Unconditional Positive Regard – does a child need to be liked?

Does a teacher need to like all children in order to be an effective teacher? 

The dictionary definition of the verb to “like”  is essentially  to display a favourable opinion or disposition towards a thing – in this case children.  Yet in conversations with teachers throughout my career I’ve met with resistance to the notion of having to “like” in order to be able to teach. In fact one of the most memorable quotes was when a teacher exclaimed “I’m not paid to like kids – I’m paid to teach them!”.

Which leads me back to the original question – is it possible to teach without displaying a favourable disposition towards all children? If you break teaching down into its most simplistic form, i.e. the effective transmission of information from the teacher to pupil, then one can see how the disposition of the teacher is of no consequence. Yet for those of us who have been pupils we know that the disposition of the teacher towards us as learners has a major impact on our willingness to engage and learn. Even the “traditional” no-nonsense, subject-oriented, results focussed teacher can show through their actions that they care about every child in their class – and the learners respond accordingly. 

The reality of human nature is that we tend to “like” people whom we find pleasant or value. In that sense our tendency to “like” is conditional upon the appearance or behaviour of the person. In the classroom this can take the form of a teacher changing their disposition towards a child in direct response to the child’s behaviour.  But what if the child does not respond to the teacher with equitable response? What if the child’s behaviour is inappropriate? Surely the teacher is entitled to change their disposition towards the child to one where they can legitimately change their disposition towards the child both an implicit and explicit manner, e.g. “I don’t like that kid”

The logic that unpins this assertion supposes that it’s human nature not to like everyone and that we are entitled to make judgements about those whom we will treat with positive regard. So if in our classroom there is a child who does not conform to our expectations or standards of behaviour then we can legitimately express our disfavour either through our choice of language, tone of voice, or actions. The problem in such instances is that that most children can cope with being told off or punished as long as it’s fair. However, all too often the teacher will give an additional “punishment” through a noticeable shift in their disposition towards that child on a permanent basis, such a shift is picked up by the child – and just as importantly by their peers in the class.

The Scottish education system is founded upon the concept of “in loco parentis” – in place of parents – which is intended to guide the practice of the teaching profession. Almost all parents treat their own children with positive regard – in fact regardless of whatever their child might do they will continue to treat them with enduring warmth and not be deflected by the human frailties of their child. Such an approach can be referred to as unconditional positive regard.  The true teacher adopts the perspective of the parent and is able to step beyond the reflexive response to dislike the child for their actions and separate the behaviour from the person. Such a stance does not mean that the teacher ignores or condones poor behaviour – in fact quite the opposite – but it does mean that even in the midst of dealing with an incident they make it clear through their own behaviour that they still value the child as a person.

I believe that a person’s capacity to treat children with unconditional positive regard lies at the very heart of what it is to be a professional teacher. Although, at first glance, the term smacks of psychobabble it is actually possible to tease out it’s meaning in a way that translates very well in to the Scottish classroom.

If I am to be allowed one dream it would be that every teacher, leader and professional person connected with Scottish education set out firstly to treat every child with unconditional positive regard, and secondly, to treat their colleagues in a similar manner. What a place we would have created!  

8 thoughts on “Unconditional Positive Regard – does a child need to be liked?

  1. I think we all know how it feels to have to overcome an instinctive dislike of an individual, and I agree with you that it’s essential to be able to do this, at least to some degree, in order to teach that individual effectively.
    I’ve found parents comments can be quite revealing, especially if you’re a parent yourself and people happen to forget you’re also a teacher. I’ve sometimes heard friends say their child didn’t do well in Pwhatever because their teacher didn’t like them. A bit of a cop out by the parent, but it shows the importance people place on personal relationships in the classroom.

    I tried this approach this week. X says: you don’t like me, Miss. I say: yes I do, I think you’ve got good qualities (eg…), but I don’t like your behaviour, in particular fooling around when I need to teach the class. X retorts: Y and Z get more chances than me, so you really don’t like me. I say: maybe it’s true (I hadn’t noticed it!) but if they do, it’s because they’re showing me they’re trying hard to be good. Would you like an extra chance too?
    X: yes please. I say: try harder, then. We do a high 5 thing. (X looks a bit sheepish)

    Do you think it will work? No let me rephrase… for how long do you think it will work!?

  2. Treating people with unconditional positive regard isn’t just what lies at the heart of being a professional teacher, surely its what lies at the heart of being a decent human being.
    Why do we work in education? I do it to make a difference (I know that sounds glib but its true) -what does that mean to me? Seeing children, parents, staff growing as people. So within that I have to have some sort of belief that everyone has the ability to grow in some way and thats where the unconditional positive regard comes in for me. This is very important to me and I suspect that if I didn’t have this belief then I would find my work much more difficult. The thing within all of this is that sometimes you can become down when disapointing behaviours happen at whatever level – child or adult. That’s when the unconditional regard can be harder to hold onto and that’s when if your heart and mind isn’t really tuned into this belief everything falls down. None of this means I’m a soft touch as additionally you have to be strong in your expectations of behaviour from those around you but be able to understand the reasons sometimes behind the behaviours – that doesn’t mean excusing them.
    Like you this may sound like so much psycho babble but I think if we could treat one another like this we’d really be creating learning communities of some worth.

  3. Forgot to put my name on previous comment – I wasn’t trying to be anonymous!

  4. I have been following your blog with interest, particularly the ‘new?’ East Lothian emphasis on unconditional human regard. In establishing Forthview Primary in Pilton, which was a merger of 2 schools, we paid attention to Michael Fullan who said, “In times of massive change, take a few key principles, hang on to them and go with the flow.” This kind of goes against the flow of us teachers – we do have a tendency to be control freaks. However based on Carl Rodgers wisdom that there are 3 conditions for healthy human growth;
    1. Unconditional human regard
    2. Empathy
    3. Genuineness

    … we chose the core values for our newly merged school of
    1. Respect
    2. Nurture
    3. Learn

    …and we have seen our school grow in each of these 3 dimensions into a good place to be.

    I think Rodger’s conditions all need to work together. unconditional human regard leads us to empathise even with people we don’t like, to see situations from their perspective and resources, which enables us to be genuine with them. Pretending to like doesn’t wash and no one is more astute about whether a teacher/staff member likes them than a young person. So unconditional human regard needs to go hand in hand with empathy and genuineness.

  5. Dorothy

    Just tried to leave a post on your blog but don’t have an ID to leave the message.

    Basically I was responding to Jaye and agreeing with her that in Rogerian terms I am cherry picking. However, I am using the term as a combination of three inter-connected words which have guided my practice for 20 years. It’s the combination of – unconditional – positive – regard – which capture the professional approach I believe teachers should take towards children. The notion of “liking” is far too subjective.



    Thanks for your comment. I checked out your own site and it seems that you are leading your school in manner which is consistent to the values you espouse. Good luck.


    Jane/Andrea – thanks for your comments – they all go to help me refine this issue in my own mind.

  6. I agree with Andrea and the comment that unconditional regard for other people is ( or should be ) just how we should be. I may not like the behaviour or actions of another person but that does not mean I do not like them. Where children and young people are concerned my relationships when working with them have tended to be far more “honest” or maybe straightforward than some adult to adult relationships. Is it not a two way thing? If we can encourage young people to think not about liking or disliking someone but in unconditional positive regard for others too then we might be onto something?
    And having had the privilege of working in Sheila Laing’s school wearing a couple of hats I know that it does indeed work.

  7. I have also found Michael Fullen’s books useful. I started asking children to change their behaviour and found that it worked, Sometimes it is not easy to do this in the heat of the moment but I have persevered, I also add a positive comment at the same time e.g. ” You were a great help yesterday.”
    By acting in this way I do not lose my good relationship with the child when they choose to act in an inappropriate way.

Comments are closed.