Improving Students' Relationships with Teachers to Provide Essential Supports for Learning
Improving students' relationships with teachers has important, positive and long-lasting implications for both students' academic and social development. Solely improving students' relationships with their teachers will not produce gains in achievement. However, those students who have close, positive and supportive relationships with their teachers will attain higher levels of achievement than those students with more conflict in their relationships.
Picture a student who feels a strong personal connection to her teacher, talks with her teacher frequently, and receives more constructive guidance and praise rather than just criticism from her teacher. The student is likely to trust her teacher more, show more engagement in learning, behave better in class and achieve at higher levels academically. Positive teacher-student relationships draw students into the process of learning and promote their desire to learn (assuming that the content material of the class is engaging, age-appropriate and well matched to the student's skills).
High quality academic instruction
High quality academic instruction is designed to be appropriate to students' educational levels. It also creates opportunity for thinking and analysis, uses feedback effectively to guide students' thinking, and extends students' prior knowledge.
Teachers who foster positive relationships with their students create classroom environments more conducive to learning and meet students' developmental, emotional and academic needs. Here are some concrete examples of closeness between a teacher and a student:
- A high school student chooses to share the news that he recently got a part in a community play with his teacher because he knows that his teacher will show genuine interest in his success.
- A fourth grade boy who is struggling in math shows comfort in admitting to his teacher that he needs help with multiplying and dividing fractions even if most of the students in the class have moved beyond this work.
- A middle school girl experiences bullying from other students and approaches her social studies teacher to discuss it because she trusts that the teacher will listen and help without making her feel socially inept.
Positive teacher-student relationships contribute to school adjustment and academic and social performance
Positive teacher-student relationships — evidenced by teachers' reports of low conflict, a high degree of closeness and support, and little dependency — have been shown to support students' adjustment to school, contribute to their social skills, promote academic performance and foster students' resiliency in academic performance (Battistich, Schaps, & Wilson, 2004; Birch & Ladd, 1997; Curby, Rimm-Kaufman, & Ponitz, 2009; Ewing & Taylor, 2009; Hamre & Pianta, 2001; Rudasill, Reio, Stipanovic, & Taylor, 2010).
Teachers who experience close relationships with students reported that their students were less likely to avoid school, appeared more self-directed, more cooperative and more engaged in learning (Birch & Ladd, 1997; Decker, Dona, & Christenson, 2007; Klem & Connell, 2004). Teachers who use more learner-centered practices (i.e., practices that show sensitivity to individual differences among students, include students in the decision-making, and acknowledge students' developmental, personal and relational needs) produced greater motivation in their students than those who used fewer of such practices (Daniels & Perry, 2003).
Students who attended math classrooms with higher emotional support reported increased engagement in mathematics learning. For instance, fifth graders said they were willing to exert more effort to understand the math lesson. They enjoyed thinking about and solving problems in math and were more willing to help peers learn new concepts (Rimm-Kaufman, Baroody, Larsen, Curby, & Abry, 2014). Among kindergarteners, students reported liking school more and experiencing less loneliness if they had a close relationship with their teachers. Further, kindergarteners with better teacher-student relationships showed better performance on measures of early academic skills (Birch & Ladd, 1997).
The quality of early teacher-student relationships has a long-lasting impact. Specifically, students who had more conflict with their teachers or showed more dependency toward their teachers in kindergarten also had lower academic achievement (as reflected in mathematics and language arts grades) and more behavioral problems (e.g., poorer work habits, more discipline problems) through the eighth grade. These findings were greater for boys than for girls (Hamre & Pianta, 2001). Further work indicates that kindergarten children with more closeness and less conflict with teachers developed better social skills as they approached the middle school years than kindergarten children with more conflictual relationships experiences in the past (Berry & O'Connor, 2009). A recent study examining student-teacher relationships throughout elementary school (first through fifth grade) found that teacher-student closeness linked to gains in reading achievement, while teacher-student conflict related to lower levels of reading achievement (McCormick & O'Connor, 2014).
In this video clip, a preschool teacher is facilitating positive peer interactions by communicating with students in a warm, calm voice and making encouraging statements, such as "Very good teamwork!'
How to develop positive relationships with your students:
- Show your pleasure and enjoyment of students.
- Interact with students in a responsive and respectful manner.
- Offer students help (e.g., answering questions in timely manner, offering support that matches students' needs) in achieving academic and social objectives.
- Help students reflect on their thinking and learning skills.
- Know and demonstrate knowledge about individual students' backgrounds, interests, emotional strengths and academic levels.
- Avoid showing irritability or aggravation toward students.
- Acknowledge the importance of peers in schools by encouraging students to be caring and respectful to one another.
Teachers who have negative relationships with a student show evidence of frustration, irritability and anger toward that student. Teachers might display their negativity through snide and sarcastic comments toward the student or describe the feeling that they are always struggling or in conflict with a particular student. Often, teachers will describe a specific student as "one who exhausts them" or "a student who leaves them feeling drained and burned out."
Negative teacher-student relationships can amplify when teachers show irritability and anger toward several or many of the students in the classroom. In these types of classrooms, teachers may find themselves resorting to yelling and harsh punitive control. Teacher-student communications may appear sarcastic or disrespectful. Student victimization or bullying may be common occurrences in such negative classrooms (Pianta, La Paro, & Hamre, 2006).
Negative teacher-student relationships are stressful for both teachers and students (Jennings & Greenberg, 2009; Lisonbee, Mize, Payne, & Granger, 2008) and can be detrimental to students' academic and social-emotional development (McCormick & O'Connor, 2014; O'Connor, Collins, & Supplee, 2012).
- Make an effort to get to know and connect with each student in your classroom. Always call them by their names, find out information about their interests and strive to understand what they need to succeed in school (Croninger & Lee, 2001; Whitlock, 2006).
- Make an effort to spend time individually with each student, especially those who are difficult or shy. This will help you create a more positive relationship with them (Pianta, 1999; Rudasill, Rimm-Kaufman, Justice, & Pence, 2006; Spangler Avant, Gazelle, & Faldowski, 2011).
- Be aware of the explicit and implicit messages you are giving to your students (Pianta, et al., 2001; Rimm-Kaufman et al., 2002; Hemmeter & Conroy, 2012). Be careful to show your students that you want them to do well in school through both actions and words.
- Create a positive climate in your classroom by focusing not only on improving your relationships with your students, but also on enhancing the relationships among your students (Charney, 2002; Donahue, Perry & Weinstein, 2003; Wentzel, 2010).
Be aware that you are modeling behavior for your students, whether intentional or not.
- Students notice your interaction style. They notice whether you show warmth and respect toward them, to other students and to adults at your school. Often, they will model their own behavior after your behavior.
- Students notice the methods you use to manage strong emotions. They notice positive strategies, such as taking a deep breath or talking about your frustrations. Likewise, they notice negative strategies, too, such as yelling at students or making mean or disrespectful jokes about colleagues (Jones, Bouffard, & Weissbourd, 2013). Be aware that students will often adopt the strategies that you use.
- Don't assume that being kind and respectful to students is enough to bolster achievement. Ideal classrooms have more than a single goal: teachers hold students to appropriately high standards of academic performance and offer students an opportunity for an emotional connection to their teachers, their fellow students and the school (e.g., Gregory & Weinstein, 2004; Wentzel, 2010).
- Don't give up too quickly on your efforts to develop positive relationships with difficult students. These students will benefit from a good teacher-student relationship as much or more than their easier-to-get-along-with peers (Baker, 2006; Birch & Ladd, 1998; Hartz & Williford, in press).
- Don't assume that respectful and sensitive interactions are only important to elementary school students. Middle and high school students benefit from such relationships as well (Allen et al., 2013; Meece, Herman, & McCombs, 2003; Reyes, Brackett, Rivers, White, & Salovey, 2012).
- Don't assume that relationships are inconsequential. Some research suggests that preschool children who have a lot of conflict with their teachers show increases in stress hormones when they interact with these teachers (Lisonbee et al., 2008).
- Don't wait for negative behaviors and interactions to occur in the classroom. Instead, take a proactive stance on promoting a positive social experience by including students in discussions about prosocial interactions and consistently modeling those positive interactions for them (Jennings & Greenberg, 2009).
Know your students
Knowing a student's interests can help you create examples to match those interests.
- If a student who loves basketball comes to you with a question about a math problem, you might respond to her with a problem involving basketball.
- If a student who speaks Spanish at home comes to you with a question about English vocabulary, you might answer his question and then ask him what the word is in Spanish and how he'd use it in a sentence. This type of specific responding shows that you care about your students as people and that you are aware of their unique strengths (i.e., fluency in another language).
Knowing a student's temperament can help you construct appropriate learning opportunities.
- If a girl in your class is particularly distractible, you can support her efforts to concentrate by offering her a quieter area in which to work.
- If a boy in your classroom is very shy, appears engaged but never raises his hand to ask questions, you can assess his level of understanding of a concept in a one-on-one conversation at the end of class.
Give students meaningful feedback
Notice the way that you give feedback to your students. If possible, watch a video of your own teaching.
- Are you giving students meaningful feedback that says you care about them and their learning, or are you constantly telling your students to hurry?
- In your conversations, are you focusing on what your students have accomplished or are you concentrating your comments on what they have not yet mastered?
- Does your body language, facial expression and tone of voice show your students that you are interested in them as people too?
- Are you telling them to do one thing, yet you model quite different behavior? For example, are you telling your students to listen to each other, but then look bored when one of them talks to the class? Be sure that the feedback you give to your students conveys the message that you are supporting their learning and that you care about them.
- Are you paying more attention to some students than to others?
Create a positive classroom climate
Be sure to allow time for your students to link the concepts and skills they are learning to their own experiences. Build fun into the things you do in your classroom. Plan activities that create a sense of community so that your students have an opportunity to see the connections between what they already know and the new things they are learning, as well as have the time to enjoy being with you and the other students. Make sure to provide social and emotional support and set high expectations for learning.
Be respectful and sensitive to adolescents
Supportive teacher-student relationships are just as important to middle and high school students as they are to elementary students. Positive relationships encourage students' motivation and engagement in learning. Older students need to feel that their teachers respect their opinions and interests just as much as younger students do. Even in situations where adolescents do not appear to care about what teachers do or say, teacher actions and words do matter and may even have long term positive (or negative) consequences.
Develop positive discourse with students with challenging behavior
Think about what you say to the difficult students in your classroom. Are you constantly bombarding your more challenging students with requests to do something? Do you find yourself constantly asking students to stop doing what they are doing? No one likes being badgered and pestered, and your students are no exception.
- Try to find a time or place when you can have positive discussion with the problem student.
- Notice and mention the positive behaviors they exhibit.
- Remind yourself that even if a challenging student appears unresponsive to your requests, she is hearing the messages that you are giving her. Her responses may not change her immediate behavior but may matter in the long term.
Make extra effort to develop and sustain relationships with difficult students
Difficult students require more energy on your part. For example, you may need to spend time with them individually to get to know them better — to understand their interests as well as what motivates them. This will not only allow you to tailor your instruction to their interests and motivation, but the time spent will also allow them to develop trust in you. Recent research on high school students who have frequent and intense discipline problems shows that when adolescents perceive their teachers are trustworthy people, they show less defiant behavior (Gregory & Ripski, 2008). Persistent teacher-student conflict throughout the elementary years increases the likelihood that children will exhibit negative externalizing behaviors (O'Connor et al., 2012), so it is important for teachers to build close relationships at an early age with children at-risk for behavioral issues.
This video clip highlights a teacher talking about how developing positive relationships is particularly important with behaviorally difficult children.
Forming positive relationships with behaviorally difficult students
These video clips show two teachers talking about the ways positive relationships with their students helps to reach and motivate them.
Three theoretical perspectives — attachment theory, social cognitive theory and self-system theory — help to explain why students behave in certain ways in your classroom and how you can use your relationships with them to enhance their learning.
Attachment theory explains how students use their positive relationships with adults to organize their experiences (Bowlby 1969). Central to this theory is that students with close relationships with their teachers view their teacher as a "secure base" from which to explore the classroom environment. In practice, students with this "secure base" feel safe when making mistakes and feel more comfortable accepting the academic challenges necessary for learning. Strong teacher-student relationships can even act as a buffer against the potentially adverse effects that insecure parent-child attachment can have on students' academic achievement (O'Connor & McCartney, 2007).
Social cognitive theory
Social cognitive theory posits that students develop a wide range of skills simply by watching other people perform those skills. Thus, modeling behavior can be a positive and effective modality for teaching (Bandura, 1986). Applied to the classroom environment, teachers play a critical role as live models from which students can learn social behaviors and positive communication skills. Social cognitive theory also sheds light on the importance of feedback and encouragement from teachers in relation to student performance. Teachers serve as role models and help regulate student behavior through interactions and relationships.
Self-System theory emphasizes the importance of students' motivation and by doing so, explains the importance of teacher-student relationships (Harter, 2012; McCombs, 1986). Students come to the classroom with three basic psychological needs — competence, autonomy and relatedness — all of which can be met in a classroom through students' interactions with teachers and with the learning environment (Deci & Ryan, 2002).
Classroom practices that foster the feelings of competence, autonomy and relatedness are likely to produce the engagement and motivation required for academic learning and success.
Competence refers to a student's need to feel capable of academic work.
Autonomy suggests a feeling that he or she has some choice and ability to make decisions.
Relatedness implies that a student feels socially connected to teachers or peers.
Positive teacher-student relationships help students meet these needs. Teachers offer feedback to students to support their feelings of competence. Teachers who know their students' interests and preferences, and show regard and respect for these individual differences, bolster students' feelings of autonomy. Teachers who establish a personal and caring relationship and foster positive social interactions within their classrooms meet their students' needs for relatedness (or social connection to school). Taken together, effective teacher-student relationships confirm to students that teachers care for them and support their academic efforts.
These video clips shows competence and autonomy from an 8-year-old child.
The students in my school have severe emotional and behavioral problems and my school has few economic resources — can good relationships really help?
Teacher-student relationships contribute to students' resiliency. Often, we assume that hard-to-change factors such as class size, teacher experience or availability of instructional supplies are crucial for predicting student achievement. In fact, these factors are not as important as having positive relationships.
In one study of almost 4,000 students (who were ethnic minority groups and from poor families), the presence of positive relationships with teachers and the experience of a positive and orderly school environment in elementary and middle school were strong predictors of gains in math outcomes — much stronger than class size, teacher experience, or availability of instructional supplies (Borman & Overman, 2004).
In another study, urban high school students with behavior and emotional problems were assigned to an intervention involving weekly interactions with teachers, monthly calls to the students at home and increased praise from adults. Those students involved in the intervention showed higher grade point averages over the five-month intervention period compared to their peers who were not receiving the intervention (Murray & Malmgren, 2005). Studies like this point to an important message — across ages and in all content areas, students will be more engaged and motivated if teachers meet students' essential need for social connection.
Can positive teacher-student relationships help to reduce the prevalence of bullying behavior in students?
The behaviors and emotions that young children display when interacting with peers play a critical role in their involvement with bullying throughout the school years. Teachers have the ability to reduce bullying behaviors that occur in the classroom by establishing a positive climate in which pro-social actions are both encouraged and rewarded (Hanish, Kochenderfer-Ladd, Fabes, Martin, & Denning, 2004). Through teacher-student relationship, teachers can assist students in understanding how to better understand and regulate emotions they are feeling. Teachers can also involve students in discussing alternative strategies to deal with social conflict and in establishing prosocial rules for the classroom (Allen, 2010; Fraser et al., 2005).
How does the importance of the teacher-student relationship compare to other important relationships, such as parent-student relationships, in students' lives?
From early childhood through adolescence, positive teacher-student relationships appear to complement the other important relationships in students' lives.
- For young students, increased parental engagement (i.e., warmth and sensitivity, support for autonomy, involvement in learning) is associated with greater social bonds with other caregiving adults, including teachers (Sheridan, Knoche, Edwards, Bovaird, & Kupzyk, 2010).
- In middle school students, the perception of their teacher (whether they felt that their teacher was supportive toward them or not) predicted students' interest in learning and their engagement in the classroom. At this level, parental support plays a complementary role by predicting youths' motivation in school (Wentzel, 1997).
- In high school, parent and teacher supportiveness (combined with parent and teacher monitoring and high expectations) contribute to gains in mathematics achievement (Gregory & Weinstein, 2004). At this age, parent and teacher monitoring of behavior as well as high parent and teacher expectations play an important role in achievement.
This video clip is of a teacher talking about the complementary role that her relationship with the child and the family plays in managing a child's behavior in the classroom.
What are the factors contributing to positive teacher-student relationships?
Multiple factors determine teacher-student relationships: teacher characteristics and student characteristics each play an important role in predicting the quality of interactions that teachers have with individual students. Although less well-studied, other factors (school social climate, school policies, etc.) also contribute to the quality of these relationships.
Will more positive teacher-student relationships improve the peer relationships in my classroom?
Yes, positive teacher-student relationships can promote improved peer relationships in your classrooms through direct and indirect approaches. Teachers can directly promote positive social behaviors by orchestrating the relationships within a classroom in a positive manner (Battistich et al., 2004). Teachers can use positive teacher-student relationships indirectly to promote peer relationships as well. Students tend to be more accepting of peers who show engagement in the tasks of school (e.g., show attention, participate in classroom activities), and positive teacher-student relationships enhance students' engagement. Positive teacher-student relationships improve student-to-student acceptance in both current and future years (Hughes & Kwok, 2007).
Are positive teacher-student relationships easier to form in some situations than others?
Some situations (such as in elementary school, where each teacher is assigned only twenty or so students) provide more opportunities for the development of close teacher-student relationships. Other situations (such as the middle school or high school levels, where teachers routinely provide instruction to four or five groups of twenty-five or more students) make it more difficult to form positive teacher-student relationships with all students (Feldlaufer, Midgley, & Eccles, 1988; Meece et al., 2003), and thus, it takes more effort.
It is also easier to focus attention on positive teacher-student relationships in schools where the administrators believe that trust and positive relationships are important for improving students' performance (Bryk, Sebring, Allensworth, Luppescu, & Easton, 2010 ). A distinguishing characteristic of schools with high performing students is the presence of an adult school community that works together in a coordinated manner to create a social environment that supports teachers' efforts to establish good relationships with students (Allensworth & Easton, 2007).
If teacher-student relationships reflect both characteristics of the teachers and characteristics of the student, how stable are these relationships over time?
The quality of teacher-student relationships is surprisingly stable over time. In other words, if a kindergarten teacher has a conflictual relationship with a student; it is likely that the child's first and second grade teachers will also experience conflict in their relationship with that same child. This stability is more evident when the relationships are conflictual rather than when the relationships are close or dependent (Howes, Phillepsen & Peisner-Feinberg, 2000; Pianta & Stuhlman, 2004). Most likely, the stability stems from the "internal working model" that students create in their mind about how relationships with adults typically ought to work.
Are there any unintended consequences associated with creating positive teacher-student relationships?
Ideally, classroom environments need to be nurturing while at the same time holding students to high academic standards (Curby, LoCasale-Crouch, et al., 2009; Stuhlman & Pianta, 2009). Classrooms that focus on nurturance without offering opportunities for academic learning do not produce increases in students' achievement (Allensworth & Easton, 2007; Lee & Smith, 1999).
Do positive teacher-student relationships work for all school subjects?
Positive teacher-student relationships play an equally important role in students' success across all subjects (McCombs & Miller, 2006). Students' social and emotional needs are present throughout the day and the year, regardless of the subject area.
Can positive teacher-student relationships support students' self-control?
In the past decade, there has been increased interest in methods to support students' development of self-control. Executive functioning is one component of self-control that refers to students' working memory, ability to direct attention, and the ability to control their responses in different situations. Through their relationships and interactions with students, teachers can help to develop and improve students' executive functioning skills and the behaviors that emerge because of those skills. For example, a higher degree of emotional support provided by the classroom teacher is associated with a reduction in students' off-task behavior (Rimm-Kaufman, Curby, Grimm, Nathanson, & Brock, 2009). Additionally, students with low effortful control perform similarly to children with high effortful control (i.e., the ability to substitute an automatic or immediate response for a more appropriate one, such as raising one's hand instead of calling out) on tests of reading and mathematics if they experience positive relationships with their teachers (Liew, Chen, & Hughes, 2010). Teacher-student relationships help students develop executive functioning skills regardless of whether they are low or high in these skills in the beginning of the school year. (See Willingham, 2011, for more useful information.)
This video clip provides an example of how a teacher's supportive interactions with an eight year old boy helps him get back on track and show more self-control in his behaviors.
How do you evaluate teacher-student relationships?
Several common and readily available instruments have been developed to assess teacher-student relationships. Although used primarily for research, these instruments can also serve as diagnostic tools to identify strengths and weakness in your own teaching. Some of these instruments rely on teacher reports of relationships, others are observationally-based measures of teacher-student interactions in the classroom, and yet others rely on students' reports of their relationships with teachers. One particularly innovative technique to use with young children relies on children's drawings of their teachers.
There are less formal ways to assess your relationships with students:
- Invite a school psychologist into your classroom to observe your interactions, take notes and reflect with you about the child with whom you have a challenging relationship.
- Set up a video camera and analyze your own interactions with the student who is causing you difficulty.
- Give your students anonymous questionnaires (on paper or on-line) or ask small groups of students about how they feel while they are in your classroom.
Through this process, it is important to realize that even the best teachers have difficulties with a few students from time to time. The reasons for these difficulties are numerous and getting help from a collaborating teacher, the school psychologist, or a supportive administrator may offer you an outside view of what is occurring and help you improve your relationships with the challenging students in your classroom.
Are positive teacher-student relationships a "magic bullet"?
No, positive teacher-student relationships are only one part of a teachers' repertoire of classroom management and discipline strategies. High quality relationships complement high quality classroom management. Furthermore, it is not possible to develop positive relationships with every student. As a teacher, you can strive toward accomplishing that goal but realize that having an ideal relationship with each student may be unobtainable.
How are positive teacher-student relationships linked to classroom climate?
Improving teacher-student relationships constitutes only a first step toward creating a classroom community that is conducive to student's social and academic development.
- Boys typically have more conflict and less closeness in their relationships with teachers than girls (Baker, 2006; Howes et al., 2000; Hughes, Cavell, & Wilson, 2001).
- High levels of teacher-student conflict may affect girls and boys differently. For example, teacher-student conflict appears to affect math achievement more negatively for girls than for boys (McCormick & O'Connor, 2014).
- Students with more internalizing problems (e.g., depression, anxiety) show greater dependency on their teachers than their average counterparts (Henricsson & Rydell, 2004), whereas students with more externalizing problems (e.g., aggression, problem behaviors) show more conflict with teachers (Murray & Murray, 2004; O'Connor et al., 2012).
- Students who exhibit more problem behaviors at home and school tend to develop more conflictual and less close relationships with their teachers (Birch & Ladd, 1998; Murray & Murray, 2004; O'Connor et al., 2012).
- Students with emotional disturbances or mild intellectual disability have more negative relationships with teachers than students without these problems (Murray & Greenberg, 2001).
- Bold preschool students with poorly developed language skills are perceived by their teachers as having more conflictual relationships. Shy preschool students with better language skills are perceived by their teachers as more dependent upon them (Rudasill et al., 2006).
- For students at risk for problematic teacher-student relationships, teachers needed to make extra efforts to offer the social and emotional support likely to help them meet the challenges they face in school.
Teachers vary in their ability to create positive teacher-student relationships. Some teachers simply have an easier time developing positive relationships with students — personality, feelings toward students, their own relationship histories may all play a role. A few personal characteristics of teachers have been identified as important predictors of positive teacher-student relationships in elementary schools. Research has found that preschool and kindergarten teachers are more likely to develop close relationships with students who share their same ethnic background. In contrast, it was found that Caucasian pre-service teachers working in their 10-week field placement sites perceived African-American and Hispanic students as more dependent than these same teachers perceived White students. Asian-American and Hispanic pre-service teachers perceived African-American students as more dependent upon them as compared to Asian-American or Hispanic students (Kesner, 2000).
Pre-service teachers who recall their own upbringing as caring and nurturing were also more likely to experience closeness with the students in their field placement classrooms (Kesner, 2000). Teachers' beliefs and the types of practices that teachers prefer also appear to be important. Kindergarten teachers who use more age-appropriate, student-centered teaching practices reported less conflictual relationships with their kindergarten students than those who use more didactic, teacher-centered strategies (Manticopoulous, 2005). Much less is known about the teacher characteristics that contribute to positive teacher-student relationships at the middle and high school level.
Student-teacher relationship scale (STRS; Pianta, 2001) is a teacher-report instrument designed for elementary school teachers. This instrument measures a teacher's perception of conflict, closeness and dependency with a specific child. Another instrument designed for teachers of middle and high school is the teacher-student relationship inventory (TSRI, Ang, 2005). It measures teachers' satisfaction with their students, the help they perceive they are offering to their students and their level of conflict with their students.
Classroom assessment scoring system (CLASS; Pianta, La Paro & Hamre, 2006) examines the presence of supportive relationships in the classroom. This system measures teachers' sensitivity as well as positive and negative climate in the classroom. Different forms of this instrument are available for preschool through twelfth grade.
Assessment of learner-centered practices (ALCP) is a set of validated survey instruments designed for teachers and students. These surveys, each designed for a different age group (grades K-3, 4-8 and 9-12), provide teachers with tools for self-assessment and reflection (McCombs, 2004). The emphasis of this work has been to identify discrepancies between teacher and student perceptions in order to assist teachers as they reflect upon and change their practices (McCombs & Miller, 2006). The ALCP process focuses on student learning and motivational outcomes, as well as the classroom practices that contribute most to maximizing these outcomes.
Feelings about school (Valeski & Stipek, 2001) examines young children's perceptions of their relationships with teachers and their overall feelings toward school. Young children's attitudes about school can also be assessed by having a child draw a picture of him/herself and his/her teacher at school and analyzing the picture for signs of negativity (Harrison, Clarke, & Ungerer, 2007).
Loneliness and social dissatisfaction questionnaire for young children (Cassidy & Asher, 1992) evaluates students' feelings of loneliness and discontentment with peer relationships in elementary school.
Teacher treatment inventory (Weinstein & Marshall, 1984) is a self-report measure that can be used with middle and high school students to rate their perception of the frequency of specific teacher behaviors. This measure can be used along with an adapted measure of perceived social connection.
How do teacher-student relationships relate to classroom climate?
When first grade teachers use practices that demonstrate caring toward students and practices that foster interpersonal skills among students, students are less likely to reject one another (Donahue et al, 2003). In addition, aggressive students who have positive relationships with teachers are more likely to be accepted by peers than aggressive students who lack positive relationships with their teachers (Hughes et al., 2001). Ultimately, constructive teacher-student relationships have an important positive influence on the social skills of difficult as well as typical students (Zins, Elias, Greenberg, & Weissberg, 2000). Such findings suggest that enhancing individual teacher-student relationships has beneficial and cumulative effects for other aspects of classroom life.
Improving teacher-student relationships is only the first step toward meeting students' emotional and relational needs. A teacher should also work on producing a caring community of learners. Such efforts improve the nature of interactions among students and promote students' engagement in school (Hamre & Pianta, 2005; McCombs, 2004; Meece et al., 2003; Weinberger & McCombs, 2003).
Studies have examined the effectiveness of interventions designed to create more caring school and classroom communities; each has resulted in specific recommendations for improving teacher-student relationships as well as peer-relationships.
The Child Development Project (CDP) focuses on fostering caring peer relationships, including students in decision-making during classroom meetings, and teaching students to better understand the feelings, needs and perspectives of others. The goal of CDP is to promote positive development among students and build upon their strengths. Students exposed to this intervention feel more positive about school and are more motivated (e.g., showed more task orientation and greater intrinsic motivation) than their counterparts not receiving this intervention in elementary school (Solomon, Battistich, Watson, Schaps, & Lewis, 2000). Likewise, CDP appears to have some long-lasting effects; students enrolled in the CDP elementary schools were less antisocial and more prosocial in middle school as well (Battistich et al., 2004). Further, in a district that pressed for high achievement, CDP was linked to positive effects on achievement outcomes as well as gains in socio-emotional skills.
The responsive classroom (RC) approach is a classroom-based intervention designed to integrate social and academic learning. When RC was examined to determine whether there were links between the use of its approach and the quality of teacher-student relationships, it was found that teachers using more RC practices had closer relationships with students in their classrooms (Baroody, Rimm-Kaufman, Larsen & Curby, 2014; Rimm-Kaufman & Chiu, 2007).
The RULER approach is another school-based social-emotional intervention that is designed to teach students critical skills related to emotions (labeling, expressing, regulating, etc.). This intervention was developed to align with the language arts curriculum in grades K-12. Investigations of RULER'S effectiveness have revealed that students whose teachers utilize more RULER approaches in the classroom demonstrated improved social skills and emotional intelligence (Reyes, Brackett, Rivers, Elbertson, & Salovey, 2012).
Promoting Alternative THinking Strategies (PATHS) is an additional intervention intended to strengthen the social-emotional learning skills of students in pre-K through grade 6. Primary goals of the intervention include building problem-solving skills, developing conflict-resolution strategies, forming positive relationships, and increasing self-control and self-awareness. Teachers who implemented the PATHS curriculum in the early elementary grades reported increases in prosocial interactions and higher levels of academic engagement in their classrooms (Conduct Problems Prevention Research Group, 2010).
What developmental differences are associated with teacher-student relationships?
Teacher-student relationships are as important to adolescents as they are to younger students. Feeling a connection and sense of relatedness to a teacher represents an essential need of all children and teens (Gregory & Ripski, 2008). However, it is worth noting that the nature of positive teacher-student relationships changes depending on the age of the student involved. In other words, the precise behaviors that might be perceived by a kindergarten child as nurturing and caring (e.g., a doting smile, a one-armed hug), in contrast, might be perceived by adolescents as over-involved and cloying. It is also important to realize that in the early years of school, students' perception of their relationship with teachers and teachers' perception of those same relationships are quite similar. As children grow and develop, the gap between their perceptions of teachers and teachers' perception of them grows and widens (McCombs & Miller, 2006).
Students experience stressors as they grow and develop. Positive, healthy relationships can help students with the developmental transitions they experience.
Do good teacher-student relationships work better for some students than others?
Teacher-student relationships are important to virtually all students. However, high quality teacher-student relationships appear to be most significant for students who are at risk for school problems based on early behavioral and learning issues (Baker, 2006; Rimm-Kaufman et al., 2002). In one study, high quality teacher-student relationships appeared to be better predictors of classroom adjustment, social skills and reading performance for students showing initial externalizing problems (e.g., aggression, hyperactivity), internalizing problems (e.g., anxiety, depression) and learning problems (e.g., attention problems) (Baker, 2006) than for students without these initial risk factors.
In another study, sensitive and supportive relationships proved to be more important in predicting increased self-reliant behavior and less off task, negative and aggressive behaviors in the kindergarten classroom for bold, outgoing children. (Comparable levels of sensitivity and support of the teacher played less of a role in children's classroom behavior for shy, hesitant children [Rimm-Kaufman et al., 2002). Teacher sensitivity and emotional supportiveness played a greater role in predicting children's academic achievement gains in first grade (after taking into consideration children's earlier achievement) for children "at risk" for school failure than for those without these risk factors (Hamre & Pianta, 2005).
Similarly, a recent study on children from rural families found that high emotional support provided by teachers was associated with increased behavioral self-control and lower levels of aggression in first grade students. This study also found that attending an emotionally-supportive classroom was equally important for students regardless of whether they were from families living with poverty or not and whether they were from families headed by a single parent or two parents (Merritt, Wanless, Rimm-Kaufman, Cameron, & Peugh, 2012).
In another study, poor teacher-student relationships correlated with a reading achievement gap between African-American and White students, all of whom initially demonstrated below average literacy skills. Specifically, when Hughes and Kwok (2007) studied a group of low achieving readers, they found that first grade children who had poorer relationships with their teachers were less engaged in school and had lower academic achievement in second grade. It is very important to note that Hughes and Kwok found that African-American children had poorer relationships with their teachers than children of other ethnic backgrounds (i.e., Caucasian, Hispanic). This suggests how important it is for teachers to develop the best possible relationship with all students, regardless of their ethnic background. Taken together, such findings suggest that high quality teacher-student relationships can partially compensate for disadvantages in other facets of students' social-emotional lives.
Positive teacher-student relationships can offset some of the normal stressors that students experience as they grow and develop. The transition to middle school can be a stressful time for children; middle school students often show declines in motivation, self-esteem and academic performance (Feldlaufer et al., 1988).
- Students who perceive greater support from their teachers experience less depression and have more growth in self-esteem between the sixth and eighth grades (Reddy, Rhodes, & Mulhall, 2003).
- Students who perceive their teachers as respectful, eager to support their autonomy, focused on setting realistic and individualized expectations for performance, and offering nurturing and constructive feedback are more motivated in school (Wentzel, 1997). More specifically, if a student believes "my teacher trusts me" or "my teacher calls on me to give the answer," he or she is more likely to be interested in class, more likely to conform to the positive social norms of the classroom, and more eager to master the academic material being taught (Wentzel, 1997).
Like other professionals in demanding roles, teachers may experience depleted energy and increased stress or "burnout." Physically and emotionally exhausted teachers struggle to sustain strong relationships with students (Jennings & Greenberg, 2009). Teachers are developing people and their psychological health is crucial to their success in the classroom, especially their ability to create high quality relationships with students (Rimm-Kaufman & Hamre, 2010). Teachers need to take time to care for themselves and receive support from others to improve their capacity to work with students.
During difficult times, an important source of support for teachers is the adult community within the school (Bryk et al., 2010). Increased collaboration and communication among teachers and other educational personnel can provide the social support needed to reduce feelings of stress and to renew teachers' energy. Teachers who feel positively about their own ability to cope with challenging situations and to form close relationships with others are more likely to provide higher quality environments that improve student outcomes (Brown, Jones, LaRusso, & Aber, 2010). There is a growing body of research showing how important it is for teachers to tend to their own psychological health and well-being.
Several books designed for teachers may be useful in promoting teacher-student relationships. Most of these books address the needs of children in early and middle childhood:
- Charney, R. (2002). Teaching children to care: Classroom management for ethical and academic growth, K-8. Greenfield, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.
- Howes, C. & Ritchie, S. (2002). A matter of trust: Connecting teachers and learners in the early childhood classroom. New York: Teachers College Press.
- Pianta, R. C. (1999). Enhancing relationships between children and teachers. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Several research briefs and blogs about teacher-student relationships and social emotional learning in pre-K, elementary and secondary grades:
- Useful blog for teachers by Dan Willingham.
- Teacher-student relationship research briefs:
For example: Curby, T. W., Rimm-Kaufman, S. E., & Abry, T. (2013). Does emotional support and classroom organization early in the year lead to higher quality instruction? Retrieved from: http://curry.virginia.edu/uploads/resourceLibrary/CASTL_Research_Brief-Curby_et_al._(2013)_JSP_updated.pdf (PDF, 260KB)
- Social and emotional learning research.
- Social and emotional learning to support student achievement.
- Reducing behavior problems in the elementary school classroom.
- Effective teaching practices and professional development opportunities.
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