Findings point to the pivotal role of inclusive and emotionally supportive classrooms

Walker, S., & Graham, L. (2021). At risk students and teacher-student relationships: Student characteristics, attitudes to school and classroom climate. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 25(8), 896–913.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest:

  • Youth relationships with non-parental adults play an increasingly important role in youth development as they grow older and further their education.
  • This study examines the associations between youth perceptions of school, youth traits, classroom interactions, and quality of teacher-student relationships among at-risk students.
  • Relationships between teachers and students are bi-directional, in which their respective characteristics interact with one another throughout the development of their relationships.
  • Positive emotional support in the classroom is essential for positive teacher-student relationships.
  • Teacher-student interactions play an influential role in student classroom adjustments.
  • It’s important to support potentially at-risk students with their oral language development and self-regulation throughout their early years of education to avoid negative behavioral trajectories.
  • Teachers and schools can promote positive youth outcomes by applying inclusive pedagogies in emotionally-supportive learning environments.

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Student characteristics, their attitude to school, and classroom climate can influence teacher-student relationships and adjustment to school. Poor early school experiences are associated with school avoidance, disruptive behaviour, teacher conflict, and suspension and exclusion. The focus, however, remains on the behaviour of individual children, rather than seeing behaviour as the result of interactions between individuals and their pedagogical contexts. This paper presents findings from the first year of an Australian longitudinal project tracking 240 children (101 boys, 139 girls) from high suspending primary schools serving disadvantaged communities through the first six years of school. Analyses, using multiple measures, including classroom observations, assessments and questionnaires, and multiple informants, such as teacher and child reports, explore associations between child characteristics, children’s attitudes to school, teacher-student relationship quality and the quality of classroom interactions as children commence school. Findings point to the importance of self-regulation as children transition to school and the pivotal role of inclusive and emotionally supportive classroom contexts in supporting the development of positive teacher-student relationships in the first year of school.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

The present research examined associations between child characteristics, children’s attitudes towards school, classroom quality, and the quality of teacher-student relationships. Our findings indicate that child characteristics, such as gender, the ability to self-regulate and language competence influence teacher–child relationships. The findings align with previous research (c.f. O’Connor 2010; Walker et al. 2013) finding that (i) girls, (ii) children who are better able to self-regulate, and (iii) children who are less hyperactive were more likely to have a close relationship with their teachers. Higher language scores (CELF, PPVT/EVT) were significantly correlated with school readiness, self-regulation, both child and teacher rated relationship quality, and problem behaviours. Lower scores on all language measures, on the other hand, were related to fewer school readiness skills, poorer self-regulation, more problem behaviours, and less close and more conflictual relationships with teachers. While child language did not emerge as a significant predictor of teacher-student relationships in the regression analyses, the strong association between language, self-regulation, and problem behaviours suggest, in line with previous literature (cf., Hand 2008; Justice et al. 2008; Ripley and Yuill 2005), that underlying language difficulties may also be key drivers of less positive teacher-student relationships. Recall also that language modelling is one of the three dimensions constituting the Instructional Support domain of the CLASS.

Children’s attitudes towards their teacher, more so than their attitudes towards school, also influenced teacher-student relationships. While child-rated school liking was associated with a slight increase in teacher-student relationship quality on both child and teacher report, the association was not significant in the regression analyses. However, child liking for their teacher (as measured by the PiML) was related to higher scores on all three CLASS domains (emotional support, classroom organisation, and instructional support), highlighting the importance of teachers’ and students’ close relationships for overall classroom quality. Classroom climate also had an important role to play in teacher-student relationship quality. The quality of classroom interactions, in particular emotional support, enhanced the development of close teacher-student relationships. A lack of positive emotional support contributed significantly to conflictual teacher-student relationships.

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