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The three behavioral theories that can explain student behavior
Dasha Bunks
Liberty University
PSYC 775 - Teaching of Psychology
Dr. Winn
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
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
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.
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