Student-teacher relationships: Why emotional support matters

© 2013 – 2018 Gwen Dewar,
Ph.D., all rights reserved

Kids benefiting from quality student-teacher relationships: Young children surrounding their teacher while she demonstrates something on paper.

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Supportive
student-teacher relationships boost achievement, and protect kids from the effects of stress.

But many students don't get the chance to form
such bonds. What can we do to help?

Imagine 120 children, six-year-olds seated at computers.

As part of an experiment, the kids are taking a series of cognitive tests.

But the researchers aren't trying to figure out who's smarter. They're trying to find out if student-teacher relationships affect the way kids think.

So the researchers have taken photographs of all the children's teachers. And just before being given a new problem to solve, each child is shown his or her teacher's face.

The
image appears only for a split second, a time span so brief the kids aren't
even aware of what they've seen. It's subliminal. But it has an effect, because the kids who have
close, affectionate teacher relationships — as opposed to distant ones — end
up solving many problems faster (Ahnert et al 2012).

The correlation holds up even when you compare kids in the same
class. So it's not just about differences in curricula or other classroom characteristics.

It seems to be about something more specific, something peculiar to each student-teacher relationship. And there may be long-lasting consequences.

In the weeks that follow, the children — German
kids who've been attending what English-speakers might call "preschool" or
"nursery school" — begin their first year of elementary school.

The researchers wonder. Do the old relationships still matter? Are the new relationships also linked with problem-solving speed?

To answer these questions, Liselotte Anhert and her colleagues test many of the children again, 5-6 months later — this time with photos
of both their old, preschool teachers and their new, primary school ones. What happens?

Subliminal images of supportive preschool teachers still have a
positive effect. Images of supportive primary school teachers do not.

The impact of student-teacher relationships

Experiments like these bolster our intuitions. Secure,
supportive relationships are especially important for young children, and may have
far-reaching consequences.

But what about older kids? The German experiments seem consistent with the idea that the personal equation matters less as children get older. But there are other explanations.

Most of the children in this study had known their preschool
teachers for years — much longer than they had know their primary school teachers. Perhaps kids need more time to feel personally connected.

And here's another possibility: Student-teacher relationships, even friendly, supportive ones, tend to assume a less nurturing, less physical aspect as kids move from preschool to primary school. Might kids suffer for it? Given what's known about the benefits of affectionate touch, it seems plausible.

But regardless of how we account for these "speed-of-problem-solving" results, we should keep in mind:

Secure, supportive student-teacher relationships are linked with a variety of beneficial effects, and these continue beyond preschool.

For instance, the same researchers who conducted the "subliminal teacher" experiments also measured children's stress hormone levels.

How supportive teachers protect kids from stress

The researchers analyzed daily fluctuations of the hormone, cortisol, as the children went through a typical week in elementary school. They learned that most kids began the school week with fairly normal stress hormone profiles, but showed increasingly atypical patterns as the week progressed — a sign that these kids were under strain.

By contrast, a subset of children — kids in supportive, secure student-teacher
relationships — maintained normal stress hormone patterns throughout the week (Anhert et al 2012).

That suggests that positive relationships have a measurable impact in the short-term, even among elementary school children. And there is more.

Kids who experience high quality student-teacher relationships in the early
years tend to have fewer behavior problems later on (Hamre and Piata 2001; Rudasill et al 2010).

They show more engagement in
the classroom (Wu et
al 2010; Hughes et al 2012), and develop better language skills (Spilt et al 2015; Schmitt et al 2012; Maldonado-Carreño and Votruba-Drzal 2011).

There's also evidence that supportive student-teacher relationships influence the way kids get treated by peers.

In a study of 336 American school children, kids who were actively rejected by their
peers at the beginning of the school year experienced less bullying later on — if they had better-than-average relationships with their teachers (Christian Elledge et al 2015).

Can we attribute all these happy outcomes to student-teacher relationships? Not necessarily. Teachers are human beings like the rest of us. They find it easier to maintain positive relationships with kids who are cooperative, attentive, socially adept.

Moreover, kids with strong verbal skills and high levels of self-control are more likely to succeed in both the social and academic domains.

So we can't assume that positive student-teacher relationships cause better classroom engagement or fewer behavior problems. Sometimes it's the other way around.

But researchers are well aware of these complexities, and try to take them into account.

Student-teacher relationships in the early years have predicted outcomes later on, even after researchers control for relevant baseline child characteristics like attention deficits, defiance, socioeconomic status, and IQ (Hamre and Piata 2001; Rudasill et al 2010; Wu et al 2010; Hughes et al 2012).

Furthermore, kids who struggle aren't doomed to poor outcomes. When teachers maintain supportive relationships with students at special risk for behavior problems, those kids improve over time.

In fact, studies suggest that "at risk" students are more likely than other kids to benefit from supportive student-teacher relationships.

The takeaway?

It's hard to escape the implications of these studies. Positive student-teacher relationships can protect students from toxic stress. They may forestall behavior problems, enhance a child's academic prospects, buffer kids from the risk of peer victimization.

And the benefits don't dwindle away as children grow up. On the contrary.

In a meta-analysis of 99 published studies, investigators
found that, relative to older students, kids in primary school suffered more
setbacks when student-teacher relationships were negative. But
positive relationships were particularly beneficial to older students, and overall, "stronger effects were found in higher grades" (Roorda et al 2011).

Indeed, in one large study of American teens, the single most
important school-based predictor of academic growth in mathematics — from the
8th to 12th grades — was a student's perception of "connectedness" with his or her teachers (Gregory and Weinstein 2004).

So how do we ensure that kids develop these crucial, supportive relationships?

The fact is that all students don't get equal treatment. They don't get an equal opportunity to forge close, supportive relationships with their teachers.

That's because teachers are human beings subject to stresses and strain. They sometimes lack training in the best ways to handle discipline. And teachers, like the rest of us, suffer from unconscious biases that affect the way they respond to kids.

So we need to get serious about helping teachers and students overcome these barriers. Let's take a closer look at the problems.

1. We need to help teachers cope with job stress

Building positive student-teacher relationships requires patience and good humor — qualities that tend to fizzle out when you're feeling stressed. And unfortunately, teaching is a stressful profession.

For instance, in the United States, a recent study of an urban, Midwestern school district found that 93% of elementary teachers were "highly stressed," and one third of these teachers were experiencing moderate to high levels of burnout (Herman et al 2018).

Similarly, a cross-sectional survey of school teachers in the United Kingdom found that "psychosocial working conditions were at a poor level" for teachers in general (Ravalier and Walsh 2018).

So if we want to help teachers develop positive relationships with their students, we need to address sources of job stress, like poor administrative support, poor teacher-parent communication, and insufficient funding.

In a large U.S. study, positive student-teacher relationships were more common for kids who had parents who stayed in frequent contact with teachers. In addition, elementary school students were more likely to maintain positive teacher relationships over time when their teachers received higher salaries (O'Connor 2010).

2. We need to provide teachers with specialized training for coping with defiance and disruptive classroom behavior.

It's clear that teachers need and deserve professional guidance for handling classroom conflicts in positive ways. When experts in the Netherlands and the United States have offered such specialized training, student-teacher relationships have improved (Spilt et al 2012b; Capella et al 2012).

3. Schools need to promote practices that make students feel supported and encouraged, not embarrassed and shamed.

There is good evidence on this point: Teachers should use positive, constructive feedback, and avoid personal criticism that shames, demeans, or belittles students.

For example, in recent experiments, British children (aged 7-11 years) were presented with two different kinds of teacher criticism.

One involved personal criticism (e.g.,"I'm disappointed in you.")

The other was focused on the behavior that the teacher wanted to correct ("Can you think of a better way to do it?")

Did the type of approach matter? It seems to have made a difference to children's perceptions (Skipper and Douglas 2015).

The kids who received personal criticism concluded that their teachers liked them less, and the experience cast a long shadow: Even after success in a subsequent task, the kids continued to view their student-teacher relationship in a negative light.

Such results are consistent with studies of younger children. Certain types of criticism can sap motivation, leaving kids feeling disheartened, frustrated, or helpless.

And as I've argued elsewhere, classroom behavior charts — and other disciplinary techniques that publicly embarrass children — might also have this effect.

Do these techniques undermine student-teacher relationships?

I can't find any studies addressing this for children. But studies of college undergraduates confirm that antagonistic teacher behaviors — like embarrassing students, or dismissing their contributions — turn students off.

They respond more negatively to teachers, and become less engaged in the material. And these effects are evident even when students aren't themselves the target of a teacher's antagonism. Observing the embarrassment of other students is enough (Broeckelman-Post et al 2015; Goodboy et al 2018).

4. We need to train teachers to identify and counteract biases

Teachers are merely human. So like the rest of us, they harbor social biases they've absorbed from the popular culture — stereotypes that can creep into our thinking whether or not we're consciously aware of it.

And unfortunately, these implicit biases can give rise to stark inequalities in how students are treated.

For example, Jason Okonofua and his colleagues have documented "extreme racial disparities in school disciplinary action in
the United States," and the researchers have confirmed one important cause: Teachers tend to perceive the misbehavior of Black students as more troubling (Okonofua et al 2016b).

In experiments, teachers who were asked to make judgments about hypothetical students were more likely to recommend severe punishment for repeat offenders who were Black, rather than White (Okonofua and Eberhardt 2015).

The descriptions of the students — and their classroom behavior — was identical. Only their racial identities were different, and that was enough to trigger biased reactions in the teachers.

Children may also be treated differently depending on other factors, like socioeconomic status. For instance, a recent experiment in Switzerland found that teachers were more likely to assign students of lower socioeconomic status to lower academic tracks — even when their academic records were identical with those of high socioeconomic status students (Batruch et al 2018).

So social biases can create major barriers to the development of quality student-teacher relationships. How can we fix the problem, and address this fundamental unfairness?

The good news is that implicit biases don't have to dictate how we behave. They merely represent our knee-jerk reactions — the conclusions that our unconscious minds jump to before we use our deliberative, conscious minds to mull the question over.

So we can override our knee-jerk reactions, but we have to actively monitor ourselves, and make a practice of questioning our initial reactions.

Then what? We need to practice empathy, and take a constructive problem-solving approach to perceived misbehavior.

When Jason Okonofua and his colleagues coached middle school teachers to replace punitive discipline policies with empathy and problem solving, student-teacher relationships improved. And school suspension rates were cut in half (Okonofua et al 2016a).

Employing the principles of "positive parenting" in the classroom can help ensure that every child gets the support he or she deserves.

5. We need to help teachers bridge the culture gap

Sometimes students and teachers come from the same cultural background. But often they don't, and that can affect the quality of communication.

For instance, people from different cultures express emotion in somewhat different ways, and it can lead to missed signals.

When researchers compared Turkish immigrant teachers with native Dutch teachers, they found that Turkish immigrant teachers were more likely to detect anxiety and depression in Turkish immigrant children. Native Dutch teachers didn't pick up on the same cues (Crijnen et al 2000).

And cultural differences can affect the way we use and interpret language, leading to fundamental misunderstandings. Writing about the United States in 1988, educational researcher Lisa Delpit noted that the White American teachers she observed addressed their students in a roundabout way. Verbal directives were couched as suggestions or questions, like, "Is this where the scissors belong?"

By contrast, Delpit wrote, many Black American teachers stated the message more directly, (e.g., "Put those scissors on that shelf,") and the difference may have had important consequences.

Kids who'd been raised to respond to explicit directives may not have recognized a teacher’s question for what it really was – a veiled command. Kids accustomed to indirect commands may have interpreted imperative language ("Do this") as harsh or angry. Either way, there was potential for misunderstanding and trouble.

So we need to realize that teaching isn't as straightforward as it may seem. Teachers need to tune into the cultural assumptions of their students, and parents need to communicate with teachers about misunderstandings they perceive. Taking the time and effort to learn about cultural differences isn't a frill. It's crucial to successful education.

And what should we do when a relationship just isn't working?

When — despite our best efforts — relationships don't improve, I think we're justified in considering the option of classroom re-assignment. For some kids, there is lot at stake.

And for the rest of us, it's time to reconsider the way our schools are organized.

For example, is early education too regimented for naturally restless young children? Especially young boys?

During the early years of schooling, girls outperform boys in attentiveness, task persistence, impulse control, and social skills (McWayne et al 2004; Rimm-Kaufman et al 2009). As a result, girls may find it easier to adapt to school, which could explain why girls are more likely to forge high quality relationships with teachers (Mulolla et al 2012).

Do we simply accept this as the way of the world, or do we decide to change the nature of early schooling so that it's easier for young children to cooperate and follow the rules?

And what about school policies that prevent teachers from offering physical reassurance to their students — like a pat on the shoulder? Do such rules interfere with the development of quality student-teacher relationships?

What about the expectations of mainstream, secondary schools — where students are bustled from classroom to classroom, rarely getting the chance to develop personal relationships with their teachers? Are we depriving students an important source of motivation and resilience?

These are questions worth asking.

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Photo credits:

Title image of teacher surrounded by young children by Jani Bryson / istock

Image of children in computer lab by monkeybusinessimages

Image of student-teacher hug by Julio Nohara / wikimedia commons

Image of high school teacher and student by monkeybusinessimages

Image of pensive boy by Charmaineswart / wikimedia commons

Image of students at blackboard by Masae / wikimedia commons

Content last modified 5/2018
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