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Attachment theorist John Bowlby (1969) argued that self-concept and understanding of relationships are determined, in part, by experiences in early relationships with caregivers, particularly parents. The nature and quality of these relationships are important, specifically the degree to which caregivers are available and responsive to children’s needs. Although children’s first significant relationships are typically formed with parents, alternative relationships formed with teachers and other primary caregivers are also critical to child and adolescent development. In fact, a national survey of adolescents (Resnick et al. 1997) revealed that the single most common factor associated with positive youth outcomes was a supportive relationship with an adult, and teachers were among the adults most frequently mentioned as the source of this support. The following sections provide a brief overview of what teacher-child relationships look like, the factors associated with the quality of these relationships, and the importance of teacher-child relationships in promoting children’s academic and socio-emotional competencies.
What Is A Teacher-Child Relationship?
As children enter school, teachers play an important role in shaping children’s experiences outside of the home environment and early on can assist in supporting young children’s adaptation to new challenges and demands during the transition into a classroom environment. Aside from their formal role of teaching academic skills, teachers are often responsible for regulating activity level, communication, and contact with peers (Howes and Hamilton 1993; Howes, Matheson, and Hamilton 1994; Pianta 1997). Teachers also provide behavioral support and teach coping skills (Doll 1996). In contrast to parent-child relationships, relationships between teachers and children are more likely to be time-limited in nature. Yet, teacher-child relationships are deemed important by children of all ages (Pianta, Hamre, and Stuhlman 2001) and are associated with later academic and social functioning (Hamre and Pianta 2001).
Teachers’ perceptions of their relationships with children typically are shaped by the level of conflict or close-ness—that is, the degree of discord or warmth within a relationship (Ladd and Burgess 1999; Pianta 1994; Pianta and Steinberg 1992). Similarly, children’s perceptions revolve around the degree of emotional closeness and support, or negativity, within relationships with teachers (Bracken and Crain 1994; Ryan, Stiller, and Lynch 1994; Wentzel 1996). These perceptions of teacher-child relationships also appear to be consistent with observations of teachers and children interacting in the classroom (Howes et al. 1994; Pianta et al. 1997).
Factors That Influence Teacher-Child Relationships
Research clearly indicates that the quality of teacher-child relationships is influenced by unique characteristics and previous relational experiences that both teachers and children bring to the classroom. Teacher-child relationships are frequently affected by children’s behavioral problems, though there are some important gender differences. Teachers often characterize their relationships with female students as closer and less conflictual than their relationships with male students (Bracken and Crain 1994; Hamre and Pianta 2001; Ladd, Birch, and Buhs 1999; Ryan et al. 1994), which may be related to the fact that boys more frequently display antisocial behaviors, such as verbal and physical aggression. Several studies suggest that children’s academic and socio-emotional competencies, or lack thereof, are linked to the quality of their relationships with teachers (Ladd, Birch, and Buhs 1999; Murray and Greenberg 2000). One report showed that teachers are most likely to report conflictual relationships with children whom they also view as having significant problem behaviors.
Several studies support the idea that teacher beliefs, experiences, and expectations also contribute to the quality of teacher-child relationships (Pianta, Hamre, and Stuhlman 2001). For instance, one report shows that teachers who report feeling depressed and unable to influence the development of children in their classrooms, and who are observed to offer less emotional support, are more likely to report significant teacher-child conflict, even in the absence of reports of problem behaviors.
The race or ethnicity of both teachers and children also seems to play some role in determining teachers’ perceptions of the quality of teacher-child relationships, though the evidence supporting this view is far from conclusive. In particular, an ethnic or racial match between child and teacher may be influential in the formation of positive, less conflictual relationships (Hall and Bracken 1996; Ladd, Birch, and Buhs 1999; Saft and Pianta 2000). Although teacher-child relationships are to some degree a function of characteristics of and interactions between individuals, it is important to recognize that they also have their own identity apart from specific, individual characteristics and interactions (Sroufe 1989).
Importance Of Teacher-Child Relationships
Positive, trusting, and low-conflict relationships with teachers from preschool through high school are key contributors to children’s adjustment to their social and academic environment. Bridget Hamre and Robert Pianta (2001) report that teacher-child relationships in kindergarten are highly predictive of long-term educational outcomes (into middle school). Specifically, teacher-child conflict appears to be associated with negative feelings about school and school avoidance, lower levels of self-directedness and cooperation in the classroom, and poor academic outcomes (Birch and Ladd 1997). Additionally, teacher reports of relational conflict are related to increases in children’s problem behaviors and decreases in competence behaviors over time (Pianta, Steinberg, and Rollins 1995). In contrast, young children whose teacher-child relationships are characterized by closeness show greater levels of overall school adjustment (Birch and Ladd 1997; Pianta et al. 1995). Similarly, Kathryn Wentzel (1998) reports a correlation for middle school students between teacher support and interest in school and suggests that teacher-child relationships may be particularly predictive of classroom functioning during transition points, such as the move from elementary into middle school. Importantly, children at risk for academic and behavioral difficulties are particularly well served by positive teacher-child relationships (Pianta et al. 1995). In summary, supportive, reciprocal relationships with teachers influence child development in multiple fashions and serve to promote positive emotional and academic outcomes, while protecting children from a variety of potential educational and socio-emotional risks.
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