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Introduction and Conceptual Background

This manual provides step-by-step procedures for working with teachers and children to improve the quality of teacher-child relationships, thereby promoting children's success and adaptation within the school environment. Within this approach, child competence is viewed as arising from relationships with adults. Adult-child relationships are critical for healthy child development; they form and shape it. Relationships with adults support nearly all of what a child is asked to do in school-relate to other people, be persistent and focused, be motivated to perform, be compliant/assertive, communicate, and explore the world. Teachers can have a unique influence on children-an opportunity presented in the relationship they will form with a child. This relationship can help shape the course of development for years to come (Pederson, Faucher, & Eaton, 1978; Pianta, Steinberg, & Rollins, 1995; Werner & Smith, 1980).

This manual is designed to help psychologists, counselors, teachers, and other professionals make decisions about how best to use the child-teacher relationships to help improve the educational outcomes of children, particularly those children for whom the risk of failure is high. This introductory chapter is devoted to understanding how relationships with teachers intersect children's development and can be an influence for creating pathways toward healthy outcomes. Following this, chapters focus on approaches and techniques to assess and facilitate change in relationships between children and teachers. This manual is based upon the book, Enhancing Relationships Between Children and Teachers (Pianta, 1999), which presents comprehensive theoretical and empirical support for the role of teacher-child relationships in development and outlines techniques that can be used to enhance teacher-child relationships. This manual provides an abridged presentation of theory and a more detailed and complete discussion of practices as well as concrete tools that practitioners can use in implementing practices. Thus, this manual is designed as an extension of the book. Readers are referred to Enhancing Relationships Between Children and Teachers for more complete background.

The gender equality issue poses a writing problem. For example, should every reference to "her" be accompanied by "or him"? For expediency and clarity in writing this manual, the terms "she" and "her" will be used in general when referring to a teacher. The terms "he" and "him" will be used in general when referring to a student. The writer disclaims any belief in male supremacy, and hopes that readers of this manual will accept traditional patterns of expression in the interest of economy of style.

Relationships between Children and Adults

A young teacher, B, was describing her relationship with an eight-year-old boy, G, from an upper-middle-class home. She went to great lengths to talk about how tenuous his hold was on competence. "He would come into the room in the morning and we would wonder what level of support he would need to make it through the day. I remember one day when he seemed fine-getting along with the rest of the kids-until I asked him to put away this book he was looking at and come to the table for a group lesson I was doing. He just went off-tossing the book aside, withdrawing in a sullen, angry sort of way, yet at the same time letting me know how explosive he felt at the time. I managed to approach him, gently and slowly, offering just to leave the room with him, which we did. Once we got into the hall he was a combination of angry and sad-and he broke down crying. He was so confused-hurt about his dad being unavailable and out of the house, about his mom not being around much either-he worried about both of them. He sounded so tired and weary-just a little eight-year-old boy with such big troubles on his shoulders.

Teachers and other educators are constantly trying to make sense of the connection between children's family lives and what transpires between adults and children in the school building. Does G's reaction to his teacher reflect, in a direct way, his relationships at home? What processes carry-over from home to school in terms of his response to adults? What impact do these relationships have on his competence? Can relationships with adults in school overcome whatever vulnerabilities this child has based on his experience at home?

Relationship-based problems are a core of many forms of school failure (social and academic) in the preschool-elementary-middle school years. Relationships with adults (such as teachers) offer resources for combating the effects of this form of risk on children's competencies.

Recently, a national survey of adolescents revealed that the single most common factor associated with healthy outcomes for these youth was when they reported having a relationship with an adult who they experienced as supportive to them (Resnick, Bearman, Blum, Bauman, Harris, Jones, Tabor, Beuhring, Sieving, Shew, Ireland, Behringer, & Udry, 1997). In particular, these relationships were described as being emotionally supportive-someone the youth could count on to understand and offer advice or support. Teachers and other school personnel were among those adults mentioned most frequently as the source of this support. Thus, the nation's children clearly feel the need for closer connections with adults.

To provide a theoretical framework for improving child-teacher relationships, it is important to describe processes involved in dyadic relationships, drawing heavily from work in the area of parent-child attachment. This section first briefly describes findings relating qualities of child-adult relationships to school-related outcomes, then describes processes in relationships between children and teachers, drawing parallels when necessary between children and parents. The model of child-adult relationships presented in this section provides much of the basis for many of the applications that follow in later chapters. Readers are referred to Pianta (1999) for more extensive and complete background.

Adult-Child Relationship Processes and Schooling

Relationships between children and adults play a prominent role in the development of competencies in the preschool, elementary, and middle school years (Birch & Ladd, 1996; Pianta & Walsh, 1996; Wentzel, 1996). They form the competencies upon which school experiences are built. The key qualities of these relationships appear to be related to how accurately the adult reads the child's signals, responds contingently based on these signals (e.g., "follows the child's lead"), conveys acceptance and emotional warmth, offers assistance as necessary, models self-control, and appropriately structures and limits the child's behavior. These qualities determine how that relationship supports a particular child.

Child-parent and child-teacher relationships play important roles in the child developing peer relations (Elicker, Egeland, & Sroufe, 1992; Howes, Matheson, & Hamilton, 1994), emotional competence and self-control (Denham & Burton, 1996), and school competencies such as attention, motivation, problem-solving, and self-esteem (Birch & Ladd, 1996; Pianta & Harbers, 1996). Problematic relationships with adults also contribute to the development of behavior problems (Campbell, 1994; Greenberg, Speltz, & DeKleyn, 1993; Toth & Cicchetti, 1996).

During the early school years, teachers might assume a parent-surrogate role with the children they teach (Hamilton & Howes, 1992). The teacher not only controls rewards and punishments in the classroom, evaluates student performance, and maintains control over the classroom, she also "wipes runny noses and consoles hurt feelings, joining formal and nurturant responsibilities in a role peculiar to the elementary teacher" (Alexander, Entwistle, & Thompson, 1987). Like the parent-child relationship, the teacher-child relationship may vary in nature and quality. Some teacher-child relationships can be characterized as close and affectionate, others as distant and formal, still others as conflictual (Howes & Matheson, 1992; Pianta, et al., 1995).

In a series of descriptive studies, Pianta and Steinberg (1992) and Pianta (1994) showed that teacher-child relationships, as reported from the teacher's perspective, can be characterized by dimensions of conflict, closeness, and overdependency. These dimensions consistently appear in samples that vary by age, ethnicity, and economic status (e.g., Saft, 1994; Taylor & Machida, 1996). They are also fairly stable across the kindergarten-to-grade-two period, and correlate with concurrent and future teacher-reported measures of adjustment, grade retention, and special education referrals (Birch & Ladd, 1997; Pianta, et al., 1995). Furthermore, changes in student adjustment from year to year are correlated in expected directions with these dimensions (Pianta, et al., 1995); downward deflections are correlated with child-teacher conflict, whereas upward deflections are related to child-teacher closeness. There is also evidence that child-teacher relationships operate as a protective factor against risk-children at high risk for retention or referral for special education, who are not referred or retained, are reported to be closer to their teachers while their retained/referred counterparts are in greater conflict with teachers (Pianta, et al., 1995).

Some studies also focus on children's descriptions of their relationships with teachers. Wentzel (1996) reported that middle school students benefited from relationships with teachers characterized by open communication and a sense of closeness, suggesting that this is a relational context with salience for children beyond the early grades and preschool years. Similarly, children who experience maltreatment from parents are sensitized to seek certain relational experiences with teachers-they are less likely to form optimal relational patterns, and seek psychological proximity and support from teachers' maltreatment (Lynch & Cicchetti, 1992).

Birch and Ladd (1996) have studied teacher-child relationships extensively in early elementary classrooms and suggest that children have a generalized interpersonal style (moving towards, moving against, moving away). This style is partly a product of their interactions with their parents, and is related to how they behave with peers, with teachers, and with their academic competencies. The work of Birch and Ladd confirms Howes' and Pianta's work in suggesting the importance of social, particularly relationship, processes in many aspects of classroom performance.

Why Do Relationships with Adults Affect Child Development?

The model depicted in Figure 1.1 is an attempt to describe a relationship between a child and an adult. This model, like relationships, contains many facets or components. These components are organized into a system that involves two persons; this dyadic system is a relationship. In Figure 1.1, the relationship between the adult and child is represented by the oval that encircles the two individuals.


Insert Figure 1.1 about here


Relationships are dyadic systems.

A relationship between a teacher and a child is not equivalent to the sum of their interactions with one another or some combination of their individual characteristics. A relationship between a teacher and a child is not wholly determined by that child's temperament, intelligence, or communication skills. Relationships have their own identity apart from the features of interactions or individuals (Sroufe, 1989).

Child-adult relationships are asymmetric; the child is the less mature of the two. How this relationship develops and influences the child is in large part dependent on the adult. The asymmetry inherent in child-adult relationship systems places a disproportionate responsibility on the adult for the quality of this relationship.

Relationships have several components, each of which can be the focus of assessment and intervention. First, relationships reflect features of the individuals involved. These features include biologically predisposed characteristics (e.g., gender, temperament), personality factors, the individuals' developmental history, as well as individuals' perceptions of the relationship. Next, relationships include feedback processes, one function of which is to exchange information between the two individuals. Feedback processes include behavioral interactions and communication. These feedback or information exchange processes are critical to the smooth functioning of the relationship.

Features of individuals in relationships.

At the most basic level, relationships incorporate features of individuals. These include biological facts (such as gender) or biological processes (such as temperament or genetics) as well as developed features of each person (such as attitudes or self-esteem). For example, a teacher's history of being cared for can be related to how she understands the goals of teaching and, in turn, relate to the way she interprets and attends to a child's emotional behavior and cues (Zeanah, Benoit, Barton, Regan, Hirschberg, & Lipsitt, 1993). Think about the different ways a teacher might interpret a certain child's behavior, if the teacher was raised to believe that children should keep their feelings to themselves or be strong in the face of emotional stress. The fact that children bring certain features to a relationship with an adult is also evident. What difference would it make to the teacher's interpretation of the child's behavior, if the child was a boy or girl, four or twelve instead of eight, high or low achieving?

One thing that individuals bring to relationships is what is termed an "internal working model" or "representational model" of relationships (Bowlby, 1969; Stern, 1989). In layman's terms, this model is like a map, a guide, or a template, that an individual carries containing a set of rules or guides for behavior in relationships, based on previous and current experience in relationships. It can be fairly specific, like a model for relationships with children (in your own family or in your own classroom), or general, like a model for all relationships. From an adult's perspective, these models encompass the adult's (parent, teacher) accumulated feelings and beliefs about their behaviors with children (e.g., what works and does not work in getting children to comply), their motivation styles, their goals for interaction with children (e.g., how they relate to five-year-olds) and their goals for interacting with a specific child in a specific situation.

There are several key points about representation models. First, they are feelings, beliefs, memories, and experiences that have been encoded and stored in some abstracted, but organized form. Parts of this organization are related to each other-feelings that have been stored about a relationship with one child have the potential to affect feelings about a relationship with another child. Second, these models are open to being changed based on new experience. This is the potential of psychotherapy, for example, when a relationship with a therapist can provide experiences that alter persons' perceptions of themselves and other people. This is a critical feature of representational models with respect to intervention. Third, representational models reflect two sides of a relationship (Sroufe & Fleeson, 1988). A teacher's representational model of how children relate to adults reflects both her experience of being taught as well as her own experience as a teacher. For example, she may have the belief that adults should be supportive to children and encourage children to express feelings, and that those feelings ought to be responded to sensitively. Importantly, this belief could hold both positive and negative feelings.

Contrast this belief with what another teacher reports, "I don't see children as misbehaving. I never get frustrated . . . they are always so wonderful. I almost never have to worry about them being too demanding or needing me." In this example, the teacher expresses that positive feelings are allowable, but that negative experiences are not part of adult-child relationships. In one activity, the teacher was observed asking the children to write down or draw a picture about a family activity. When one child protested that he did not want to do it if he had to share his product, the teacher indicated he would not have to share. When the children finished, the teacher asked them to tell each other about what they had done, and pressured the child to share. Upset, he ran from the room to the counselor. The counselor assisted the child in devising a plan to share his feelings of anger and betrayal to the teacher. He did so, in the presence of the counselor, in a mature manner. The teacher said, "I don't see why you got so upset." This teacher almost appeared to have "blinders" on with regard to the emotional needs of the children in her class. She may find it difficult to recognize the needs of children as well as her own needs.

Representational models store the history of a relationship. This memory can take form in the expectations that each person holds for the other's behavior. In the example of G, his teacher had certain expectations for handling the situation based on previous experiences in similar situations. These expectations led her to respond very slowly and gently. In this way, representational models of relationships can affect the future as much as they do the present.

Working with teachers (and other adults) in assisting them to form and maintain close relationships with children requires attention to their representations of adult-child relationships. This involves attention not only to how they represent relationships with children in their class, but may also involve their experiences of relationships with adults as a child.

Feedback processes.

Feedback processes are absolutely critical to understanding how a relationship influences the behavior of the individuals involved. These processes are most easily observed in interactive behaviors, but also include other means by which information is conveyed from one person to another. What people do with, say or gesture to, and perceive about one another are all components of feedback mechanisms. Furthermore, how information is exchanged (tone of voice, posture/proximity, timing of behavior, contingency or reciprocity of behavior), may be even more important to the other person than what is done.

Importantly, it is not a single one-time instance of child defiance (or compliance) or adult rejection (or affection), that defines a relationship. Rather, it is the pattern of child and adult responses to one another-and the quality of these responses. Pianta (1994) has argued that these qualities can be captured in the combination of degree of involvement between the adult and child and the emotional tone (positive or negative) of that involvement. Birch and Ladd (1996) point out that relationship patterns can be observed in global tendencies of the child in relation to the adult-a tendency to move toward, move away, or move against.

Observing interactions across time, situations, and contexts, is a key to understanding a relationship. In particular, observers should note the degree of involvement and responsivity (Do the individuals engage with one another and is it mutual?), the emotional tone exchanged verbally and nonverbally (warmth, negativity, dismissal), the spontaneity of behavior (Does the child spontaneously approach the teacher?), physical proximity, and caregiving (In situations in which the child is stressed or in need, does the child express this and does the teacher respond?).

Also involved in the exchange of information between adult and child are processes related to communication, perception, and attention. For example, how a child communicates about needs and desires (whiny and petulant or direct and calm), how an adult selectively attends to different cues (note the example of the teacher who did not see misbehavior or emotional needs), or how two individuals interpret one another's behavior toward each other (e.g., "This child is needy and demanding" vs "This child seems vulnerable and needs my support"), are all aspects of how information is shaped and exchanged between people in a relationship.

Perceptions act as filters for information on the other's behavior. When a teacher reports "He never listens to me" or "She is always demanding my attention," they are placing filters or constraints on the information exchanged in this system. These filters can be important in guiding behavior because they tend to be self-fulfilling. If a teacher feels a child never listens, then it's unlikely that she will perceive the child's compliance, and may actually respond to ambiguous behavior as if it was non-compliance. Over time, these feedback and information exchange processes form a structure for the interactions between the adult and child.

In one case of parent-child consultation, both parents described their son as incapable of accepting their help or affection/attention. The child (a nine-year-old) was viewed by these parents as rejecting, and they felt hurt by him, isolated from him, and were afraid that they were slowly losing a connection with him. Their response to these feelings was to increase their involvement with the child to the point of being observed as quite intrusive. One goal of intervention was to alter the global, rigid perceptions that appeared to dominate the parents' experiences of their son.

In several consultation sessions, the parents were involved in a process of agreeing to focus their attention on learning something new about their son each week. This learning was to be accomplished in the context of a daily session in which the parents engaged in an activity of the child's choosing. They were not to ask questions of the child during these sessions, to only respond to the child and not initiate activities or conversation. In these parent-child sessions, the child was given more "room" to play and communicate with them. Over time, the parents began to "see" the child's behavior differently. What was once perceived as rejecting help, was viewed as a wish to communicate independence (and get somewhat controlling parents to back off).

Through assigned practice and support in the consultation sessions, the global, rigid perception of this child as "rejecting" was transformed. Perceptions and a "new" filter, one that promoted a better connection between the child and adult, was put in its place.

External influences.

Systems external to the child-adult relationship also exert influence on it. State regulations mandate standards for student performance that affect what a teacher must teach, and at times how she must teach it. School systems have codes for discipline and behavior, sometimes mandating how discipline will be conducted. States and localities prescribe policies and regulations regarding student-teacher ratios, the placement of children in classrooms, at what grade students move to middle school, or the number of teachers a child comes into contact with in a given day. Teachers also have families and personal lives of their own. All of these factors can affect the relationships teachers form with children, and the consequences of these factors are important to consider when working with teachers and children.

In sum, relationships are multifaceted, complex systems involving two individuals. They involve features of the individuals, feedback mechanisms, and interactive behaviors. In adult-child relationships, there is an inherent asymmetry that places greater responsibility on the adult for the overall quality of the relationship and its influence on the child's development. The next section of this chapter will focus on the way that adult-child relationships influence emotional development and achievement.

Relationships and Child Development

This section will discuss the role of child-adult relationships in emotion regulation and in the development of achievement/academic competencies. The understanding, expression, and control of emotion are hallmarks of competence in school settings. The increased organization, intentionality, functionality, and complexity of emotional development and self-control often are used as markers of the difference between "early" and "middle childhood." Deficits in these skills are central to the most common behavior problems in children-externalizing and overactive behaviors that are disruptive to adults and other children in early childhood settings (Greenberg, Kusche, & Speltz, 1991).

The child capable of regulating emotions uses and manipulates thoughts and ideas to tolerate emotions and events in order to respond appropriately to a situation and its demands. Relationships with adults support the tolerance of anxiety and arousal, provide labels for emotional states, models for responses to emotions, and direct instruction in the management of emotion. Relationships with adults also provide experiences that lead to emotions for the child.

Greenberg and colleagues (Greenberg, et al., 1991; Greenberg, Speltz, & DeKlyen, 1993) outline three phases in the development of emotion regulation, each of which highlights the role of child-adult relationships. In the first phase, early in development, emotion is expressed behaviorally by the child and the child's emotional experience is entirely dependent on the adult caregiver. This phase is critical for establishing the acceptability of emotional expression by the child, and for forming early routines involving expression of and response to the child's emotions.

In the second phase, the adult is intertwined in emotion regulation-providing comfort for arousing experiences and labels for the child's affective states. Labeling of feelings, either gestural or in words, forms links between cognition, language, and emotion that are combined in countless interactions between child and adult. These labels are a critical feature of what is acquired in the context of the child-adult relationship that has consequences for later self-regulation.

In the third phase of emotion regulation, communication about emotional states is a prominent feature of child-adult relationships that supports the child's competence. Being able to communicate about feelings allows the adult to support the child's emotional experience and, in turn, enhances the adult's role as a secure base (Cassidy, 1994). Relationships with teachers play prominent roles in labeling affect and linking affect with behavior, moderating arousal, providing behavioral support and modeling, arranging supporting interactions between the child and others, and directly teaching skills to cope with emotions (Doll, 1996).

Teachers also teach. They are continuously involved in interactions with children designed to enhance performance. These interactions, nonetheless, occur in the context of the relationships in which those interactions are embedded-and they are influenced by the qualities of those relationships. A child who feels emotionally isolated and distant from his teacher will not learn from interactions with that teacher in the same way as one who has a close and affectionate relationship. Reading and responding to cues, providing accurate, well-timed feedback on performance, and sustaining the child through frustrating periods of problem-solving, are all processes characterizing child-adult systems that promote learning.

Looking Ahead

Having presented a theoretical background for working with relationships between children and teachers, the discussion in subsequent chapters will focus on assessment of relationships and approaches to intervene and improve the quality of relationships.

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