The multiple benefits of positive mother-child relationships have been identified through research. These benefits include increased academic achievement (Pianta & Harbers, 1996) and safeguards from the effects of an impoverished environment (NICHD ECCRN, 2002). Research that comes from an ecological-contextual perspective has extended investigations of the positive benefits children experience when engaged in high quality relationships from the home environment to school settings. Within the school setting, the teacher-child relationship has also been found to foster positive effects on academic achievement (O’Connor & McCartney, 2007) and classroom engagement (Ladd, Birch, & Buhs, 1999). For students with learning disabilities (LD), positive, high-quality relationships with teachers can be one more tool to nurture success.
Contextual Systems Model
Contextual Systems Model (CSM) theorist’s Pianta and Walsh (1996) conceptualize children as developing within a set of inter-related systems such that an event in one system may alter events in other systems connected to the child. The child, the child’s family, school classroom, and culture are all examples of systems that can affect a child either through direct impact or indirectly because of occurrences in another system. Understanding relationships is the central goal of CSM, and within the school system, understanding how the teacher—child relationship impacts the development of the child is the primary objective. For example, research from this perspective would seek to understand how the impact of a teacher’s negative, combative relationship with a child will affect the child’s academic performance in class. Examples of a negative-combative relationship could include comments from the teacher such as, " I told you a million times not to do that, now go sit in the hall" or "If you can't do as I tell you then you can't play."
A research investigation of 880 children conducted by O’Connor and McCartney (2007) demonstrated that teacher-child relationship quality improved for the majority of children from preschool to third grade. Children who displayed the opposite profile, i.e., teacher-child relationship quality decreased over the grades, were found to be at risk for academic problems by the third grade. An analysis of the results found that children with high-quality teacher-child relationships were more engaged in class and that engagement is associated with achievement. Some characteristics of a high-quality relationship include a sense of trust, ability to take academic risks, feeling understood and accepted. Furthermore, findings indicate that teachers attentions were focused less on those children with whom they had high-quality relationships. Typically, a teacher’s attention was on those children in the classroom who were more dependent and/or more disruptive. Conversely, teachers with children in their classroom who were independent workers and self-monitored their behavior took less of the teacher’s attention, but had a more positive relationship with the teacher.
The implications of this study are profound. In order to improve children’s academic achievement, interventions should focus on establishing high-quality teacher-child relationships.
Improving Teacher-Child Relationships
Knowing that children are more engaged in class and perform better academically when they have a positive relationship with their teacher, educational professionals are encouraged to identify strategies that promote high-quality relationships. Although there are a multitude of standardized programs that seek to foster both academic and relational success, i.e., the Responsive Classroom Approach (see Malow, Strategies for Successful Learning, 2(1) for brief overview), the individual teacher can employ strategies that focus on the environment, verbal interactions, and providing an engaging curriculum.
Organize the Environment.
Create a learning environment that is sensitive and responsive to children’s needs
Allow for movement and interaction in the set up of the physical environment
Equipment and materials should be sufficiently abundant, maintained and developmentally appropriate
Manage Verbal Interactions.
Children should engage in frequent, positive individualized interactions with the teacher
The teacher must recognize and respect the culture and language traditions of all children in the class
Children’s feelings and experiences need to be validated by the teacher and other adults in the classroom
Provide an Engaging Curriculum.
Plan experiences that are of interest to children
Include opportunities for each child to participate in the curriculum
Maintain clear, high expectations for academic and behavioral success
Children with LD frequently have difficulties with not only academic achievement, but also with social relationships. Teachers of students with LD need to foster positive teacher-child relationships as one additional avenue to improved academic achievement. Understanding the importance of this relationship and having the ability to implement strategies to create a high-quality teacher-child relationship is within reach for all teachers. Teachers with concerns about a child with LD in their classroom and how to foster a positive teacher-child relationship should consult with their own school's mental health and guidance professionals for further information.
Ladd, G.W., Birch, S. H., & Buhs, E.S. (1999). Children’s social and scholastic lives in kindergarten: Related spheres of influence? Child Development, 70(6), 1373-1400.
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Early Child Care Research Network. (2002). Early child care and children’s development prior to school entry: Results from the NICHD study of early child care. American Educational Research Journal, 39(1), 133-164.
O’Connor, E. & McCartney, K. (2007). Examining teacher-child relationships and achievement as part of an ecological model of development. American Educational Research Journal, 44(2), 340-369.
Pianta, R.C., & Harbers, K.L. (1996). Observing mother and child behavior in a problem-solving situation at school entry: Relations with academic achievement. Journal of School Psychology, 34(3), 307-322.
Pianta, R.C., & Walsh, D. J. (1996). High-risk children in schools: Constructing sustaining relationships. New York: Routledge.
United States Department of Health and Human Services. Administration for Children and Families. Office of Head Start. (2008). The importance of teacher-child relationships in Head Start. ACF-IM-HS-08-21. Retrieved on August 15, 2010 from http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/ohs/policy/im2008/acfimhs_08_21_a1.html
Micheline Malow, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Special Education at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York. In addition to teaching courses in Exceptional Students and Instructional Strategies for Teaching Students with Learning and Behavioral Disorders, she has presented at numerous professional conferences, published articles on students with exceptional needs, friendship and teacher attitudes, and has co-authored a book for Greenwood Press, Adolescents and Risk (2008).