Linking Teacher-Student Relationships and Children’s Bullying Experiences
by Karen Bouchard and Dr. David Smith
After decades of research, PREVNet (Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence Network, 2015) has taken the position that bullying is a relationship problem that requires relationship solutions. This complex and nuanced view has evolved from our earlier perceptions of bullying as an individual problem, whereby it was believed that some children were predisposed to aggressive behaviours or to internalizing and externalizing coping responses when victimized. Today, bullying is considered a psycho-social phenomenon, integrating both the person and social context. This view has prompted school-based prevention and intervention initiatives that are multi-level and systemic, often referred to as “whole-school” approaches. Within this approach, initiatives to foster healthy relationships have emerged as potentially effective practices to lessen children’s involvement in bullying (Craig & Pepler, 2007).
Researchers and practitioners have long been concerned with the protective role that teachers can play with children facing multiple risks in their lives. This work continually points to the value of positive teacher-student relationships in children’s social and cognitive skill development (e.g., Sabol & Pianta, 2012). For example, research has demonstrated that positive teacher-student relationships provide a context for students to develop emotional and social skills—skills that have been linked to students’ academic and social-emotional development (Pianta & Stuhlman, 2004). With respect to teacher-student relationship quality and children’s bullying experiences, more recent research findings suggests that students with close and non-conflictual relationships with teachers are less likely to be involved in bullying incidences at school (Flaspohler et al., 2009; Troop-Gordon, 2015). While this is an important observation, the question still remains as to how teacher-student relationships shape children’s bullying experiences.
When examining this link, some researchers highlight the direct-role of teachers in influencing peer-level processes, such as bullying. These processes often include arbitrating student conflicts and facilitating student interactions in the classrooms through grouping practices (e.g., seating arrangements, whole-class or small group meetings, group assignments) (Farmer, Lines, & Hamm, 2011). While this work is valuable in predicting how direct teacher practices can impact children’s peer interactions, it does not consider the more subtle ways that teacher-student relationships can impact peer experiences. Examining the more subtle ways, such as the moment-by-moment teacher-student interactions, may provide more evidence to the link between teacher-student relationships and children’s bullying experiences.
Bowlby’s attachment theory (1979) has been influential in describing the dynamics of early attachment relationships between parents and children. Bowlby argued that children’s early attachments with parents contribute to the development of children’s internal working models of relationships (including expectations and core beliefs). These internal working models then affect the child’s subsequent relationships. Bowlby’s work has prompted some researchers to adopt an expanded notion of his attachment theory. These researchers examine whether teachers continue to shape, or can potentially revise, children’s working models of relationships (Davis, 2003). Much of this work indicates that children’s relationships with teachers may serve as models for high quality peer relationships (Gest & Rodkin, 2011). Farmer, Lines, & Hamm (2011) argued that these teacher-student relationships implicitly communicate to students the types of relationships that they are expected to establish with peers. For example, teacher-student relationships can effectively scaffold the development of children’s social competencies by helping children establish skills to be used in their peer-to-peer interactions. Pianta (1999) argued that the relational patterns that children develop with teachers are likely to influence the processing of new social information, which can be helpful when dealing with adverse peer relationships. Taken together, this research suggests that children and youth may draw from their relationships with teachers to develop positive relationships with peers. This further highlights the need to allot additional space in intervention/prevention practices and teacher-training that targets the subtle nature of teacher-student relationship quality in young people’s peer relationships.
The teacher-student relationship may also implicitly alter children’s peer relationships through teachers’ social referrals. Hughes and Chen (2011) discovered that the quality of teacher-student relationships can impact how students are perceived by classmates, with students’ preferences for peers mirroring teacher preferences. Other research has found that the stigma associated with a poor relationship with a teacher can increase students’ victimization experiences. Importantly, Taylor (1989) found that when rejected children had positive relationships with teachers, they experienced less victimization by their peers. This research points to the importance of teachers monitoring their own behaviours towards students, especially towards students who may already experience peer rejection and victimization.
There have been considerable advances made in bullying prevention and intervention over the past decades, and now most programs address the multiple contexts of children’s lives (i.e., peer groups, school-climate, school-home partnerships). Many teachers are familiar with popular anti-bullying programs that prioritize bullying awareness-raising, including educating teachers about the signs and risks of bullying and strategies for how to intervene. While teachers’ attitudes towards bullying and competence for bullying intervention procedures are important variables in any anti-bullying program, there is more that can be done to prioritize the teacher-student relationship as critical to the intervention or prevention process. In addition to ongoing training that helps teachers to feel confident when implementing bullying prevention programming, we contend that it is perhaps equally critical for teachers to be mindful of their relationships with students.
To encourage this awareness, we argue that teachers should receive support and training to: enhance their attunement to the social organization of peer groups in their classrooms; learn and practise effective communication skills in the service of caring relations with students, and; develop emotional awareness of self and others with mindfulness. We provide a short discussion of each of these suggestions below.
Teacher attunement to peer interactions
Teacher attunement refers to the ability to identify students’ peer group affiliations and understand the underlying social dynamics operating within them. Teachers who are highly attuned to peer group affiliations in the classroom will use their knowledge to directly impact peer level processes. This is often seen through the organizing of seating charts and working groups that promote positive social outcomes for students. These teachers are also receptive to relevant cues in the classroom that indicate status hierarchies and inequalities. Teachers’ observations of peer groups can help to indicate who is socially isolated or rejected by peers. This information allows teachers to anticipate aggression in the classroom.
We agree with Hoffman, Hamm, and Farmer’s (2015) recommendation that teachers should actively seek input from their students to enhance their understandings of peer groups and dynamics. That way, teachers can avoid making false perceptions about social dynamics in the classroom. This is important so that students are not negatively impacted by the actions of teachers on the basis of incorrect perceptions. Teachers should also actively discuss their observations of students’ interactions with colleagues, keeping in mind that observations should include how students interact with their peers, in addition to with whom they interact. Teachers can discuss potential strategies with colleagues on how to effectively manage students’ interactions, including leveraging students’ peer group dynamics to mitigate status extremes, while promoting students’ emotional and social security.
Effective communication skills for caring relationships
As Nel Noddings suggested in her important work on developing caring relationships with students (1995; 2005), we argue that teachers need to interact with their students with the intention of understanding students within their own frame of reference, not the teacher’s frame of reference. Noddings referred to this as “engrossment.” We propose that communication skills (i.e., attentive listening, observation and responding) are the best ways of creating engrossment within a caring relationship. Many of these skills are taught in a variety of professional helping professions (such as counselling) and are considered vital to all care-giving professional interactions, including teachers (e.g., see Kotler & Kotler, 2007).
Many of the skills that contribute to effective interactions between teachers and students can be, and often ought to be, learned and refined. Teacher education programs are a venue for offering this training; both authors of this article have taught a teacher education course called Counselling Applications for Teachers. This course specifically addresses relationship skills, relying on a variety of experiential and reflective activities. Pre-service teachers in this course observe videos and live demonstrations with the professor as well as participate in break-out activities with classmates to practise the specific skills. In addition to pre-service training, practising teachers should receive professional development opportunities to continue to develop their effective communication skills. These skills can be used to promote caring classrooms and can be specifically utilized to help to intervene in a variety of interpersonal conflicts, including bullying incidents. These intervention strategies, strengthened by positive teacher-student relationships, may contribute to creating classrooms with prosocial norms in which students also feel confident intervening themselves in bullying episodes.
Using mindfulness to develop self and other awareness
Developing high levels of self- and other-awareness is instrumental in teachers’ recognizing their own emotions and emotional tendencies. Subsequently, this also provides teachers the capacity to identify emotional states in their students and to respond to them in ways that facilitate open and supportive communication. Many lines of research from neuroscience, psychology and education suggest that mindfulness is a particularly effective way of cultivating these awareness skills. The practice of mindfulness calls on individuals to intentionally focus one’s attention on experiences in the present moment, while suspending judgment and not limiting those experiences in any way (Meiklejohn et al., 2012). Prior research has indicated that when teachers use these awareness skills in the classroom, particularly with challenging students who demonstrate anger, frustration and anxiety, students themselves are likely to derive lasting benefits to their own social and emotional development (Lynch & Cicchetti, 1992). Much of this research indicates that mindfulness cultivates empathy in teachers, which can then be brought to their interactions with students (MLEARN, 2012). There are many web-based resources to support teachers who wish to cultivate these mental skills, such as UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center, which offers guided mindful meditations free of charge on its website (http://marc.ucla.edu/body.cfm?id=22).
Throughout this article we have considered theories that help to characterize the association of teacher-student relationships and children’s bullying experiences, such as attachment and social referral. Both of these theories speak to the influential, yet subtle, relational mechanisms between teachers and students that can impact children’s experiences with peers. In this article, we focused on bullying as an example for the potential impact of the teacher-student relationship on students’ peer functioning. We do stress, however, that the critical role of positive teacher-student relationships goes beyond preventing children’s bullying behaviours and effectively intervening in bullying incidences in the classroom. As many teachers can attest, their relationships with students transcend children’s multiple domains of functioning, affecting students’ academic, behavioural and social development. As such, teachers should continue to be mindful of their relationships with students—and as we have suggested more specifically in this article—they should be mindful of the subtle, yet powerful, impact of their teacher-student relationships on students’ healthy peer functioning.
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