Student-teacher relationships:

Why personal connections help kids adapt, learn, and achieve

© 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 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 power of personal connections

Experiments like these bolster our intuitions. Secure, supportive relationships are 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 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 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 extend beyond preschool.

For instance, the same researchers who conducted the "subliminal teacher" experiments also measured kids’ stress hormone levels. They analyzed daily fluctuations of the hormone, cortisol, as the children went through a typical week in primary 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).

Then there is the evidence from long-term studies. Kids who experience high quality student-teacher relationships in the early years have fewer behavior problems. They show more engagement in the classroom (Hamre and Piata 2001; Rudasill et al 2010; Wu et al 2010; Hughes et al 2012), and better performance, too: Studies of verbal skills have found that positive student-teacher relationships have modest, positive effects on early language development (Spilt et al 2015; Schmitt et al 2012; Maldonado-Carreño and Votruba-Drzal 2011).

There is even reason to think that teachers can help kids cope with other children. In a recent study of 336 U.S. 4th and 5th graders, Lawrence Christian Elledge and his colleagues found that kids actively rejected by their peers at the beginning of the school year experienced less bullying in the spring -- 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? No 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.

So 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).

Building stronger connections: What teachers and parents can do

How do we foster better student-teacher relationships? One way is to promote successful teacher practices.

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. 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. 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? Nobody yet has studied this, but it seems plausible.

Meanwhile, 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).

And there are bigger social forces to consider. In a large U.S. study, researchers found that female and European-American students were more likely to experience positive student-teacher relationships. Positive relationships were also more common for (1) kids who had parents who stayed in frequent contact with teachers, and (2) kids who had teachers who were well paid. Elementary school students were more likely to maintain positive teacher relationships over time when their teachers received higher salaries (O’Connor 2010).

So many things – teacher practices, cultural factors, parent involvement, and economics – influence the quality of student-teacher relationships (Saft and Pianta 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 links.

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).

Likewise, 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 minimize 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.

This suggests one of the ways that parents can help: They can work with teachers to identify communication problems and misunderstandings. But if parents and teachers come from different backgrounds, it may be hard for them to bridge the gap. Culturally-savvy go-betweens – like trained counselors – might be helpful. And when -- despite our best efforts -- relationships don't improve, I think we're well-justified in considering the option of classroom re-assignment. For some kids, there is 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

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