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The variations in the dynamics of the connection between teachers and students based on the
developmental stage of the student
Dasha Bunks
Liberty University
PSYC 775 - Teaching of Psychology
Dr. Winn
What developmental differences are associated with teacher-student relationships?
Teacher-student relationships are as important to adolescents as they are to younger students.
Feeling a connection and sense of relatedness to a teacher represents an essential need of all children
and teens (Gregory & Ripski, 2008). However, it is worth noting that the nature of positive teacher-
student relationships changes depending on the age of the student involved. In other words, the precise
behaviors that might be perceived by a kindergarten child as nurturing and caring (e.g., a doting smile, a
one-armed hug), in contrast, might be perceived by adolescents as over-involved and cloying. It is also
important to realize that in the early years of school, students' perception of their relationship with
teachers and teachers' perception of those same relationships are quite similar. As children grow and
develop, the gap between their perceptions of teachers and teachers' perception of them grows and
widens (McCombs & Miller, 2006).
Students experience stressors as they grow and develop. Positive, healthy relationships can help
students with the developmental transitions they experience.
Do good teacher-student relationships work better for some students than others?
Teacher-student relationships are important to virtually all students. However, high quality
teacher-student relationships appear to be most significant for students who are at risk for school
problems based on early behavioral and learning issues (Baker, 2006; Rimm-Kaufman et al., 2002). In
one study, high quality teacher-student relationships appeared to be better predictors of classroom
adjustment, social skills and reading performance for students showing initial externalizing problems
(e.g., aggression, hyperactivity), internalizing problems (e.g., anxiety, depression) and learning problems
(e.g., attention problems) (Baker, 2006) than for students without these initial risk factors.
In another study, sensitive and supportive relationships proved to be more important in
predicting increased self-reliant behavior and less off task, negative and aggressive behaviors in the
kindergarten classroom for bold, outgoing children. (Comparable levels of sensitivity and support of the
teacher played less of a role in children's classroom behavior for shy, hesitant children [Rimm-Kaufman
et al., 2002). Teacher sensitivity and emotional supportiveness played a greater role in predicting
children's academic achievement gains in first grade (after taking into consideration children's earlier
achievement) for children "at risk" for school failure than for those without these risk factors (Hamre &
Pianta, 2005).
Similarly, a recent study on children from rural families found that high emotional support
provided by teachers was associated with increased behavioral self-control and lower levels of
aggression in first grade students. This study also found that attending an emotionally-supportive
classroom was equally important for students regardless of whether they were from families living with
poverty or not and whether they were from families headed by a single parent or two parents (Merritt,
Wanless, Rimm-Kaufman, Cameron, & Peugh, 2012).
In another study, poor teacher-student relationships correlated with a reading achievement gap
between African-American and White students, all of whom initially demonstrated below average
literacy skills. Specifically, when Hughes and Kwok (2007) studied a group of low achieving readers, they
found that first grade children who had poorer relationships with their teachers were less engaged in
school and had lower academic achievement in second grade. It is very important to note that Hughes
and Kwok found that African-American children had poorer relationships with their teachers than
children of other ethnic backgrounds (i.e., Caucasian, Hispanic). This suggests how important it is for
teachers to develop the best possible relationship with all students, regardless of their ethnic
background. Taken together, such findings suggest that high quality teacher-student relationships can
partially compensate for disadvantages in other facets of students' social-emotional lives.
Student Stressors
Positive teacher-student relationships can offset some of the normal stressors that students
experience as they grow and develop. The transition to middle school can be a stressful time for
children; middle school students often show declines in motivation, self-esteem and academic
performance (Feldlaufer et al., 1988).
Students who perceive greater support from their teachers experience less depression and have
more growth in self-esteem between the sixth and eighth grades (Reddy, Rhodes, & Mulhall,
Students who perceive their teachers as respectful, eager to support their autonomy, focused
on setting realistic and individualized expectations for performance, and offering nurturing and
constructive feedback are more motivated in school (Wentzel, 1997). More specifically, if a
student believes "my teacher trusts me" or "my teacher calls on me to give the answer," he or
she is more likely to be interested in class, more likely to conform to the positive social norms of
the classroom, and more eager to master the academic material being taught (Wentzel, 1997).
Teacher Stressors
Like other professionals in demanding roles, teachers may experience depleted energy and
increased stress or "burnout." Physically and emotionally exhausted teachers struggle to sustain strong
relationships with students (Jennings & Greenberg, 2009). Teachers are developing people and their
psychological health is crucial to their success in the classroom, especially their ability to create high
quality relationships with students (Rimm-Kaufman & Hamre, 2010). Teachers need to take time to care
for themselves and receive support from others to improve their capacity to work with students.
During difficult times, an important source of support for teachers is the adult community within
the school (Bryk et al., 2010). Increased collaboration and communication among teachers and other
educational personnel can provide the social support needed to reduce feelings of stress and to renew
teachers' energy. Teachers who feel positively about their own ability to cope with challenging situations
and to form close relationships with others are more likely to provide higher quality environments that
improve student outcomes (Brown, Jones, LaRusso, & Aber, 2010). There is a growing body of research
showing how important it is for teachers to tend to their own psychological health and well-being.
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