The Influence of Teacher-Child Relationships  on Students’ Behaviour


Deasyanti 1)

Dr. Greg Shaw 2)

1)Universitas Negeri Jakarta – Indonesia

2)Charles Darwin University – Australia


The main objectives of schooling are childrens’ academic achievement and social emotional development. However, some students have difficulties achieving these goals and also show some behavioural problems in their learning. Many professionals spend time in diagnosing and remediating individual students behaviour. Little attempt has been addressed to understand how classroom level can influence to students’ behaviour. Research on teacher-student relationships has found that quality teacher-child interactions are a critical factor at the early school years. Teachers should be aware of the impact of quality relationships on students and its effect on students’ academic and social emotional behaviour and on learning. This paper suggests that school reform should give attention to the development of positive teacher-child relationships through responsive, supportive and caring climates at classrooms and school levels. 

Keywords: teacher-child relationships, students’ behaviour, learning and teaching


When children first begin school, they demonstrate a variety of behaviour and attitudes toward school.  In facing the demands of school, some students show a positive adjustment toward school while other students demonstrate behaviour problems such as aggression, disruptive behaviour, and withdrawal. In order to help the students with behaviour problems, many teachers will use instructional practices or disciplinary strategies. This is a process of dealing with behaviour through identification of inappropriate behaviour and behaviour that is unproductive for learning, and then applying strategies and approaches within the classroom through teaching and learning activity and other intervention approaches to modify behaviour. Little attention has been given to understanding how students’ adjustment to school can be influenced through the relationships with teacher as parental figures at school (Chong, Huan, Quek, Yeo, & Ang, 2010)

Previous research has found that the quality of the teacher-child relationships can be a predictor to success or problems in later developmental periods. Research on teacher-child relationships and school outcomes in the early elementary years has focused majority on children’s socioemotional and behavioural adaptation issues. There is a strong evidence that the teacher-child relationships in early preschool will influence students’ social and cognitive throughout childhood and adolescence period (Birch & Ladd, 1997; Hamre & Pianta, 2001).

The teacher-child relationships can be studied from three approaches including from attachment perspectives, motivation perspectives, and sociocultural perspectives (Davis, 2003). However, those perspectives should not be consider mutually exclusive because issues and concept embedded in them overlap.

This article focuses on attachment perspectives and teacher student relationships throughout preschool and elementary school. The importance of quality of the teacher-child relationships in preschool and early grade school has lasting effect on students’ behaviour during elementary and middle schools (Birch & Ladd, 1997; Hamre & Pianta, 2001). The importance of the elementary period to childrens’ full development has been suggested by Baker (1999). During elementary school, children substantially develop their attitude about school, teaching and learning, and  form their identity as a learner. In addition, some studies reported that social emotional intervention during elementary school have long term effect into late adolescence and into adulhood period (e.g., Battistich, Schaps, & Wilson, 2004; Hawkin et al., in Brock, Nishida, Chiong, Grimm & Rimm-Kaufman, 2008).

Againts this background, with school as a social context, the particular relationship between  teacher-child  as it impact on  to students’ behaviour is addresed as a critical issue in education.

Teacher-child Relationship

According to Attachment Theory, teachers may be viewed as attachment figures who should be responsive to student's social emotional and academic needs by providing support, trust, encouragement and open communication (Sanchez Fowler, Banks, Anhalt, Der, & Kalis, 2008). In this perspective, the teacher-child relationships is conceptualized as an extension of the parent–child relationship. Therefore, researchers in Attachment Theory are concern with the dimensions of the parent–child relationship, such as emotional closeness, conflict, and dependency experienced and its association to adjustment behaviour (e.g., cognitive development and social competence with peers and adults) (Davis, 2003). The relationships between teacher and student is viewed as the way for fulfilling all the students’ needs when they come to school. Moreover, teacher has a role to regulate children’s behaviour through modeling and expectation of students’ desired behaviour (Pianta, in  Rimm-Kauffman & Chiu, 2007).

Wentzel (in Wenzel, 2003) defines desirable student behaviour in term of display of normative or positive competencies (e.g., cooperative, complaint, or self regulated behaviour) and the absence of negative or maladaptive behaviour such as level of aggresive, inattentiveness, or disruptive action). Social-emotional and behaviour problems can be classified into internalizing or externalizing behaviour (Achenbach & Edelbrock, in  Baker, Grant, & Morlock, 2008).  Internalizing problems are indicated by by depressive, anxious-like symptoms, and social withdrawal whereas externalizing problems are characterised by overactive, impulsive, or aggressive behaviour (Baker et al., 2008). From a relational perspectives, behavioural problems or modification success can be viewed as a consequence of teachers’ approach in developing relationships with students as well as the child’s skills or abilities in developing relationships(Pianta, in Rimm-Kauffman & Chiu, 2007).

Dimensions of Quality Teacher-Child Relationships

There are three qualitatively distinct aspects of the teacher-child relationships which related to young childrens’ school adjustment (Pianta & Stenberg, in Birch & Ladd, 1997)

  • ‘Closeness’ is characterized by the extend of warmth and open communication that exists between a teacher and a child. Having a warm relationships and open communication may facilitate feeling of security on exploring the environment.
  • ‘Dependency’ refers to an overreliance on the teacher as a source of support. Children shows possessive behaviours and are overly dependent on the teacher.

Dependency has a negative connotation because the children who display high dependency on the teacher are more likely to be reluctant to explore the school environment and other social relations.

  • ‘Conflict’ is indicated by lack of rapport and disagreement interactions between the teacher and the child. Experiencing a great deal of friction with their teachers decrease the role of teacher as a source of support.

Attachment Perspectives researchers suggest dimensions of attachment are indicators of relationship quality between a teacher and a student.  “Good” relationships are defined by high level of closeness and support, with accompanying low level of conflict (Davis, 2003). Moreover, this perspective stresses not only the importance of responsiveness to children”s need, that is the frequency and consistency, but also the emotional quality of adults’ interactions with children.

Factors that Influence Teacher-Child Relationships

Understanding of how teacher-child relationships develop may facilitate teachers’ awareness of factors that contribute to the quality of relationships and the impact that this has on teaching and learning. Previous studies note some factors that influence the teacher-child relationships, for example:

  • Gender

Teachers tend to perceived girls as having more positive school attitude and more involvement (Birch & Ladd, 1997). Teachers are more likely to report more closeness in relationships with girls, and greater conflict in relationship with boys (Birch & Ladd, 1998). Another study suggested that girls have more “teacher-pleasing skills” than boys (Morrison, Robertson, and Harding, in Blankenmeyer, Flannery, & Vansonyi, 2002)

  • Ethnic

In study of relation of teacher characteristics and the quality of teacher-child relationship, Kesner (2000) found that children’s and teachers’s ethnicity are related to the quality of relationships. The study showed that white teacher and other minority ethnic perceived their relationships with African American students as more dependent than those with other minority students.

  • Chidren disability

The students with disabilities had more dissatisfaction with their relationships with teacher and perceived school as more dangerous than students without disabilities (Murray & Greenberg, 2001)

  • Academic competence

Somes studies have reported positive associations between academic competence and the  quality of teacher– student relationship. The higher students’ academic competencies, the more closer the teacher and child tend to be and there are fewer conflicts (Ladd, Birch, & Buhs; 1999 and Murray & Greenberg, 2000, in Muray & Muray, 2004)

  • Children behaviour

Students experiencing emotional and behavioural problems are more likely to experience negative relationships with teachers (Murray & Murray, 2004). In the study of relationships between children interpersonal behavioural style and dimension of teacher-child relationships, Birch & Ladd (1998) reported differences in modes of interaction. Moving “againts” or antisocial behaviour is indicated by aversive and disruptive interaction. This behaviour results in more  negative relationships between teachers and students. In some cases, this style is positively associated with dependency. Moving “away” style is characterised as reluctance to interact with others, including asocial and anxious-fearful behaviours. This style relates to teacher-child dependency. Moving “toward” style which is indicated by prosocial behaviour were not uniqely related to teacher-child relationships. Blankemeyer et al. (2002) reported that students with higher social competence tend to perceive more positively their relationships with teachers. In contrast, higher level of aggression were related to more negatively perceived teacher-child relationships. However, agressive children with high level of school adjustment will perceive more favorable in teacher-child relationships than those with poorly school adjustment.

  • Teacher characteristics

Teacher behaviour can be described as the two dimensions of influence and proximity, in which as perceived by students, demonstrating dominance-submission and/or cooperation–opposition in their relationship (Wubbels, in Chong et al., 2010). Teacher interpersonal behaviour will significantly determine the classroom atmosphere. Aside from attachment history, teachers’ relationship history with the class and with individuals is one of the factors that influence teacher-child interactions. In addition, another studies reports that teacher’s personalities, teacher’s social interest, and level of experience are factors that influence their interaction with children (Edwards & Kern, 1995; Clarridge & Berliner, 1991; Fisher, Kent, & Fraser, 1999, in Kesner, 2000).

Influence of Teacher-Child Relationships to Students’ Behaviour

Previous research reports the association of dimension of teacher-chid relationship to students behaviour. Birch & Ladd (1997) examined the effect of teacher-child relationships on school adjustment. In this study, school adjustment is defined in terms of children's school performance as well as their attitude to school, and their involvement in or engagement with the school environment.

Birch & Ladd (1997) found that when the teacher–child relationships is characterized by closeness, children show higher levels of overall school adjustment. Close relationships are associated with childrens’ positive attitude toward school. They perceive the school environment as a supportive place. Supportive relationships promote self-directiveness and responsible behaviour. Conflictual teacher-child relationships are linked with negative outcomes, such as unfavorable school attitudes, less involvement and lower cooperative participation. Teacher-child relationships are characterized by high conflict predicted a decrease children’s prosocial behaviour as well as display stability in aggressive behaviour (Birch & Ladd, 1998). Furthermore, conflict in teacher-child relationships are associated with increase in childrens’ problem behaviours and decline in competence behaviours over time (Pianta et al., in Hamre & Pianta, 2001). Dependency in the teacher-child relationship has been linked with some adjustment difficulties, such as social isolation and feelings of loneliness because of restriction in their social interaction. They also displayed dependent behaviour in order to meet school task demand, and they may a poorer attitude to school. Excessively dependent children are also more likely to be socially withdrawn and aggressive with peers (Howes et al., 1994 in Hamre & Pianta, 2001).

Sanches Fowler et al. (2008) showed that level of externalizing and prosocial behaviours of students in kindergarden through third grade are influenced by the quality of the teacher-child relationships. Similar results reported by Baker (2006) and Baker et al. (2008) in the study with elementary students indicate that the teacher-child relationships is a predictor of school adjustment during elementary school. Children who particularly have externalizing and internalizing behaviour problems, had learning problem and poorer school outcomes. However, an effective teacher-child relationships mediates to reduce unacceptable behavior. Having positive relationships with teachers characterized by high degree of warmth and trust, and low conflict was related to successful school adjustment.

Classroom or School Intervention to Promote Quality of Teacher-Child Relationships

Research findings have underscored the quality of the teacher-child relationships is a critical factor in childrens’ school experience and in the child achieving learning outcomes, academic and social. There is growing acknowledgement of the importance of the classroom and school climate to promote teacher-child relationships. According to Noddings (in Wentzel, 1997), school objectives cannot be met unless classroom environment that are characterized as a caring and supportive climates, exists. Wentzel (1997) offers the term of “pedagogical caring” which  teachers are suggested to : (a) be a model of caring behaviours to their children, (b) engage in mutual understanding communication, and (c) give balanced attention to expectations and encouragement to children to do the best as well as to develop their abilities (Noddings, in Wentzel, 1997). In addition, components of effective parenting, including consistent rule setting and structure, and expressions of warmth and approval (Braumrind, in Wentzel, 1997) are also stressed in this approach.

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Another intervention program has been conducted using the Responsive Classroom Approach, as a set of teaching principle and practice which prioritizes caring classroom environment and  integrates social and academic learning (Brock et al,, 2007; Rimm-Kauffman & Chiu, 2007). The Responsive Classroom Approach, developed by the Northeast Foundation for Children in United States, prioritizes a caring classroom environment and integrates social and academic learning. There are several essential principles of the approach: a) equal emphasis on the social and academic curriculum; b) focus on how children learn as much as what they learn; c) a view that social interaction facilitates cognitive growth; d) emphasis on teachers’ knowledge of children’s individual, cultural, and developmental characteristics; e) emphasis on cooperation, assertion, responsibility, emphaty, and self-control as critical skill for children to learn (Brock et al., 2008).  Research on the contribution of Responsive Classroom practice demonstrates that the approach is associated with improvement in reading achievement, greater closeness between teachers and children, less fearfulness, better prosocial skills, and more assertiveness (Rimm-Kauffman & Chiu, 2007). Similar findings also reported by Brock et al (2008) that using more Responsive Classroom practice is related to better academic and social behaviour and more positive perception of school.

Battistich, Solomon, Watson, & Schaps (1997) has developed a program to create caring classroom and school community. The Child Development Program (CDP) is a comprehensive intervention program through develop elementary school to become caring community of learners. This program emphases in promotion of positive development among all children and youth including students’ social, ethical, and intellectual development  (Battistich, Schaps, & Wilson, 2004). In a longitudinal study examined the effect of elementary school intervention program during middles school, the result reported that students in high implementation group were more engaged in school and commited to school, and were more prosocial and fewer problem behaviours.


Almost all of the publications listed so far are based on research in Western contexts and there is little, if any research done on the impact of the teacher-student relationship learning in Indonesia. This gap will partially be addressed research being conducted by the author (Deasyanti)  as part of the Ph.D. Yet, as indicated, the findings of the above research generally show a positive correlation between good relationships amongst teachers and students and student well-being, in particular in achieving learning outcomes. In Indonesia, developments over the last 10 years or so in government policy (Undang-undang Sistem Pendidikan Nasional and Standar Nasional Pendidikan), and in teacher education, and to a much less extent in teacher practice have been slowly taking up issues to do with teaching and learning processes, and the teaching and learning environment. There is an overarching indication, at least at the policy level, of the need for schools to be more learning centered, and more concerned about the learners’ needs. And yet, the practices of teachers, and the organisation of schools, and even the expectations of community reflect other things besides a conducive learning environment built upon positive relationships. Indonesian schools are still generally focused on academic achievement. Schools and educational practice are content driven, and their environments and practices generally take cursory notice of the importance of relationships in the learning process.

The research as discussed above indicates that when children are in caring and supportive learning environments, where teachers establish bonds of trust and support, that children are more likely to settle into and be maintained in their learning environments. Additionally, when children experience such trust and support from their teachers, they are more likely to be better focused on their learning, and less distracted by inappropriate behaviour etc. Therefore, positive relationships between teachers and students can result in learning environments which have a positive academic outcome. Also, when teachers and students have a strong relationship, and the teacher has an understanding of the learners total needs, the school environment will be a more reflect and inclusive learning environment dealing with non-academic as well as academic matters. In terms of child development, it is critical that schools consider the total person, and all their needs, and therefore the structure and processes of schools need to be focused on more than just academic outcomes and include outcomes for the development of the whole person.

Despite the overwhelming evidence as indicated above of the advantages of positive relationships between teachers and students, and the establishment of learning environments conducive of student welfare as well as learning, Indonesia has a long way to go in achieving these. Part of the problem is that bringing about these kind of changes in Indonesia, that establish more positive learning environments, require a cultural shift broadly across communities about the nature and practice of education. in Indonesia, the role, practices, and structure of schools and education are well entrenched. The general thinking is that academic outcomes are the only real outcomes of school, and that concerted focus on content and knowledge regurgitation, in order to pass examinations, in order to progress to the next level or get a job, is what is required. As indicated, such thinking is based on false premise.

Such thinking though is not isolated to Indonesia, as other countries have struggled with these issues, and such views are typical within developing countries. However, so-called  “Developed Countries", have also been through various stages of development of education; moving from content focus and exam domination through to broader views of education, and in some cases (in Australia) moving back to an exam or testing environments (Hardy & Boyle, 2011).

However, in Indonesia something has to change. Academic outcomes in Indonesia are generally accepted to be poor when compared to other countries (Tjalla, 2010). If we are to achieve an educational experience for our children that provides them with the tools, knowledge and understanding, as well as the ability to live their life to the fullest within the communities in which they are located, in the best possible ways, then we have to start doing things differently.


Children spend most of their time in school, therefore the teacher-student relationships is important for students’ school experience. Research findings reported a strong evidence that quality of the teacher-child relationships influenced students’ academic and their learning about living in society. Because of the long lasting effects of the teacher-child relationships in the early years and progressing throughout childhood and adolescence, it is critical for teacher to develop positive relationships with their students. The result is better learning and better adjusted citizens with the skill need to live and contribute to society.

To help bring about the change to achieve such goals, efforts are required now to help the teacher to further understand the implications of their relationships for children’s development. Teachers need help to recognize how teachers’ attitude about childrens’ characteristics (e.g., gender, ethnic, disability) and their characteristics (e.g., social interest, relationships history) influence their consequent relationships with students. Teachers also should be supported in developing developing their skills to reduce conflict and dependency relationhips (Murray, in Murray & Murray, 2004). All of these things can be integrated into teacher education programs, and into teachers’ professional development  and performance appraisal.

In addition, students should be included in intervention efforts as they can play an important role as well as the teacher in determining the quality of teacher-child relationships. Broader approaches to classroom and school level development can be conducted through preventive and intervention program that highlighted the social aspect of schooling. Creating a warm, caring, and supportive classroom and school climate can be a way to develop positive relationships between all of school members, especially the relationships between teacher and students. Such program (e.g. Responsive Classroom Approach, The Child Development Program) has been reported as a success program to promote students’ social competence that is important as a skill for develop supportive relationships with teachers.



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