Collaboration or Agitation, the complexities of student | teacher relationships

“Here we go again,” I thought to myself as I entered the school’s cafeteria. On this warm Thursday night in late September, the usually airy, cool cafeteria began to get stuffier and seemingly smaller by the minute as more parents piled into the space and staked out places to sit or stand around the periphery of the already packed room. The temperature in this loud, echoey space with high ceilings and wooden floors, soared– much like the anticipation of us gathered to hear the principal’s opening remarks, kicking off this Back to School night at my newly minted sixth grader’s middle school. As I tried to get comfortable, I reminded myself to feel thankful that, despite being packed like a sardine, I, at least, had the opportunity to listen without the usual interruptions from my kids. My sons were at home presumably finishing their homework. At least, that was the plan. I’d see what had or hadn’t happened when I got home. At that moment, it was time to focus on what this year had in store for my 6th grader. It had to be better than what had happened the year before. 

My 11-year-old had just completed a pretty challenging fifth grade year. Though the year had started out okay, things shifted for the worse as the year progressed. The teacher, after turning her sights on my son, had made him feel picked on and unmotivated. He was also unwilling to let me advocate on his behalf, for fear of being singled out and admonished by the teacher as his peers had been when their parents complained. This was new territory for me as a parent. My son, up until the 5th grade, hadn’t really been in any trouble. He was not defiant, or non-compliant. He did not goof off in class or fail to hand in work on time. So, to hear my son’s complaints about school, and to read his teacher’s emails about his behaviors was incredibly disheartening. Don’t get me wrong, my son is no angel. All of these described behaviors were well within his repertoire in the safety of our home. But this was the first time these behaviors were surfacing at school. 

All this to say, a lot felt like it was riding on this new school, this new school year and the new experiences laying ahead for my son. I badly wanted for him to have a redemptive experience, to see that all teachers who are strict or have high expectations, can do so with grace and with goodwill. Goodwill that is built up through daily positive, affirming interactions with their students. 

But what if it isn’t good? What happens when our children come home feeling stressed, defensive, and disconnected from their teachers, long after the dust kicked up by transitioning to a different grade should have settled? What are the warning signs for the child who is feeling immense stress at school?  How can we as parents and caregivers help them through it, and how can we advocate for them, if needed, at school? If we do advocate for them, how do we support them advocating for themselves? How do we help preserve their sense of worth, their self-esteem, and their joy of learning when their school environment doesn’t support, let alone celebrate, their uniqueness? And really, how important is the quality of our child’s relationship with their teachers? These are all questions I asked myself last year when my son had a less than optimal relationship with his teacher. With my son, I noticed a decline in his effort on projects, a sense of powerlessness, that no matter what he did, he would get in trouble, and feelings of anger that pervaded his demeanor about school in a way it never had before. He simply didn’t want to go to school, which made for very stressful mornings all around. I did some digging and found some very compelling research about student-teacher relationships and their effects on learning. As it turns out, the relationship between the student and their teacher is critical in creating a productive learning environment, both academically and socio-emotionally.

Supportive student-teacher relationships boost achievement, and protect kids from the effects of stress. ~Gwen Dewar, Ph.D

In her analysis of research on student-teacher relationships, Dr. Dewar cites the 2012 studies of Liselotte Anhert and her team, who administered cognitive tests (by computer) to 120 six year old students. Before presenting each new problem, a photograph of the specific child’s teacher was shown on screen for the briefest of moments such that it was subliminal rather than consciously registered in the child’s mind.This was sufficient to yield clinically significant results, …the kids who have close, affectionate teacher relationships– as opposed to distant ones– end up solving many problems faster. This was shown to be true even for children who had the same teacher in the same class, but obviously different individual relationships to that teacher.

Further research by this team examined the levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, during a typical elementary school week. The findings were supportive of the subliminal teacher experiments: most kids began the school week with fairly normal stress hormone profiles, but showed increasingly atypical patterns as the week progressed– a sign that these kids were under strain. By contrast, a subset of children– kids in supportive, secure student-teacher relationships– maintained normal stress hormone patterns throughout the week.

Most encouragingly, Dr. Dewar notes that those students who had more difficulty managing, both academically and behaviorally, were just as, if not more, receptive to the protective and positive effects of an emotionally supportive relationship with their teachers. Additionally, peer relationships are influenced by positive and supportive student-teacher relationships, as shown by the research of Christian Ellege and his team in 2015. This particular study explored peer relationships of some 336 school children in the US: …kids who were actively rejected by their peers at the beginning of the school year experienced less bullying later on– if they had better than average relationships with their teachers.

Further, Dr. Dewar cites the research of Dr. Gregory and Dr. Weinstein in 2004, stating that, …the single most important school-based predictor of academic growth in mathematics– from the 8th to 12th grades– was a student’s perception of “connectedness” with his or her teachers. As surprising as it may be, the impact of positive and supportive student-teacher relationships is still experienced by students in the higher grades. Dutch researcher Dr. Roorda and her team conducted a meta-analysis of 99 studies in 2011, with the findings that state: relative to older students, kids in primary school suffered more setbacks when student-teacher relationships were negative. But positive relationships were particularly beneficial to older students. 

These supportive student-teacher relationships seem most likely to occur when a teacher has experience of working with a wide range of students of differing abilities, when the teacher feels supported in their work and the workload isn’t excessive, and when the teacher is culturally and racially sensitive, aware of his/her own biases and actively working to minimize that impact on his/her teaching ability. 

In her book, Fulfilling the Promise of the Differentiated Classroom, widely experienced educator Carol Ann Tomlinson explores the ingredients of invitation, opportunity, persistence, investment and reflection. These qualities are inherent in a positive, compassionate, whole-hearted and multi-faceted teacher response to each student’s unique needs. Tomilson shares at length what each of these aspects communicates to the child, here is a small sample: 

  • Invitation: I have respect for who you are and who you can become.
  • Opportunity: The things I give you to do here help you become all you can be.
  • Persistence: When one route doesn’t work, there are others we can find.
  • Investment: I will do what it takes to ensure your growth.
  • Reflection: I continually ask, “How is this partnership working?”

As much as we would like all our teachers to ask these questions of themselves and for their students, there are certainly those students who continually and consistently fall between the cracks, whose differences are neither respected nor celebrated, and whose struggles are beyond the scope of what their teachers are able, or willing, to invest in, both emotionally, to create that essential bond with the student, and academically, to customize teaching to the student rather than the other way around. This should come as a shock to no one. Teaching is not a career path for the faint of heart. The overwhelming workload, inadequate pay, too few resources, the ever-increasing battle with the administration, and the occasional overzealous helicopter parents leave teachers oftentimes at their wits’ end. This is our country’s operating baseline for our teachers. This sense of lack is then clearly communicated to our children through the teacher’s classroom behaviors. All this is even before considering the needs of each individual student, each replete with different optimal learning styles. 

I consider my son to have a pretty typical learning profile. When I think of how this tense relationship between my son and his teacher affected him last year, and how pervasive the echoes of that association are, I can’t even fathom the exponential affect a toxic student-teacher relationship would be in those students who need additional mentoring, structure, consistency and compassionate communication in order to be successful. If your child is suffering from a less than optimal relationship with their teacher, they are bound to be stressed. This stress shows up in its myriad forms. Here’s what to look out for:

  • Low mood. Your child is no longer enjoying activities that were previously enjoyed, they are not able to have fun. These are the hallmarks of depressed mood, and are far more extensive than being in a bad mood sometimes, or feeling sad. In children and teens, depressed mood often shows up as irritability, waking up cranky or being snappish without reason.
  • Emotional reactivity. Your child is easily dysregulated, and having behavioral outbursts, such as throwing tantrums, being very “touchy”, easily dissolving into tears at seemingly minor provocations, or perhaps no provocation at all. Another sign is becoming verbally and/or physically aggressive. These behaviors may only be seen by those to whom the child feels the closest, and there may not be any evidence at all of the behavior outside the home. 
  • School avoidance. Your child may say, “my teacher doesn’t like me” or they may complain of stomach aches and/or  headaches. These may well feel very real and the child may experience much discomfort, but the origin may well be psychosomatic rather than physical. Identifying and alleviating that which is causing the stress will likely bring about resolution of the pain. 
  • Exhibiting perfectionistic behavior. Your child may be putting excessive pressure on themselves to achieve perfect grades, and may become despondent when a grade drops, even with a reasonable cause, such as illness. This behavior can develop from thinking errors the child harbors about making mistakes, which can create immense internal pressure that is unreasonable and unfounded, however feels very real to the child.

Such reactions in our kiddos can be truly disheartening to witness, and these problems rarely fix themselves without compassionate, empathic involvement from us parents. But how to respond appropriately can be truly perplexing. We certainly do not want to worsen the situation and deepen the chasm between our child and their love of school, either by under-responding, or over-responding.

With hindsight being 20/20, I would begin by creating space for the expression of the feelings that arise after school. Children coping with stressful student-teacher relationships, whatever the reason, will have used up all their executive functioning powers by the end of the school day, and will likely come home emotionally drained, and with their tempers on a hair-thin trigger. Feed their bodies a snack and their hearts with your love, warmth, and a peaceful welcome home. Curb the urge to ask questions, and instead gather them up in your arms if they’re willing, reconnect through play, drawing time, or a walk arm-in-arm in the afternoon sunshine. Or simply offer the space for them to go and decompress in their bedrooms for a short while before you check in again. 

Allowing, even welcoming, the tears and tantrums, while emotionally draining for parents, can give your sweet-but-frayed kiddos the benefits of the tears’ stress-relieving, fear alleviating effects. When our kiddos can have a safe space to cry out their frustrations and stress, with us bearing witness to that upset without trying to soothe it or stem its flow, we are trusting our child’s innate system to heal itself. And our kiddos’ systems will heal over time. This said, I would add a note of caution to limit any physically aggressive, or destructive behavior because that is damaging to both parent and child.  But generally, if the tears are flowing, so is the healing, as described in this article about the science behind listening to our children’s upsets.

We can explore our child’s daily experiences with their teachers, through open, non-judgmental conversation, with open-ended questions and much patience on our parts. Questions like, “Help me understand what it was like when Ms. Snow said that to you?” or “Tell me more about when she got upset at you but not at Timmy for doing the same thing? That must’ve felt pretty crummy,” can give your child the power to share her story her way, and give you important information about what it meant for your child, and how she felt about it. This process integrates the left (literal, linear, linguistic) and right (feelings and meaning) modes of processing of the brain to create a coherent narrative and aid the processing process! 

And we can ensure that bonding activities are woven into the fabric of the evening routine, so that a sense of safety, positivity and connectedness bring each day to a close, regardless of what has gone on before. Pairing this with ensuring that bedtimes are on the earlier side so there is plenty of time for sleep– we have a potent combination for beginning the new day with our kiddos having much better access to their internal regulatory resources and resiliencies. 

If school seems to be playing an outsized part in our child’s life, we can also create boundaries to limit how much school life infiltrates into home life. We can work with the school by putting time limits on homework that are appropriate for the developmental stage of our child. I have a friend whose child is very bright but takes a long time to process problems given for homework. She worked with her child’s teacher to come up with a 20 minute homework time limit per subject to establish a working baseline for what would be reasonable expectations for that particular child. 

If your kiddo is easily overwhelmed by the amount of homework or get too hyper focused, set a timer for brief study sessions separated by breaks to allow for management of frustration before tempers begin to flare and the study session is no longer effective. Create a study environment in a quiet pleasant, well-lit space to minimize distractions and bring relaxation to the senses. You might add a pleasing picture, a photo of a special moment, a small plant and a soothing but focus-oriented scent by virtue of a Scentsy or a favorite essential oil.

Engaging the stressed out child in an activity of their choice, to give opportunities for developing a feeling of mastery and competency that might not be available at school, can rebuild his self-esteem if it has been negatively impacted by the teacher’s criticisms or lack of competency. There may be wonderful stress-alleviating benefits attached. This does not need to be an organized sport or music lessons, it can be as informal and family-centered as Family Frisbee Fridays or Art Attack Wednesdays.

If these ideas do not adequately serve to alleviate your child’s distress it may well be time to communicate with the teacher concerned directly. This can be a daunting task, especially if the teacher is already on the defense. Here are some strategies I or my peers have used: 

  • playing with him how to communicate with a possibly prickly teacher: “Can you explain this to me again, differently than you did in class?”
  • Enroll your child in homework club to get more individualized attention on specific topics, or small group study sessions at home with other alternative learners and a tutor, or one-on-one. In some communities, there are homework clubs to join through the local library.
  • Help your child identify strategies that help with focus and learning. Identify his/her type of learning style (audio, visual, kinesthetic), and set up a meeting with child, parent, school counselor/psychologist and teacher to identify how to incorporate these into your child’s learning. Students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and 504 plans can receive significant support to enhance their learning opportunities as long as the plan is followed with diligence. When this is not the case, it may well be time to involve school district officials all the way up the chain to the Superintendent. This is exhausting, but at times necessary. 
  • Set up a meeting with your child’s teacher, approaching with a collaborative stance with a view to minimizing defensiveness from the teacher because you are asking for her help rather than blaming her. For example, “Sadie is having some resistance to coming to school, and I wonder if you might help me shed some light on this. I would love to hear your thoughts on how she is doing in class, how she is perceived by her peers and what might be turning her off school right now.” 

Despite sometimes feeling like there is an adversarial relationship, we as parents, our children and their teachers are all partners in learning. The more open-minded and open-hearted we all remain, the richer the learning experience for us all. Again, this is not always easy to remember, especially when your child’s relationship with their teacher is strained. Breathe and know that approaching the problem with an equanimous mind is truly the best strategy.

After my eldest son’s truly difficult 5th grade year, I am cautiously optimistic that his entry into 6th grade can be a positive step forward. As my son’s school principal approached the podium, the crowd of anxious parents hushed and he began to speak. The principal spoke of relational learning, of building a community of learners who were not only learning to be academically strong, but alongside, were learning to be astute listeners, empathetic peers and community-minded citizens. He shared his hope, his goal and his plan was to create a learning environment based on the ethos, you can’t get to the head, without first getting to the heart. Imagine my delight in hearing those words spoken aloud. If that isn’t word porn to this therapist-mama, heck, I don’t know what is! As I look ahead in cautious anticipation, I’m curious to see how much this will actually filter through to the teachers doing the teaching. In most cases, this very idea was echoed in the presentations the teachers gave while relating their subjects. So far, so good! 

The following are helpful links to the full articles referenced in this post:

The Science of Hand-in-Hand Stay Listening

Teacher Response to Student Needs

Student Teacher Relationships 

5 Smart Ways to Handle Teacher Troubles

The following studies were referred to in Dr. Dewar’s article:

Ahnert L, Milatz A, Kappler G, Schneiderwind J,  and Fischer R. 2013. The impact of teacher-child relationships on child cognitive performance as explored by a priming paradigm. Dev Psychol. 49(3):554-67.

Ahnert L, Harwardt-Heinecke E, Kappler G, Eckstein-Madry T, and Milatz A. 2012. Student-teacher relationships and classroom climate in first grade: how do they relate to students’ stress regulation? Attach Hum Dev.  14(3):249-63.

Christian Elledge L, Elledge AR, Newgent RA, and Cavell TA. 2015. Social Risk and Peer Victimization in Elementary School Children: The Protective Role of Teacher-Student Relationships. J Abnorm Child Psychol. 2015 Sep 4.

Gregory A and Weinstein RS. 2004. Connection and Regulation at Home and in School: Predicting Growth in Achievement for Adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Research 19(4): 405-427.

Roorda DL, Koomen HMY, Spilt, JL, and Oort FJ. 2011 The Influence of Affective Teacher–Student Relationships on Students’ School Engagement and Achievement. Review of Educational Research 81 (4): 493-529.

Vinay Gaglani is a Pacific Northwester of Indian descent who aspires to be a peaceful parent to her two amazing young boys. Vinay is a Licensed Professional Counselor by trade, and a lover of hiking and drinking tea!


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