Building relationships with students legitimizes authority in classroom

iStock_000016837201_ExtraSmallBuilding relationships with students is an effective way for teachers to establish authority in the classroom, even with students who have histories of suspensions and referrals for defiant behavior, says a recent study in School Psychology Review.

Students who had referrals and suspensions for defiant behavior rated themselves higher in cooperation and lower in defiance when they were in classes taught by their favorite teachers compared with when they were in classes with teachers that referred them for discipline, write the University of Virginia researchers.

“Sociologists have long asserted that authority is negotiated in social relationships and within the context of legitimacy,” the researchers write. “Legitimate authority figures are seen as having the right to exercise their power and authority; they are also more likely to elicit cooperation from subordinates.”

Interpreting cues from teacher

The researchers speculate that having trust in a teacher may be particularly important when students must interpret ambiguous cues from the teacher. It is well established that when adolescents read hostile intent into another’s actions, they are more likely to react aggressively, they write. It may be that with a trusting relationship, students give teachers the benefit of the doubt.

“This significant association between a relational approach and low defiant behavior was explained by student trust in teacher authority. The results are particularly striking, as they were found with a group of suspended students and were replicated when using both student and teacher reports of defiant behavior.”

Participants in the study were 32 high school students at a diverse large urban high school referred to an in-school suspension program for offenses related to defiance of teacher authority. In this sample, 91% of the students were black and 9% were from other racial and ethnic groups; 60% were male. Ninth and 10th graders comprised 69% of the sample and the rest were 11th and 12th graders.

Researchers described the research study to students who had been issued a defiance referral from at least one teacher. The teachers were not aware of the purpose of the study or selection criteria for their inclusion in it.

Nominated and referring teachers

From a group of 53 students who were asked to participate, 32 returned a parent-signed consent form. The sample of teachers was composed of teachers who had given a student in the study a defiance-related referral (the referring teacher). Students also each nominated a teacher with whom they got along the best (the nominated teacher). Because there was overlap among both nominated and referring teachers, there were a total of 32 teachers selected to participate the study.

Teachers completed a survey on student behavior and participated in 40-minute interviews about how they handled typical discipline problems that helped determine whether they had a relational approach with students in their classroom. Seventeen of the teachers (53%) were coded as using a relational approach to discipline and 15 teachers (47%) were coded as not using this approach to discipline.

Teachers then rated the behavior of the defiance-referred students on an 8-item defiance subscale of the Swanson, Nolan and Pelham measure (SNAP-IV). They also completed a 10-item measure of student cooperation (Wellborn, 1991).

To measure student trust in teacher authority, researchers used a scale other researchers had used with adults to measure beliefs in government authority; the scale was adapted to reference teacher authority. Previous researchers used the adapted trust scale on surveys with 6,000 9th graders and found that students in smaller schools had greater trust in their teachers’ authority, the researchers write.

For this study, students also rated their own behavior with a 5-item defiance scale and a 10-item cooperation scale. They rated their levels of defiance and cooperation in both the classrooms of their nominated teacher and of their referring teacher.

Some 15 of the 17 teachers (88%) with a relational approach were teachers who had been nominated by students as teachers with whom they felt they got along with the most; only 2 of the 17 teachers (12%) with a relational approach were teachers who were included in the study because they referred a student in the study for discipline.

“Teachers who described the importance of relationship building for eliciting student cooperation were more likely to have students who reported trust in their use of authority,” the researchers write.

Teachers who have built relationships with students may better be able to prevent problem behavior by using their knowledge of students’ emotional cues to reengage students and keep them on track, the researchers write. Moreover, when conflict does occur, teachers who have built personal relationships may know why the individual student has become more reactive and may be better able to tailor strategies that help students become emotionally regulated.

There is a growing recognition that student cooperation is a negotiation set within the context of a relationship, the researchers say. Relationships may be even more important for students with histories of disciplinary referrals.

“This study’s finding has implications for the promise of a relational approach in narrowing the racial discipline gap,” write the University of Virginia researchers. Previous researchers found that for black children in 2nd grade, positive relationships had a stronger effect in predicting lower aggressive behavior a year later compared with white children. A similar protective effect may occur during adolescence, they say.

“Getting to know students better may help teachers understand the range of reasons why a black student may break the rules, including his or her reactions to perceived unfairness and discrimination,” they write. “This understanding is particularly important given that scholars hypothesize that those who have experienced exclusion and greater restrictions on their freedom are particularly sensitive to concerns about fairness.”

“Adolescent Trust in Teachers: Implications for Behavior in the High School Classroom,” by Anne Gregory and Michael Ripski, School Psychology Review, Volume 37, Number 3, 2008, pp. 337-353.

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