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Supportive teacher-student relationships: promoting the social and emotional health of early adolescents with high incidence disabilities.

A young child maintains a relatively small number of relationships that give feedback and shape a sense of coherence. We have seen that even under adverse circumstances, change is possible if the older child or adolescent encounters new experiences and people who give meaning to one's life, and a reason for commitment and caring. (Werner & Smith, 1989, p. 163)

It is becoming increasingly apparent that socially supportive relationships can have powerful and lasting effects on the lives of children and youth (Cassidy & Shaver, 1999; Richman, Rosenfeld, & Bowen, 1998). During transitional periods and times of stress, social relationships may take on particular significance, as they can buffer the effects of stressful life events (Eckenrode, 1991). The move from childhood into adolescence is one such stressful transitional period (Solowdow, 1999). Early adolescents experience rapid biological, social, and emotional changes. For many youth, these changes contribute to confusion about their identities, and can lead to social, emotional, and academic difficulties. As Elias and Butler (1999) observe, "The middle school years are a time of cognitive awakening, realignment of social influences, intense psychological change, and more often than not, emotional turbulence" (p. 74).

As young teenagers struggle with these issues, peer groups take on increased significance and interactions with adults can be tumultuous or emotionally charged (Solowdow, 1999). Many teenagers grow to feel detached from adults during this period (Esman, 1990). During this period, children move to new schools, which often have a structure that may exacerbate the feelings of detachment. Most middle and junior high schools are larger and less personal than elementary schools. In these larger settings, students attend multiple classrooms during a single day, whereas elementary students usually attend only one or two. Many middle and junior high school teachers encounter 100 or more students during the course of a day, as opposed to the 20 or 30 students with whom most elementary teachers interact. Although these organizational changes can promote student independence, they also may make it more difficult for students to develop and sustain meaningful relationships with adults within school settings (Feldlaufer, Midgley, & Eccles, 1988).

Although early adolescence is an important transitional period for all students, it is a particularly critical period for students with high incidence disabilities. These students are at a greater risk of delinquency, school dropout, depression, anxiety, and poor post-school outcomes (Blackorby & Wagner, 1996; Werner, 1993). Students who receive special education services for learning disabilities, emotional and behavioral disabilities, and/or mild mental retardation are considered to have high incidence disabilities because of the large numbers of students who receive these labels. Schools initially identify children and youth as having high incidence disabilities because they exhibit academic problems. Although academically oriented difficulties are common among all students in these categories, they also share a heightened risk of experiencing social, behavioral, and emotional problems.

As compared to youth without disabilities, youth with high incidence disabilities are more likely to experience delinquency (Fink, 1990; Werner, 1993), behavioral and conduct problems (Haager & Vaughn, 1995), depression (Brown, Borden, Clingerman, & Jenkins, 1988; Rourke, 1988), anxiety (Manikam, Matson, Coe, & Hillman, 1995), and poor social skills (Haager & Vaughn, 1995; Raviv & Stone, 1991; Swanson & Malone, 1992; Vaughn, Zaragoza, Hogan, & Walker, 1993). Because many early adolescents with high incidence disabilities are, or are at risk of, experiencing difficulties in multiple areas, it is important to explore options for promoting their overall social and emotional health. Although no single intervention strategy is likely to affect all of these adjustment areas for all students, socially supportive relationships with adults have been shown to influence a broad range of social, behavioral, emotional, and academic outcomes, including: depression, anxiety, self-esteem, delinquency, social competence, involvement with drugs and alcohol achievement motivation, academic performance, and decisions related to staying in or dropping out of school (Baumrind, 1991; Greenberg, Siegel, & Leitch, 1983; Lewis, Feiring, McGuffog, & Jaskir, 1984; Rutter, Maughan, Mortimore, & Ouston, 1979; Resnick et al., 1997; Werner & Smith, 1989).

Despite the promising nature of research focused on the importance of supportive adult-child relationships, little is known about the importance of teacher-student relationships, and even less is known about the importance of these relationships for students with disabilities. Logically, because children and youth spend so much of their lives in school, teachers can play a significant role in providing needed social support.

The Importance of Teacher-Student Relationships

Attachment theory (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978; Bowlby, 1969/1982) and social learning theory (Bandura, 1977; Baumrind, 1978) provide a theoretical basis for the importance of close relationships between teachers and students. According to both theories, adult-child relationships that are characterized by warmth, open communication, active involvement, and structure facilitate healthy social-emotional development. Although less is currently known about teacher-student relationships, a few researchers have utilized these theories to help better understand the relationships that develop between students and their teachers (Kleinfeld, 1975; Murray & Greenberg, 2000, 2001; Pianta, 1999).

According to Pianta (1999), emotionally warm relationships between teachers and students (characterized by open communication, support, and involvement) provide students with a sense of security within school settings, which promotes exploration and comfort, as well as social, emotional, and academic competence. Pianta and his colleagues (Pianta, 1994; Pianta & Steinberg, 1992) found that children with greater levels of support in relationships with teachers had fewer behavioral problems, greater social competencies, and better school adjustment than did children experiencing greater conflict in their relationships. Similarly, Birch and Ladd (1997) found that students who had closer relationships with teachers were better adjusted academically than students with conflicted teacher-student relationships.

Several investigations have studied the importance of teacher-student relationships during early adolescence. Eccles and her colleagues (Feldlaufer et al., 1988; Midgley, Feldlaufer, & Eccles, 1989) evaluated the changes in student perceptions of teachers during the transition from elementary to junior high school. The researchers found that students perceived junior high school teachers as less warm, less caring, and less supportive than their elementary school teachers. These findings were supported by independent observations (Feldlaufer et al., 1988). In a similar study, Midgley et al. (1989) found that changes in how students valued mathematics were directly related to changes in teacher support. Students who received support from their teachers in both elementary and junior high school valued mathematics more than students who 1) experienced high support in elementary school but low support in junior high, and 2) students who experienced low support in both elementary and junior high school. In addition, low achievers who moved from high supportive environments in elementary school to low supportive environments in junior high school had sharper declines, in terms of their valuing of mathematics, than did average achieving students who experienced similar changes. This suggests that these relationships may have particular significance for students who have experienced school-related problems.

In one of the few studies focused on early adolescents with disabilities, Murray and Greenberg (2001) found that students with high incidence disabilities who spent the majority of the school day in special education settings reported higher levels of conflict with teachers than did students without disabilities. Furthermore, the quality of these youths' relationships with general and special education teachers was associated with self-reports of delinquent-type behaviors, depression, anxiety, conduct problems, and school competencies. Children who reported having warm and supportive relationships with teachers had better reported adjustment in these areas than did students with greater conflict in teacher-student relationships.

Improving Teacher-Student Relationships

A number of investigators have explored ways to improve students' attachments to adults and peers as a means of promoting their social, emotional, and academic adjustment (Eggert, Thompson, Herting, & Nichols, 1994; Hawkins, Doueck, & Lishner, 1988). These investigations focus on improving students' cognitive problem-solving skills and increasing the number of opportunities students have to develop prosocial bonds with adults and peers. This approach recognizes how relationships develop through a reciprocal process, and therefore emphasizes individual student characteristics (social skills training) as well as the importance of adult behavior.

O'Donnell, Hawkins, Catalano, Abbot, and Day (1995) investigated the effects of an intervention that included cognitive problem-solving skills training for students, parent training, and teacher training. Adolescents in this investigation received training in communication skills, emotional understanding, and problem solving, while teachers and parents were trained to provide youth with greater structure and increased opportunities for open communication. Following the intervention, the student participants reported stronger attachments to teachers and schools. In a similar study, Eggert et al. (1994) investigated the effects of a personal growth course on adolescents' attachments to teachers and schools, as well as the effects of these attachments on students' academic performance and illicit drug use. This course focused on building students' problem-solving skills, emotional understanding, personal control, self-esteem, and interpersonal communication. Following the course, students reported stronger attachments to teachers and increased self-esteem. Finally, Hawkins et al. (1988) examined how teacher practices influenced students' attachments to teachers. In this investigation, teachers used proactive classroom management techniques (i.e., clear rules, clear consequences, and consistent reinforcement), interactive teaching techniques (i.e., requiring student mastery and growth), and cooperative learning (i.e., group work and interdependency). Following the intervention, low-achieving students in the treatment group reported feeling more attached to teachers, and they exhibited fewer inappropriate behaviors.


Although research on teacher-student relationships is only beginning to emerge, this brief review suggests that these relationships can benefit students' social, behavioral, emotional, and academic health. Using this research as a guide, teachers might consider a number of strategies when working with adolescents who have high incidence disabilities.

Recommendation 1: Recognize that early adolescents with high incidence disabilities need to feel supported by adults within schools. Existing research suggests that students with high incidence disabilities do not view teachers and schools as supportive (Murray & Greenberg, 2001). Furthermore, some evidence indicates that such perceptions may be much more detrimental on the academic adjustment of low-achieving students (Midgley et al., 1989). This research is supported by the common experience of many teachers who work with adolescents who have a history of learning and behavior problems. By early adolescence, many of these youth have had repeated experiences with academic failure, many have histories of conflict with teachers and other school personnel, and some have experienced peer rejection and social isolation. The accumulation of these negative experiences influences the way students view themselves and others within school environments. Important steps toward improving the quality of teacher-student relationships in school settings include recognizing the challenges that many of these students have faced, and also recognizing that teachers can affect a broad range of health indicators by developing and maintaining supportive relationships with these students.

Recommendation 2: Provide students with opportunities to learn skills for building positive relationships with adults. Students with high incidence disabilities often have underdeveloped social skills (Swanson & Malone, 1992), and by early adolescence many of these youth need explicit social skills training. These skills are essential because they can help students build positive relationships with adults and peers. In recent years, a number of curricula that provide adolescents with opportunities to improve their relationship building skills have been developed. For example, Reconnecting Youth: A Peer Group Approach to Building Life Skills, developed by Leona Eggert and her colleagues, focuses on developing adolescents' cognitive problem-solving skills (Eggert, Seyl, & Nichols, 1990). The curriculum contains detailed lesson plans and activities related to self-esteem enhancement, decision making, emotional understanding, empathy training, personal control, and interpersonal communication. The program has been implemented through a number of experimental investigations with "high risk" youth, and the positive effects of the program on adolescents' social relationships, emotional health, and academic adjustment are well-documented (Eggert et al., 1990; Eggert et al., 1994; Eggert, Thompson, Herting, & Nichols, 1995).

A central feature of this and other social emotional learning programs is the importance of teaching students to understand emotions, and of offering training in empathy and problem-solving skills (Cohen, 1999). Students who are able to identify emotions in themselves and others (emotional understanding), and who learn to take the perspective of others during interactions (empathy), are better able to problem solve during interactions (Shure & Spivack, 1988). Because these skills are essential for building and maintaining prosocial relationships with others, teachers should deliberately teach these skills in school settings.

Recommendation 3: Learn more about students' backgrounds, interests, and communities. It is not uncommon for teachers to work in settings that are different from the settings where they themselves live. Students and teachers are often different in terms of racial, cultural, and socioeconomic status backgrounds. These differences can affect social experiences, daily struggles, and interests. Differences between students with high incidence disabilities and teachers may be even more pronounced because males, students of color, and students from lower socioeconomic status backgrounds are currently overrepresented in special education categories, while the majority of teachers are white European Americans from middle class backgrounds (Harry, 1990; U.S. Department of Education, 1998). Because socially supportive relationships are built on trust, open communication, and involvement, it is critical for teachers to have a deep understanding of their students' backgrounds and lives.

Although most teachers pride themselves on their ability to get to know their students well, such efforts should become a central feature of daily school activities. To help facilitate this understanding, teachers might consider designing classroom activities that provide students (and teachers) with more opportunities to discuss their backgrounds and interests. Such activities might include scheduling daily or weekly group discussions, meetings, and assignments related to personal histories and experiences. These activities could include family interviews, reflective journals, or taped student dialogues. The book Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago (Jones & Newman, 1997) provides an excellent example of how the experiences of students can be transmitted through journaling activities. In addition, teachers might consider meeting with individual students on a weekly basis. Teachers and students could use this time collaboratively to set student academic or behavioral goals, or they could discuss and set goals unrelated to school. Such meetings would provide students and teachers with an increased number of opportunities to get to know one another.

Providing students with opportunities to discuss their personal histories and experiences can strengthen relationships within classrooms in several ways. First, teachers will gain insights into their students' backgrounds, which will allow for greater understanding and responsiveness. Second, as students share their personal histories they gain a sense of importance, as they recognize that their experiences matter to classmates and teachers. Finally, such discussions allow students to learn more about one another, which can strengthen peer relationships.

Recommendation 4: Develop increased awareness of classroom interactions. Of course, simply learning more about students does not automatically translate into greater sensitivity and responsiveness in interactions with students. Therefore, it is also important for teachers to examine how their own attitudes, beliefs, and assumptions about students manifest in everyday interactions. A considerable body of research suggests that some teachers have different expectations of students according to student gender, race, behavioral styles, socioeconomic status, and academic ability (e.g., Brophy & Good, 1974; Pigott & Cowen, 2000). Similarly, many researchers have demonstrated that the current overrepresentation of students of color within special education categories is related to racial biases in classroom interactions, as well as to biases during the initial referral process (see Harry, 1990). These findings highlight the need for increased awareness among teachers about the complexities of classroom interactions.

To help facilitate awareness, teachers might consider asking their students to discuss the ways in which they view teacher-student interactions in classrooms and schools. Teachers also might consider videotaping classroom activities so that they can examine their interactions with students. Such efforts provide an important and realistic starting point for self-examination and reflection, as these strategies provide an alternative view into students' perspectives of classroom and school environments.

Recommendation 5: Model and expect appropriate behavior. Teacher-student relationships are like friendships, in the sense that they are built on open communication and trust. However, it is also important to realize that clear differences of power exist within teacher-student relationships, and that teachers must model, demand, and expect appropriate behavior from students. Delpit's description of highly effective teachers illustrates this point:

The authoritative teacher can control the class through exhibition of personal power; establishes meaningful interpersonal relationships that garner student respect; exhibits a strong belief that all students can learn; establishes a standard of achievement and "pushes" the students to achieve that standard. (1988, p. 290)

The successful teacher accepts her position of power and uses this power to push students to act appropriately. Because students who value their relationships with teachers are more likely to model and emulate teacher behavior, it is important to create environments where norms for appropriate social behaviors are clearly stated, taught, reinforced, and modeled. Such environments provide students with a sense of consistency, stability, and predictability, which can enhance the quality of teacher-student relationships.


Although many teachers may intuitively value their relationships with students, increasing demands to improve academic outcomes may reduce the amount of time that teachers can devote to developing and maintaining supportive relationships with students. This is unfortunate, because such relationships undoubtedly have powerful and lasting effects on the lives of all students, and they may be particularly important for students with high incidence disabilities.

Efforts to build positive teacher-student relationships should begin with the recognition that these relationships do matter. The growing body of research connecting supportive social relationships with a broad range of outcomes and competencies provides a basis for this belief. Prior research identifies two important characteristics of supportive adult-child relationships, best summarized as "warm" and "demanding." Together, these qualities provide youth with emotional support, access to adults who are actively involved in their lives, and clearly defined norms and expectations for appropriate behavior.

Teaching students to elicit positive responses from teachers and other adults, finding ways to incorporate students' backgrounds and histories into classroom activities, and developing a reflective style with regard to classroom interactions will help to build trust, warmth, and open communication between teachers and students. In addition, setting high expectations for appropriate behavior, implementing and reinforcing clearly defined norms for classroom behavior, and actively modeling appropriate social behaviors provides students with a sense of structure and consistency. Together, these dimensions of support will enhance teacher-student relationships and will promote the social and emotional health of early adolescents with high incidence disabilities.


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Christopher Murray is Assistant Professor, Special Education, DePaul University, Chicago, Illinois.
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Author:Murray, Christopher
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Date:Aug 6, 2002
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