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Relatedness in PE

Establishing Belonging For All Students

For many educators, the first day of school is quickly approaching. I recall being told not to smile early in the school year as this would make students “walk-all-over” you and the year would be a disaster. I’ve heard of some teachers writing letters or postcards to each student in their class before the year began to connect with their students. Everyone has their own approach.

In this blog, I will focus on one of three of the fundamental human needs from Deci & Ryan’s (1985) social determination theory. Specifically, relatedness. Relatedness will be defined, some research will be provided on the benefits of supporting students’ feelings of relatedness, and the impact a student’s peers and teacher(s) have on this sense of relatedness. To finish, adapting from the work of Gibbons (2014), I will share a visual to provide practical actions that teachers can take to create a relatedness-supportive learning environment in their PE environment.

Psychological Needs - Social Determination Theory

According to social determination theory, there are three fundamental human needs: competence, autonomy, and relatedness (Deci & Ryan, 1985). Autonomy is having the sense of choice; competence is having a sense of efficacy; and relatedness is having a sense of social attachment. If an individual’s need for autonomy, competence, and relatedness are met then the individual will be intrinsically motivated to engage in a particular behaviour. In comparison to autonomy and competence, there has been far less research on relatedness in PE classes (Gibbons, 2014).


Learning relies on social interactions and cultural influences; social interactions should enhance student learning (Sun & Chen, 2010). Relatedness is the feeling of being in relation to others in a social context (Ryan & Deci, 2002). Relatedness is the need to find and develop secure and connected relationships with others (Shen et al., 2012). The development of relatedness happens through communication of interest in, and enjoyment of, activities where individuals have shared, common experiences (Connell & Wellborn, 1991).

Relatedness, which can be measured by quality of teacher-student relationships, feelings of belonging, caring, inclusion, acceptance, importance, and interpersonal support, predicts motivation and learning and can lead to an increase in engagement and academic performance (Furrer & Skinner, 2003).

Relatedness in PE

Identifying factors that may support students’ feelings of relatedness is particularly important, as studies have demonstrated that feeling socially connected can be a stronger predictor of self-determined motivation than feelings of competence or autonomy in PE (Cox & Williams, 2008; Standage et al., 2003). Shen et al. (2010) & Pfaeffli and Gibbons (2010) found that for many girls, relatedness is connected to their willingness to positively engage in PE. Without this sense of relatedness, girls are less likely to participate in PE class. Weiss & Stuntz (2004) suggest promoting a sense of relatedness for students in PE by using activities that focus on communication, collaboration, and problem solving to strengthen peer relationships through emphasis on trust and social support.

The Teacher - Relatedness in PE

Wentzel (1997) shared that relatedness can be supported by teachers if they utilize democratic interaction styles, develop expectations for student behaviour while considering individual differences, and model a caring attitude. In a study by Sparks et al. (2015), students reported feelings of relatedness support came from teacher behaviours such as: individualized conversation, teacher enthusiasm, friendly communication, task-related support, promoting cooperation and teamwork, awareness, and caring behaviours. Being comfortable around one’s own teacher encourages student-teacher communication, increases attentiveness and reliance on the teacher, as well as develops positive interactions with the teacher (Sparks et al., 2015).

Peers - Relatedness in PE

For some students, peer acceptance and group inclusion is a major motivator in the everyday pursuit of social contact (Cotterell 1996). How an individual fits into the peer social environment can influence outcomes such as academic engagement (Sage & Kinderman, 1999), enjoyment (Nelson & DeBacker 2008) and participation in physical activity (Allender et al., 2006).

Peers & Teacher(s) - Relatedness in PE

Students’ relationships with teachers and peers in PE supports an individual’s feelings of relatedness (Cox et al, 2009). Cox et al. (2009) found that students’ relationships with their teachers were more important than their peer relationships for motivational experiences in PE. In Shen et al. 's (2012) study, feelings of relatedness toward teachers significantly predicted students’ engagement in PE. In Shen et al.’s (2010) study, it was found that girls with low feelings of relatedness to their teachers were significantly more engaged in PE if they felt accepted by their peers (Shen et al., 2010). Therefore, students who have a low feeling of relatedness to teachers require additional peer support for their effort, attention, and persistence in PE (Shen et al., 2012).

Visual on Relatedness

Below is a visual adapted from Gibbons (2014) with the goal to provide practical actions for teachers so that they can create a relatedness-supportive learning environment in their PE setting from Day 1 of the school-year.

Final Thoughts

Have an amazing first day of school everyone! Hopefully students are connecting positively with you and their peers to set themselves up for a year (and beyond!) of engagement and learning.

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Thanks for reading!

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