Student-teacher relationships:

Does it really matter if students and teachers like each other?

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

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

As part of an experiment, the kids are taking a series of cognitive tests -- solving problems about shapes, patterns, and analogies.

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.

To test this, 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 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 linked with problem-solving speed?

About 5-6 months after the study began, lead author Liselotte Anhert and her colleagues test many of the children again, this time with photos of both the old preschool teachers and the new elementary school teachers. The outcome is interesting.

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

The importance of friendly student-teacher relationships…for everyone

Experiments like these bolster our intuitions. Secure, supportive relationships are very important for little kids, and may have far-reaching consequences for the way they function.

But if we confine our attention to young children, we’re making a mistake. It might seem that preschoolers are particularly sensitive to the effects of a nurturing adult. After all, the kids in the German study got no boost from viewing the faces of their elementary school teachers.

But why was that? Most of the kids had known their preschool teachers for years, not months (as was the case for the elementary school teachers). Perhaps kids need more time to feel personally connected.

And there’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 friendly 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 benefits, and the correlations extend beyond preschool.

For instance, the same researchers who conducted the subliminal teacher image experiments also measured kids’ stress hormone levels during the first year of primary school.

When Liselotte Anhert and her colleagues analyzed daily fluctuations of the hormone, cortisol, they found evidence that most children became more physiologically stressed as the school week progressed. Whereas kids showed fairly normal stress hormone profiles on Monday, their patterns on Friday were atypical and characteristic of people under emotional strain.

Some kids, however -- the children in supportive, secure student-teacher relationships --  maintained more normal stress hormone patterns throughout the week (Anhert et al 2012).

Then there are the big, longitudinal studies, studies showing that kids who experience supportive student-teacher relationships in the early years develop fewer behavior problems years later, and show more engagement in the classroom.

The effects may be quite large, and may lead to boosts in academic performance – even after controlling for initial cognitive ability and pre-existing behavior problems. Negative relationships, by contrast, predict progressively worse outcomes (Hamre and Piata 2001; Rudasill et al 2010; Wu et al 2010; Hughes et al 2012).

Similar research has followed the progress of secondary school students, and, contrary to conventional wisdom, it seems that adolescents are just as affected as younger kids.

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 teachers (Gregory and Weinstein 2004).

So when it comes to education, it’s not clear that formal, distant relationships are ever preferable to warm, personal ones. But unfortunately, kids perceive less warmth as they get older.

When asked, “How much does your teacher like you?” kids typically report less positive feelings over time. And teachers agree.

As children progress through school, they are less likely to experience close, affectionate relationships with their teachers (Hughes et al 2012; Spilt et al 2012; Maldonado-Carreño and Votruba-Drzal 2011; O’Connor 2010; Barber and Olsen 2004).

Why do student-teacher relationships go wrong?

These studies have limitations, and we should keep them in mind.

Correlation doesn’t prove causation. Kids who find themselves in close, positive relationships may do so because they possess traits that both appeal to teachers and make children more attentive and studious. And this is undeniably a two-way street: Teachers are human beings who naturally find it more difficult to maintain sensitive, positive relationships with kids who are difficult, uncommunicative, uncooperative, or defiant.

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 (e.g., Hamre and Pianta 2001).

Moreover, when teachers maintain supportive relationships with “at risk” students, those students improve over time.

In fact, the research suggests that “at risk” students are the most likely to benefit from supportive student-teacher relationships.

But it isn’t easy. Behavioral problems in the classroom can overtax a teacher’s personal resources, and the most conscientious teachers are at highest risk for burn-out.

If we want to improve matters, we need to make sure teachers are getting the social support and technical guidance they need for handling student conflicts. When experts in the Netherlands and the United States have offered such help, student-teacher relationships have improved (Spilt et al 2012; Capella et al 2012).

And we should consider the bigger social context. A large study of American kids (O’Connor 2010) found that, as you might expect, kids with fewer behavior problems had better relationships with their teachers. So did kids who received lots of parental support at home. But, behavior problems and home life notwithstanding, so too did

•         girls

•        European American children, and

•        kids whose parents were in greater contact with the school

There was also evidence that teacher pay makes a difference. Elementary school students were more likely to maintain positive teacher relationships over time when their teachers received higher salaries (O’Connor 2010).

So it appears that many things – sex differences, cultural factors, family background, and economics – play a role in the kinds of relationships teachers and children form in the classroom (Saft et al 2001). And while we should be careful when making inferences from correlations, it seems reasonable to think that people’s expectations – about kids, teachers, and what counts as appropriate behavior in the classroom – have something to do with these correlations.

Why, for example, are girls more likely to enjoy positive, supportive relationships with their teachers?

The research seems pretty compelling on this point. 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 and get along with teachers.

If the sex difference reflects a difference in the timing of development – and that seems likely – then we ought to ask if our expectations about school are realistic for young boys. If we change these expectations to reflect what the average little boy can do, might student-teacher relationships improve?

Similarly, we should consider the culture of the classroom. There are many ways to run a classroom, and it’s easy to see how misunderstandings might arise when you and your teacher come from different backgrounds.

For instance, a small Dutch study found that ethnic- majority teachers reported less positive relationships with students of Moroccan heritage (Thijs et al 2012). This might reflect in-group favoritism, but even if people showed no preferences for members of their own ethnicity, they would still face the challenge of cross-cultural communication.

Because people from different cultures display emotion in different ways, teachers from the ethnic majority may miss important cues. 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 (Crijnen et al 2000).

And for their part, children may come to school with expectations that are out of sync with those of their teachers. Writing about the United States in 1988, educational researcher Lisa Delpit noted that the progressive White American teachers she observed typically 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.

There are doubtless many others reasons that communication can break down, including purely personal ones. To minimized conflict, we need to achieve a meeting of minds between teachers and students. That means (1) becoming consciously aware of our assumptions about the way teachers and kids should behave, and (2) communicating with each other about it.

Kids need clear instructions about teacher expectations, and teachers need to understand where kids are coming from – both literally and figuratively.

So it seems pretty clear how parents can improve student-teacher relationships. By communicating with teachers, parents can help figure out what’s going wrong. Presumably this explains – at least in part – why kids have better student-teacher relationships when their parents get more involved at school. 

But the research suggests the problem is complicated. When parents and teachers come from different backgrounds, it may be hard for them to bridge the gap. Culturally-savvy go-betweens – like trained counselors – may be helpful.

And when relationships don't improve, despite our best efforts, I think we're well-justified in considering the option of classroom re-assignment. For some kids, there may be a lot at stake.

More generally, we should take seriously the softer, social side of school.

Are some classrooms too impersonal and businesslike?

Are some school cultures so discouraging of friendly, social touch -- like a pat on the shoulder -- that they thwart the development of emotionally supportive student-teacher relationships?

Are teachers being given the time they need to get to know their students on an individual basis?

Is it possible that the whole premise of most secondary schools -- that students have many teachers and connect relatively little with each one -- is counter-productive?

These are questions worth asking.


References: Student-teacher relationships

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Photo credits:

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 9/2013