Teacher-Student Relationships: Students Hold The Key

Teachers make all the difference in education. We aren’t just talking about academics, but also in how they impact students’ lives. Given the power of teacher-student relationships, education research can’t ignore the intricacies of this group's dynamics.

In a recent study in Early Childhood Research Quarterly, researchers analyze how children’s social, emotional, and behavioral issues affect their relationships with teachers.

The authors sought to answer several important questions: 

  1. Do students' "adjustment problems" affect how teachers treat them (the child-driven model)?
  2. Does how a teacher relates to her students impact the students’ adjustment (the teacher-driven model) ?
  3. Are teacher-student relationships are influenced equally by both parties (the transactional model)?

Adjustment Problems

The phrase “adjustment problems” may carry diverse meanings for different groups, so the authors begin by expanding on their definition of this term. They divide “adjustment problems” into two categories, “internalizing” and “externalizing.” Internalizing issues are described as those related to sadness, fear, worry and anxiety. Externalizing issues as those that are played out through anger, force, and activity.

The Study

To carry out the study, the researchers examined 450 low-income, ethnically diverse students in kindergarten through 3rd grade. The students mean age was 7 years old and gender was evenly split. Teachers were asked to assess students’ behavior and their relationship to these students at three points over one school term.

Students Hold The Key

The researchers found that the child-driven model was the strongest determinant of teacher-student relationships. In other words, the issues children brought to the classroom most impacted how they interacted with teachers in terms of closeness, conflict, and dependence, and not the other way around. Thus, the researchers conclude that “children and their individual characteristics appear to play a substantial role in the type of relationship formed with a teacher.”

However, there are limits to this study given its sample; the authors acknowledge that their findings could be unique to “low income, ethnically diverse children in high needs school settings.” Further, they point out that the findings may not have been objective enough, since teachers were the ones assessing students’ issues and the quality of their relationships with these students.

Despite these possible limitations, the findings are helpful to know as teachers encounter students with various temperaments and needs each school year. For educators’ next steps, the researchers suggest that teachers should be “adjusting the type of attention given to children” who are acting out externally or showing signs of internal issues. Further, they highlight that knowledge is power, suggesting that teachers need access to the findings in this study and similar ones, along with time to thoughtfully consider current dynamics in their classrooms.

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