Positive relationships between pupils and teachers are important for all parties

Problematic pupil-teacher relationship could predict psychological problems

Problematic child-teacher relationships may be a predictor of psychological problems in later life, according to new research published online by the British Journal of Psychiatry.

Researchers led by the University of Exeter supported by the National Institute for Health Research Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care in the South West Peninsula (NIHR PenCLAHRC), in conjunction with the University of Leicester and King’s College London, studied 3,799 primary school-aged children and 3,817 secondary school-aged children. In one of the first studies of its kind to look at such a large population, the children’s parents were asked whether, over the last year, their child had been stressed because they felt that they have been unfairly treated by a teacher. Responses were: no, a little or a lot. A parental report of ‘a lot’ was taken to indicate a problematic teacher-pupil relationship.

Reassuringly, the majority of parents believed that there was no difficulty in the relationship between their child and their teacher. Of 3,799 parents of primary school children, 94 (2.5%) felt their child was distressed because s/he was being treated unfairly by a teacher a lot, which increased among secondary school pupils to 252 out of 3,871 (6.6%).

When the researchers contacted the children and parents again three years later, they found that those children who initially had problematic teacher-pupil relationships were more likely to have a psychiatric disorder such as anxiety, depression, or a behavioural disorder at follow-up. Even when the team adjusted for children’s levels of psychological difficulties when first seen, they found that primary school children who encountered problems in their relationships with teachers were nearly twice as likely to develop psychiatric disorders three years later than their peers who did not have problematic relationships with teachers. Additionally, children in this category were three times more likely to show behavioural disorders, and were nearly 2.5 times more likely to be excluded from school.

The study is based on a survey conducted between 2004 and 2007, before the current economic crisis. A previous paper by some of the same researchers found that mental health problems in children lead to heavy demands of school and education services.

Lead researcher Dr Tamsin Ford, of the University of Exeter Medical School, said: “Positive and supportive relationships – including those relationships formed within school – promote healthy child development and resilience. When relationships become problematic, it is unhealthy and unhelpful for children, teachers and parents. While teachers are highly aware of the importance of the teacher-pupil relationship, they need to be supported and given adequate training to build a positive relationship with all students, challenging though this can sometimes be.                           

“Our findings suggest a clear association between poor teacher-pupil relationships and the presence of psychiatric disorder at primary and secondary school, but we cannot yet be certain what is cause and what is effect. Further research is needed to establish this, including studies into the benefits of programs that support teachers and schools to develop positive relationships with pupils. ”

Teacher and pupil images via Shutterstock.

Date: 1 May 2013

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