Just like yeast is the key ingredient to making bread rise, studies have shown that a good teacher-student relationship is the key ingredient to producing student achievement. An academic study at Texas A&M University confirms the effect of a pattern of supportive teacher-student relationships over the elementary years equals profound academic success in later years.
Jan Hughes, a professor of school psychology, is leading a longitudinal study involving a sample of 784 academically at-risk children from three Texas school districts. The research began when the children entered the first grade in 2000 and 2001 and has continued to follow them throughout the elementary years and beyond. The study originally investigated the impact of grade retention on achievement, but has since branched out to other areas, including social aspects of children’s achievement.
“The strongest predictor of a child’s success is his or her achievement the previous year,” said Hughes. “Students generally stay in the same rank order, so there is a lot of continuity in children’s position in terms of relative achievement.”
Because of that continuity, the research team, including Oi-man Kwok, associate professor of educational psychology, was able to examine intervening factors, such as a relationship with a teacher characterized by warmth and support or one characterized by conflict, hostility and rejection.
From year to year, the research team assessed teacher-student relationships and achievement to find whether the experience of a warm and supportive teacher predicts the next year’s achievement.
The findings reveal that when children have a supportive relationship with their teacher — one where they feel a sense of acceptance and security — they are more likely to work hard in school, follow rules and persist when they get stuck on problems. The children are also more likely to perceive themselves as more academically capable.
“A positive social and emotional relationship with the teacher has its impact on achievement indirectly by its effect on children’s motivation and behavioral engagement in the classroom,” explained Hughes.
The study also found that a nurturing teacher-student relationship has the largest effect on children who have a poor ability to regulate their own behavior. This includes students who temperamentally are impulsive, have a hard time stopping and thinking and tend to rush through things.
Children who have a poor ability to regulate behavior in the first grade generally don’t learn as much from the first to second grade as do children with good regulation. That is true, noted Hughes, unless the child has a supportive relationship with the teacher. In that case, the child with poor ability to regulate will learn just as much as a child with good regulation skills. A warm and supportive teacher-student relationship completely compensates for poor regulation.
The most significant finding, however, is how patterns of supportive or conflicting relationships with teachers throughout the elementary years impact expected achievement in middle school. The effects are huge, said Hughes.
Take a typical child who, based on his or her achievement in the first grade, is expected to be at the 50th percentile (average) for achievement in the sixth grade, Hughes continued. Depending on the patterns of relationships the child has had with teachers over the elementary years, that child may fall well below or well above average.
“The average expected achievement differs greatly, based on the type or pattern of conflict the student had with teachers from the first to fifth grade,” said Hughes. “Children with patterns of high conflict are expected to outscore only 16 percent of the original sample of children, and those with patterns of significantly low conflict and highly supportive relationships with their teachers are expected to outscore 84 percent of the sample.”
Hughes said she believes the research implies the need for greater attention to be focused on supporting teachers’ abilities to create positive social and emotional learning environments.
“Recent research suggests that fairly intensive, focused year-long individualized support to teachers can improve student achievement via improved teacher-student interactions,” said Hughes.
Hughes said she plans to focus her attention next on teacher interventions to help create more positive relationships with students. She said she would also like to look into early identification of children at risk for chronic conflict in their relationships with teachers.
The research is funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health.
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