“Children look to teachers as role models for how to treat their peers”
Jeanine Grütter discusses the influence teachers have on students’ willingness to include others, which may in turn affect academic achievement.
Aisha Schnellmann: How do relationships with peers and teachers affect children’s academic success?
Jeanine Grütter: Relationships with peers and teachers are very important for a child’s personal development. Good relationships with supportive teachers can protect children from developing emotional and behavioral problems, which can impede their academic success.
When students feel accepted by their peers, they benefit from emotional support and a sense of belonging. However, whether the influence of the peer group is positive depends to some extent on the group’s norms and values. When children join peer groups that exhibit anti-social behavior and are disengaged from school, their academic performance may suffer. On the other hand, children in prosocial peer groups that are highly engaged in school are more likely to discuss schoolwork within the group and to motivate one another to do well academically.
“Good relationships with supportive teachers can protect children from developing emotional and behavioral problems, which can impede their academic success.”
AS: Your recent research has shown that children tend to include peers who are well-liked by their teachers. Why is that?
JG: Children are very attuned to verbal and non-verbal cues, and look to their teachers as role models for how to treat their peers. They are constantly observing interactions between their teachers and classmates, noticing such things as who gets called on first, who is often praised, and who is rewarded with a smile from the teacher. If the teacher’s behavior towards a classmate is consistently positive, that student will be perceived as well-liked – and according to our research, other students will tend to include him or her in their peer group. By the same token, students who are constantly being scolded by the teacher, or who are otherwise the object of negative attention, are more likely to be excluded by their peers.
Since acceptance by peers is associated with better academic performance, our research therefore indicates that children who are well-liked by teachers not only have more friends, but may also do better in school.
“Our research indicates children who are well-liked by teachers not only have more friends, but may also do better in school.”
AS: Your research supports the idea that teachers can directly affect children’s decisions to include or exclude others. How can teachers use their influence to promote inclusion, and in turn boost academic achievement?
JG: Teachers could think about various ways in which they can encourage inclusiveness, and not just at the individual level. At the classroom level, teachers need to gain a sense of the dynamics in the classroom – for example by identifying the “popular” kids and observing interactions among various individuals and groups – in order to understand how different peer groups intersect or interact with one another. They can then take specific steps to encourage more inclusive behavior. By making a point of highlighting inclusive behavior by popular students towards their less popular classmates, for example, teachers can encourage other students to emulate prosocial behavior.
The classroom norms that teachers establish are also important in determining how students behave towards one another and which attributes are most highly valued. Teachers who are emotionally supportive and treat everyone fairly are able to create a prosocial and inclusive classroom environment; this, in turn, affects students’ willingness to include others. Inclusive classrooms also provide more opportunities for children who are different to form friendships, find shared interests, and get to know one another on a personal basis.
To promote inclusion, teachers must not only constantly monitor their interactions with individual students; they should also look closely at how students relate to one another in the classroom. I hope that our research will help to strengthen the focus of teacher education on how to encourage positive peer dynamics in schools.
Jeanine Grütter is a postdoctoral researcher for the Longitudinal Study on Competencies and Context (COCON-study) at the Jacob’s Center for Productive Youth Development in Zurich, and received her Ph.D. from the University of Zurich in 2016.
Her research interests include the development of stereotypes and prejudice, social and moral development, civic development, intergroup contact, and inclusive classroom environment with a particular focus on the role of teachers in fostering positive classrooms for learning.
Jeanine is also affiliated with the University of Teacher Education in Lucerne and has extensive experience in teacher training. Before starting her research career, she worked as a clinical and educational psychologist, as well as a special education teacher in Switzerland.