'It means everything': special educators perceptions' of relationships and relational competence

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A compelling body of international research demonstrates that a positive, supportive teacher-student relationship is essential for students’ development, especially for at-risk students. In this article, the educator’s ability to build such relationships is discussed in terms of ‘relational competence’. Special educators’ relational competence is a largely unexplored topic. This article contributes by reporting on an interview study with 21 experienced special educators. The study focuses on the educators’ perceptions of their relationships and relational competence. Two research questions (RQs) are explored: (1) What is the role of social relationships in (successful) work as a special educator? and (2) How is the relational competence of special educators realised in practice? The results are presented in themes and subthemes, and are supported by significant quotes. Regarding RQ 1, the study shows that the informants perceive positive social relationships as fundamental in their work and relational competence as particularly important in their profession. The results for RQ 2 show that relational competence is realised by an accepting attitude in the ‘here and now’; by finding a personal connection to the student; and by building trusting relationships over a longer period of time. Comments on implications for special education teacher preparation are provided.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)671-685
Number of pages15
JournalEuropean Journal of Special Needs Education
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 2021

Swedish Standard Keywords

  • Pedagogy (50301)


  • Teacher-student relationship
  • relational competence
  • special education
  • special education teacher preparation


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