Teacher-Child Relationships and Children's Success in the First Years of School

Article excerpt

Abstract. This work examines associations between closeness and conflict in teacher-child relationships and children's social and academic skills in first grade in a sample of 490 children. Assessments of teacher-child relationships were obtained in preschool, kindergarten, and first grade. Results demonstrate moderate correlations among teachers' ratings of conflict and slightly lower correlations among teachers' ratings of closeness across years. Hierarchical regression analyses predicted children's skills in first grade from teacher-child relationship quality. Child gender, socioeconomic status, and preschool estimates of outcomes of interest were controlled statistically. Although preschool assessments of social and academic skills were closely associated with individual skill differences at first grade, teacher-child relationship quality also was associated with changes in skill levels. Findings generally confirm that teacher-child relationships play a role in children's ability to acquire the skills necessary for success in school.


Concerns about children lacking the skills necessary for success in early elementary school classrooms have moved to the fore in recent years, as the number of children encountering difficulties in this setting has increased (National Education Goals Panel, 1997). Several major research initiatives have explored how to facilitate school success; many have concluded that key components include the development of strong pre-academic, social, and behavioral skills early in children's school careers (Lyon, 2002; NICHD ECCRN, 2002a; National Center for Educational Statistics [NCES], 1999; Ramey, Ramey, & Phillips, 1996). Emerging from this research is the impression that early and subsequent school functioning hinges on two related sets of competencies: those pertaining to early literacy and language development and those associated with relationships and self-regulation (Entwisle & Alexander, 1999; Ladd, Birch, & Buhs, 1999; Ladd & Burgess, 1999). Both of these competencies show great variation in national studies (NCES, 1999). The present study focuses on the extent to which the quality of children's relationships with three different early school teachers represents a unique source of variation in their early school adjustment, and predicts their social and academic functioning at first grade.

The quality of children's relationships with their early school teachers is increasingly recognized as a contributor to school adaptation (Birch & Ladd, 1997, 1998; Howes, Hamilton, & Matheson, 1994; Howes & Matheson, 1992; Pianta, Steinberg, & Rollins, 1995). Similar to parent-child relationships, teacher-child relationships appear to serve a regulatory function with regard to children's social and emotional development (Greenberg, Speltz, & Deklyen, 1993; Pianta, 1999) and therefore have the potential to exert a positive or negative influence on children's ability to succeed in school. In fact, the development of children's early competencies in several domains has been linked to (and is perhaps facilitated by) the quality of the teacher-child relationship. Specifically, kindergarten children who have highly negative relationships with their teachers have been found to demonstrate higher levels of behavior problems and lower levels of behavioral competencies 2 years later as compared to their peers who have highly positive relationships with kindergarten teachers (Pianta et al., 1995). The quality of teacher-child relationships also has predicted changes in children's behavioral orientation across kindergarten through first grade: Conflict with the kindergarten teacher predicted declining prosocial behavior and slightly increasing aggressive behavior with peers (Birch & Ladd, 1998). "Secure" and "improved" teacher-child relationships in kindergarten are associated with competent behavior in that classroom and fewer problems in first grade classrooms, and dependent teacher-child relationships are associated with children's lack of competence (Pianta & Nimetz, 1991). …


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