How teachers respond to students with problems

iStock_000016363496XSmallA study at the University of Oklahoma examined how teachers respond to children with emotional and behavior problems. Terry M. Pace and fellow researchers worked with parents and teachers to evaluate students using the Children’s Depression Inventory and the Child Behavior Checklist. In addition, they asked teachers to rate children’s personal attractiveness on physical, intellectual and behavioral dimensions. They also assessed teachers’ willingness to interact with each child in various social and academic activities.

While only a small percentage of the 43 upper-elementary children in this study were receiving special-education or mental-health services, many more were described as showing signs of significant depression or behavioral disturbance. Twelve percent showed symptoms of major depression, while another 12 percent were described by their parents as being anxious, withdrawn, passively inattentive or forgetful, sad, nervous, tense or lacking in confidence and social skills.

Parents’ responses to the Child Behavior Checklist indicated that seven percent of the children showed significant amounts of acting-out behavior, including hyperactivity and oppositional behavior. These students exhibited frustration, difficulty completing work, impulsivity and frequent conflicts with others.

No significant gender or age differences

There were no significant gender or age differences found in any of these comparisons. However, gross family income had an impact on almost every variable in the study. Children from families with less than $30,000 in income had higher depression scores and more withdrawal, acting-out and overall problems than children from higher-income families.

Children from lower-income families were also rated as less socially attractive by their teachers. Similarly, previous studies have indicated that low income is a risk factor for increased illness and injury, emotional and behavior problems, and poor adjustment to school.

In this study, researchers examined the relationships between students’ emotional and behavior problems and their teachers’ attitudes toward them. Children’s oppositional behavior, hyperactivity or aggressive behavior exerted a negative influence on teacher-student relationships.

While most children with emotional or behavior problems have an increased risk of poor interpersonal relations with their teachers, those with acting-out problems have a greater risk of overt rejection by their teachers. These researchers suggest that because many of the children in this particular study were not receiving special services, they might be all the more dependent on teachers for support and guidance.

These results point out that children who have significant emotional or behavioral problems respond less positively to others and thus elicit more negative responses. The critical issue is that these children’s problems may be made worse by the natural interpersonal processes that result from lowered attractiveness and increased rejection.

Although general-education teachers may not feel prepared to deal with such problems, their interactions with troubled children can be crucial to these students’ school adjustment. This study was limited by the relatively small number of children and the lack of direct classroom observation. Further research needs to be carried out with a variety of student and teacher populations.


“The Relationship Between Children’s Emotional and Behavioral Problems and the Social Responses of Elementary School Teachers” Contemporary Educational Psychology, Volume 24, Number 2, April 1999, pp. 140-155.

Published in ERN November 1999 Volume 12 Number 8

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