their needs are understood. In order to “develop” children, we as adults should exhibit the empathy, respect, attention, patience, guidance, validation, and inclusion that we expect from the impressionable child or learner. A warning, therefore, is that rejection, resistance, neglect, and avoidance may damage your and others’ social and emotional health. The effects of parenting and teaching have a direct effect on the baby/child/pupil/learner at any age and are therefore powerful, often irreversible, and moreover replay with the next generation of people and learners. Parenting and teaching a child with the social and emotional skills that we want to procure from them is right from the outset and will lay down the foundations and equip the child with the resilience, enthusiasm, and confidence for healthy internal working models for future relationships and learning. The overall message is that pupil voice reinforces the attachments we make. Even when we struggle to empathize with the other’s plight and instead say, “I can’t imagine what you’ve been through,” just those words as a result of listening can be a weight off the shoulders, because the person is at least trying to understand. The act of listening, by parent or teacher, is of paramount importance for children to become better social, emotional and learning beings.

When adults stop and listen, the power is evident: listening and moving in synchrony with our young people as they move enhances development and informs parents and teachers equally. From the secure to the insecure attached parent-child relationship, attachment status is also apparent throughout the school years and beyond education when we form our attitudes of others through their attitudes to us. From mythology to reality, from being disillusioned with people and making an exquisite sculpture, to being disillusioned in the classroom and making exceptional learners, listening transforms our attitudes and behavior. For parenting and teaching, listening nourishes pupils and young people alike with self-esteem and gusto for life and learning, so that the nature of our attachments, which includes the degree to which our voices are heard, have a significant impact on the people we become.


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