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Social-Emotional Teaching via Email

Teachers' e-mail styles communicate social-emotional information to students.

By Katherine M. Zinsser and Claire G. Christensen

On the cradle-to-career pathway, educators from preschool through graduate school are working to help their students succeed. Of course, there is more to career readiness than learning academic content; social and emotional competencies are crucial to workplace success (Brackett, Rivers & Salovey, 2011). However, teachers receive less training in social-emotional teaching than in academic instruction, which may leave them struggling to support these crucial competencies.

Increasingly, teachers are communicating with their students electronically—and this is an often overlooked medium for sharing social-emotional information and modelling how successful professionals communicate. Limited research in in higher education has shown that professors’ e-mail helpfulness, promptness, and frequency predict positive relationships with students (Sheer & Fung, 2007). However, the immediacy of email can sometimes undermine student-teacher relationships as well. We’ve all experienced the convenience of email, but also the incredible annoyance that comes with opening your inbox to find a series of tedious, poorly articulated, or inappropriate emails from students (and even colleagues!).

For example, imagine you are a teacher and your class takes an exam on Wednesday. You announce that grades will be posted on Friday. On Thursday morning the following three emails are in your inbox, all from the same student.

Wednesday, 10:47 p.m.

What did I get on my exam? I really need to know.

Thursday, 12:14 a.m.

When will exam grades be posted?

Thursday 8:45 a.m.

Where is my exam grade? I’m still waiting…

Should you reply? If so, how?

While you might be tempted to ignore these emails, or to curtly reply, “This question was already answered in class,” take a deep breath and consider this as an opportunity to support your student’s social and emotional learning.

What emotions is this student expressing in these emails? Is the emotion inappropriate? Or just the way the student is expressing it?

One possible response may be:

It sounds like you’re feeling pretty anxious about this last exam. As I explained in class, grades will be posted tomorrow. When you e-mail me and other instructors in the future, please consider how your language and tone may be interpreted. Sending multiple e-mails will not result in a faster response. Is there something in particular that has you so worried? I would be happy to discuss your concerns during office hours this week.

When responding to emotionally laden e-mails, teachers can communicate respect by recognizing students’ perspectives and showing sensitivity to their situations (Buttner, 2004). Meanwhile, teachers can and should maintain their high expectations for students’ coursework and behavior. A thoughtfully worded e-mail can communicate these concepts and model emotionally competent professionalism.

Emotionally supportive e-mails may improve teacher-student relationships, which ultimately promote academic achievement. When their instructors are approachable and respectful, students report greater satisfaction with their instructors, as well as improved academic confidence and motivation (Gruber et al., 2012; Komarraju, Musulkin, & Bhattacharya, 2010). Positive student-teacher relationships, in turn, are associated with higher student grades (Micari & Pazos, 2012; Wilson, 2006).

However, just as teachers communicate social-emotional information in their e-mails, students are also choosing to communicate in ways that influence instructors’ responses or opinions. To foster positive relationships, students should consider the needs and preferences of the instructor they are e-mailing. This is easiest for students when teachers explicitly state their preferences. One tip is to have students imagine interacting with their instructor in person before writing an e-mail. This tends to increase their use of prosocial communication strategies (Berkos, 2012). As electronic communication begins to dominate teacher-student interactions, it will be increasingly important to help both parties understand their role in maintaining supportive, respectful, open, lines of communication that support teaching and learning.

Below are some tips for responding to students’ emotional emails in ways that support their social and emotional learning.

  • Think before you type.
  • Identify and label the emotion the student is expressing and the likely cause.
  • Suggest more appropriate ways (timing, tone, etc.) to communicate needs in the future.
  • Re-communicate your expectations, course requirements, and the degree to which you can be flexible.
  • Provide resources or suggestions for next steps.
  • Remind students of your availability for face-to-face meetings.

By Katherine M. Zinsser & Claire G. Christensen (University of Illinois at Chicago)


Berkos, K. M. (2012). Imagined interactions as a deterrent to students’ antisocial email requests. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 32, 23-40.

Brackett, M. A., Rivers, S. E., & Salovey, P. (2011). Emotional intelligence: Implications for personal, social, academic, and workplace success. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 5(1), 88-103.

Buttner, E. H. (2004). How do we “dis” students?: A model of (dis)respectful business instructor behavior. Journal of Management Education, 3, 319-334.

Gruber. T., Lowrie, A., Brodowsky, G. H., Reppel, A. E., Voss, R., & Chowdhury, I. N. (2012). Investigating the influence of professor characteristics on student satisfaction and dissatisfaction: A comparative study. Journal of Marketing Education, 34, 165-178.

Komarraju, M., Musulkin, Surgey, & Bhattacharya, G., (2010). Role of student-faculty interactions in developing college students’ academic self-concept, motivation, and achievement. Journal of College Student Development, 51, 332-342.

Micari, M., & Pazos, P. (2012). Connecting to the professor: Impact of the student-faculty relationship in a highly challenging course. College Teaching, 60, 41-47.

Sheer, V. C., & Fung, T. K. (2007). Can email communication enhance professor-student relationship and student evaluation of professor?: Some empirical evidence. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 37, 289-306.

Wilson, J. (2006). Predicting student attitudes and grades from perceptions of instructors’ attitudes. Teaching of Psychology, 33, 91-95.

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