The last years of primary school can be a challenging time for children as they prepare for their transition to secondary school. There is significant pressure to achieve during this period; in many countries, test scores play a major role in determining the next phase of a child’s education. This can take a toll on student-teacher relationships, which have been shown to be vital to overall child development. A recent study shows how emotional support from teachers can help students, particularly those who are academically at risk, to deal with this pressure, and contribute to positive educational experiences in schools.

Over the course of one year, 1,209 students in grades 5 and 6 (when children are about 10 or 11 years old, respectively) from 61 school classes in Switzerland participated in a research study at the University of Teacher Education Lucerne that assessed how the emotional support children receive in the classroom shapes their perceptions, and thus also the quality, of their relationships with their teachers. The researchers looked specifically at the aspects of caring and fairness, and compared the experiences of at-risk students with those of children who are at less academic risk.

To determine the children’s initial level of academic risk, students completed a questionnaire rating their level of academic disengagement. To measure the degree to which they perceive their teachers as caring and fair, they were asked to indicate how much they agreed with such statements as “My teacher really cares about me,” and “My teacher often treats me unfairly.” At the same time, the researchers conducted observations of each class, using the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), to assess the level of emotional support students received in their classrooms. One year later, the students were again asked about their perceptions of their teachers’ caring and fairness.

Generally, the researchers found that students who were more disengaged, and therefore at greater academic risk, perceived their teachers to be both less caring and less fair to them than to the children’s more engaged peers.

However, if academically at-risk children were in a classroom in which teachers provided strong emotional support, children’s perceptions of their teachers’ fairness improved significantly over the course of the year, despite increasing academic demands.

In contrast, children in classrooms in which the level of emotional support was low were more likely to come to perceive their teachers as less fair and less caring. Thus, low emotional support at the outset predicted negative effects on the quality of teacher-student relationships one year later.

“By creating emotionally supportive classroom environments, teachers can benefit from the support of students’ peers in providing care for individual students.”

Creating emotionally supportive classrooms

“Providing every individual child with a high level of emotional support can be a challenge for teachers when there are 25 students in the classroom, each with different needs,” explains Jeanine Grütter, a member of the research team who is affiliated with the University of Teacher Education Lucerne. By creating emotionally supportive classroom environments, however, teachers can benefit from the support of students’ peers in providing care for individual students.

“Nurturing an inclusive classroom environment that facilitates cross-group friendships between peers who have different levels of academic achievement, for example, encourages children to support one another. Furthermore, modelling emotionally supportive behavior during daily interactions with academically at-risk students shows children the value of caring for and helping their peers,” adds Grütter.

“The task of a teacher includes addressing students’ emotional needs, which are often heightened during early adolescence.”

It is important to help teachers understand that emotional support can improve how at-risk children perceive their relationships with teachers. “It would also be particularly beneficial for teachers to learn how to apply these insights in actual class situations, and for them to receive feedback via classroom observations or video recordings showing how they can provide more emotional support for their students,” explains Grütter.

“The task of a teacher is to find out what the individual needs of the students are, and to provide the necessary support, feedback, and follow-up. This includes addressing emotional needs, which are often heightened during early adolescence as children navigate the pressures of academic achievement and the challenges associated with identity development,” concludes Grütter.

Keep up to date with the BOLD newsletter