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Relationships and Learning

Lecturer Jacqueline Zeller's research and clinical work highlights the role of teacher-child relationships
A teacher with two students

Learning outside the home begins early in life. More than one-third of all U.S. children under the age of five are cared for outside of their homes by individuals not related to them.1 Research on early childhood education shows that high-quality child care experiences support the development of social and academic skills that facilitate children's later success in school. There is also mounting evidence that close relationships between teachers and children are an important part of creating high-quality care environments and positive child outcomes.

As most parents and teachers know, children gain increasing control over their emotions, attention, and behavior across the early years. These growing abilities allow them to face and overcome new developmental challenges, from getting along with others to learning novel academic skills.2 Despite their growing abilities, preschoolers sometimes find it difficult to regulate their thoughts and emotions in ways that allow them to succeed at new tasks. At these times, close relationships with meaningful adults, including teachers, can help children learn to regulate their own behavior.

The sense of safety and security afforded by close relationships with teachers provides children with a steady footing to support them through developmental challenges. This support may help the child work through a new academic challenge, such as learning to write a new letter of the alphabet; or the close relationship may help the child maintain a previously learned skill when confronted with a challenging new context. For instance, a child who is quite socially adept during circle time (a prior skill) might have more difficulty navigating these social interactions when he or she is over-tired from a missed nap (a challenging context).

The sense of safety and security afforded by close relationships with teachers provides children with a steady footing to support them through developmental challenges.

In either case, when children "internalize" their teachers as reliable sources of support, they are more successful at overcoming challenges. In fact, having emotionally close relationships with child-care providers as a toddler has been linked with more positive social behavior and more complex play later as a preschooler.3 Kindergartners with close teacher relationships have been shown to be more engaged in classroom activities, have better attitudes about school, and demonstrate better academic performance.4 Thus, teacher-child relationships appear to be an important part of children's social and academic success in school.

Harvard Graduate School of Education Lecturer Jacqueline Zeller's applied work in the Boston Public Schools and her research have been informed by this literature on teacher-student relationships. In the following interview, Zeller discusses the importance of teacher-student relationships for building students' sense of security and facilitating their readiness to learn at school.

What led you to study and consult regarding building positive teacher-student relationships?

Before beginning graduate school in psychology, my experiences teaching in elementary schools led me to believe that the relationships between children and teachers are powerful mechanisms for change. When students felt that I believed in them and supported their growth, they felt more confident both academically and socially at school. This belief was further strengthened in my graduate studies, as I began to apply attachment theories to teacher-child relationships. I decided to study how teachers' characteristics and children's characteristics work together to predict relationship quality, incorporating an attachment perspective. At that same time, I was working in schools, which was a natural venue for me to apply attachment theories to my consultation work, as I tried to help teachers in their efforts to join effectively with their students.

Why do you think socio-emotional development is important to discuss with regard to schools?

Often, we discuss social and emotional development very distinctly from academic growth. However, these ideas are very much intertwined. When children feel more secure at school, they are more prepared to learn. Children who feel this level of security are also generally more open to share how their lives outside of school are connected with ideas introduced in their classrooms. Educators have noted that these personal anecdotes help children build the foundations for literacy.

What do you think is important to think about when reflecting on teacher-student relationships?

Earlier research examining teacher-student relationships has tended to focus on how student's individual characteristics affect their relationships with teachers. While the individual characteristics that students bring to their relationships are very important, we know that as adults, we also bring experiences, beliefs, and characteristics that affect quality of relationships. It is important to consider what each individual brings to the relationship and how the relationship is affected by the contexts in which it is embedded. Most people relate easier with some children over others, but as adults in relationships with youth it is important that we reflect on what we bring to the table and seek support when we need it to most effectively help children and adolescents.

How do you feel that these principles match with your training of students in HGSE's Risk and Prevention and School Counseling program?

A primary goal of the Risk and Prevention and School Counseling Program at HGSE is to train future practitioners who practice prevention and intervention in school settings. We know that children and adolescents do not exist in a vacuum, but rather are bound by their contexts, including their home, schools, and neighborhoods. Students in our program are encouraged to understand how children's experiences are a function of these contexts. A major part of children's school contexts is their classroom environments and relationships with their teachers.

Currently, in addition to teaching at Harvard, I work as a clinician at an elementary school. I try to bring perspectives from my practice work to my courses at HGSE to provide some examples of how these theories are applied in real-world settings. Similarly, at their practicum sites, our students are encouraged to partner with children's teachers to foster safe and supportive relationships between teachers and children.

What are your hopes for where research and practice is heading in this field?

My hope is that researchers continue to examine these relationships contextually and reciprocally, acknowledging the complexity of these relationships. Reflective practice is important to understand how we as adults can help shape children and adolescents' contexts to facilitate their healthy development. Schools have increasing demands placed upon them with each passing year, so providing time for teachers and school staff to discuss and reflect on their relationships can be very difficult. However, I hope that as we continue to understand the powerful implications of these relationships for children, schools will protect time for teachers to discuss these relationships with colleagues, school psychologists, mentors, and consultants.

1Johnson, J.0 (2005). Current population report: Who's minding the kids? Child care arrangements: Winter 2002. Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau. Available online at

2Blair, C. (2002). School readiness: Integrating cognition and emotion in a neurobiological conceptualization of children's functioning at school entry. American Psychologist, 57, 111–127.

3Howes, C., Matheson, C.C., & Hamilton, C.E. (1994). Maternal, teacher, and child care history correlates of children's relationships with peers. Child Development, 65, 264-273.

4Birch, S. H., & Ladd, G. W. (1997). The teacher-child relationship and children's early school adjustment. Journal of School Psychology, 35, 61-79.

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