Teacher’s Perceptions of Student Disadvatage Negatively Impact Teacher-Student Relationship

Young boy raising his hand in classroomFitzpatrick, C., Côté-Lussier, C., Pagani, L. S., & Blair, C. (2013). I Don’t think you like me very much: Child minority status and disadvantage predict relationship quality with teachers. Youth & Society, 1-17. DOI: 10.1177/0044118X13508962.

Summarized by Stella Kanchewa, M.A., UMass Boston doctoral student

Children’s academic performance relates to important adult outcomes including career options, income and general well-being. Previous research has found that in addition to individual factors (e.g., child’s skills/abilities), supportive relationships with adults including those with teachers, significantly contribute to a child’s academic achievement and subsequent positive development. Previous research also suggests that children from racial/ethnic minority backgrounds experience less supportive relationships with their teachers. Using a developmental systems theory framework, this new research by Fitzpatrick and colleagues examines the association between teacher’s perceptions of students’ minority status and socioeconomic status, and student’s experiences of the relationships formed with their teachers.

Method: The current study included 1,311 children who were part of a subsample drawn from the Québec Longitudinal Study of Child Development (QLSCD), a study following a sample of infants born in Québec, Canada between 1997 and 1998. This sample was representative of the racial/ethnic diversity of Québec. Data for the current study included two time points from larger study: kindergarten and fourth grade. Measures in kindergarten included parent reported socioeconomic status and minority status, teacher reported classroom engagement, as well as a test of basic number knowledge (i.e., foundational understanding of numbers necessary for math). At the end of fourth grade, teachers reported their perceptions of student’s disadvantage (e.g., “how often a child attended class over/underdressed, tired, late or hungry”). Students reported on the level of warmth and support in their relationship with their teacher (poor versus good relationship).

Results: Above and beyond the influence of sex, classroom engagement, basic math skills and actual socioeconomic status, visible minority status and perceived disadvantage were associated with lower teacher-student relationships. More specifically:

  • Children from racial/ethnic minority backgrounds were 50% less likely to report having positive, supportive relationships with their teachers.
  • Children perceived as disadvantaged were 32% less likely to report having positive, supportive relationships with their teachers.
  • Teachers perceived racial/ethnic minority children as more disadvantaged and less academically engaged relative to their peers.

Conclusion: In this study, children from racial/ethnic minority backgrounds, and children who were perceived as disadvantaged by their teachers reported less supportive teacher-student relationships. Further, these findings were above and beyond the influence of student’s actual level of competence and socioeconomic status. The authors note, “…we found evidence that social perceptions, shaped by larger social contexts and community relations, may influence teacher-child relations” (pg. 11). Teacher’s impressions about students’ social status not only shape the types of relationships formed with their students, these perceptions can also affect a child’s sense of self, motivation and achievement.

The findings from this study have implications for youth mentoring, specifically the way in which, despite the best intentions, larger social assumptions and stereotypes shape impressions within interactions such as that those between mentors and mentees, and subsequently interfere with the formation of a quality, supportive relationships. Exploration of potential implicit biases within mentor and mentee training, as well as ongoing dialogue that unpacks larger social themes can better equip matches and support them around difficult conversations, which in turn can foster perspective taking and empathy.