November 24, 2008 — Peer violence in high schools is widely acknowledged to be a serious problem, but little attention has been given to the equally serious problem of student-teacher conflict.
Disruptive and defiant behavior within the classroom is a common reason for high school student suspension. Such outbursts can negatively affect student learning and compound teacher stress. Moreover, students who have been suspended are at a higher risk of dropping out of high school and committing crimes.
Anne Gregory, University of Virginia assistant professor in the Curry School of Education's Programs in Clinical and School Psychology, thinks that teacher education programs can better prepare educators to proactively address disciplinary problems. A recent study by Gregory and Curry School doctoral student Michael Ripski, featured in the fall issue of School Psychology Review, found that building student-teacher relationships may be the key to preventing trouble in the classroom.
Gregory and Ripski surveyed a group of suspended students and their teachers and found that students were more cooperative in classes where teachers took a "relational approach" to discipline — that is, they consciously worked to prevent classroom conflict through relationship building.
Teachers with a relational approach stressed the importance of getting to know their students and checking in with them during difficult times. For instance, an African American student reported that her science teacher, a white male, earned her respect by simply acknowledging in class the seriousness of a shooting that had occurred in the student's neighborhood.
Gregory notes that teachers with a relational approach can be characterized as warm but demanding teachers or "compassionate disciplinarians." These teachers strike a balance between exhibiting care and concern while still having high expectations for student achievement.
Both teachers who had referred the students for disciplinary measures and those who hadn't were included in the study for comparison. Teacher interview analysis revealed that about half of the teachers reported taking a relational approach to discipline.
The article also emphasizes that student perceptions of a teacher's disciplinary approach are important. Students reported that they had more trust in teachers who took a relational approach.
"I think this is an acknowledgement of adolescent autonomy needs," Gregory said. "Adolescents need to feel that they are in a safe environment with fair and not arbitrary authority figures."
Though this particular study did not have a comparison group to be able to empirically test for racial differences, student-teacher relationship building may be particularly important for African American students, Gregory said. Research has already established that African American students receive a disproportionate number of referrals for discipline compared to their white peers and are generally more likely to be perceived by teachers as disobedient — creating a significant "racial discipline gap" that Gregory has also studied.
Gregory said she hopes that her findings can be practically applied to teacher education.
"To address this discipline gap, teachers need to learn skills in relationship building," she said. "I would argue that in pre-service teacher training programs, there needs to be an increased emphasis on how to build trust with teens."