Relationships First

Equity and excellence for all.

Cognition Education’s Relationships First programme focuses on accelerating and sustaining the achievement outcomes of indigenous and other marginalised students, to maximise achievement of all learners.

Since 2012, in New Zealand | Aotearoa we have worked with 16 Kahui Ako, 175 schools and 3,850 teachers – impacting approximately 42,000 students.

We have also worked with approximately 80 schools and 1,440 teachers in Relationships First projects conducted in other countries. 

relationships first
relationships first

What is Relationships First?

Relationships First is a fresh and proven approach for education departments, tertiary organisations, and individual schools/education providers. It offers new places to look for answers, new ways to evaluate information, and new teaching, leadership, and system practices. 

Developed in collaboration with Emeritus Professor Russell Bishop, Relationships First is an evidence informed wrap-around framework that works to increase equity through transforming classroom, leadership and system practices, creating a culturally responsive context for learning.

Relationships First supports educators to build relationships with students, with a specific emphasis on marginalised students. Cognition Education’s programme is based on over a decade’s worth of research into what works best for indigenous and minoritized students, looking at the factors necessary to transform their schooling experience from one of failure, to one of success. This research is considered to be one of the most powerful contributions to educational research and practice in the past 50 years. 

Relationships First

How Relationships First works? 

Relationships First is underpinned by the evidence that it takes all parts of the system to make significant, meaningful and sustainable change.

Cognition takes a coaching and mentoring approach, guiding stakeholders through iterative cycles of development and change, with an ultimate focus on building capability.

Our team helps your team to grow Relationships-based Leaders of Learning; leaders who know how to build a culture of success and promote effective learning.  Ultimately, leaders engaged in Relationships First walk away from the programme with the pedagogy and skills to create unprecedented change for minoritized learners.

Weymouth School

Relationships First is what we do now.  If I went to a new school I would take the Relationships First way of working with me” Linda Hodge – AP

Teachers are much more agentic in their thinking and in how they talk about learners.  Much more so than when we first started (with RF)”Deputy Principal and Impact Coach, Moana Iese 

The Classroom Observation Tool has been really powerful to help teachers to see what they are doing well and what a next step for their teaching could be” Deputy Principal and Impact Coach, Moana Iese

“I am a better teacher from the Relationships First learning. I am more agentic and more focused on building relationships” – Team Leader Ashika Pandey

“The benefit of being agentic, as a teacher, is it helps to flip how you look at a situation. I’m a lot calmer now and realise teachers have a lot of power to change situations and influence the culture and what’s happening in the classroom” – Teacher Daniel Garland

Homai Primary School

“Relationships First has led to a major shift for me to move from a behaviour focus to one on learning and relationships” Team Leader Jacinda 

 “Relationships First has helped us to improve our practices and our relationships. It makes us reflect on our teaching to keep improving” – Teacher Natasha 

“Relationships First has changed things a lot for me. At this school this is the first time I’ve been listened to as a teacher aide” Teacher Aide Mesui 

“Relationships with students, teachers and parents have really improved with Relationships First. Teachers are collaborating more together, students feel more safe at school and it also helps students and parents with each other– Team Leader Shakila 

Totara Grove School

“Everyone has a shared language to talk about teaching and they’re open to observations” – Casey – Lead Impact Coach 

“Last year many students said they were dumb. That’s gone now.” – Casey – Lead Impact Coach 

 “The observation tool has really provided me with great questions to reflect on my teaching” – Vanessa – Accredited Impact Coach 

“The Relationships First framework has really helped us to walk the talk of caring about Māori  student achievement” – Vanessa – Accredited Impact Coach 

Excellere College

Staff have always had good relationships with students and families but relationships now are more learning focussed. They care not just about them as people but also about their learning and progress.”  Graeme – Principal

“Through the programme I’ve learned… if you know students well and build relationships with them they will trust teachers and give things a go” Amanda –Teacher

“One great success is that students are also now starting to use the language of the profile. They now have an understanding of what to expect from quality teaching. That’s huge.”  Ian – Senior Leader

Through the programme… “we’ve lifted our expectations of learners but also valuing what students bring to the learning more too”  Meagan – Yr8/9 teacher

Hurupaki School

Principal Rob Posthumus said that engaging with the Relationships First professional learning over the last two years has been “challenging but transformative” for the staff

The RbLLP has given us an invaluable framework we use to discuss the effectiveness of the teaching and learning occurring in our school” – Principal Rob Posthumus

Nayland College

“Overwhelmingly, the relationships-based learning focus and observation experience has been positive for teachers, and for many it has shed a new light on a different way of teaching. Through the impact coaching process, we are able to measure our aggregated teacher performance against the observation tool and respond to areas of greatest need for holistic professional development. We know that changes are explicitly linked to need, meaning as a learning organisation we can be more nimble in our approach to improving learning across the school.” Daniel Wilson, Principal

Student Voice from Nayland College

“We know the teachers that really care about us and our learning – they don’t give up on us and talk to us respectfully.”

“Teachers actually want to know, so they ask us and we get to learn what we want and get to organise ourselves now.”

Grounded in evidence of success


Relationships First is underpinned by the research of Emeritus Professor Russell Bishop and Laureate Professor John Hattie, in respect of their research on ‘what works’ to ensure successful learning and achievement outcomes for all students. 

Emeritus Professor Russell Bishop’s research focuses on the importance of learning-focused relationships in bringing about educational success, particularly for indigenous and other marginalised students. Emeritus Professor Russell Bishop has published many reports, articles and books that provide evidence for the approach underpinning Relationships First. Read the most recent publication, Teaching to the North-East: Relationships-based learning in practice here.  

Emeritus Professor Russell Bishop’s work describes the findings from more than a decade of research into those classrooms where differential power relationships and traditional teaching methods have failed to support indigenous learners, and how they might be changed for the betterment of all involved. 

Today, Emeritus Professor Russell Bishop continues to lead his own ongoing research and guide Cognition development initiatives that explore how to improve educational outcomes for marginalised peoples. Cognition’s Relationships First programme is a visible manifestation of that work.

Teaching to the North-East Russel Bishop

For more information on Relationships First

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