Q&A: Improving students’ relationships with teachers


For his PhD thesis, a researcher at KU Leuven studied the relationships between rebellious students and their teachers and peers

Classroom dynamics

Steven De Laet is a researcher at the School Psychology and Child & Adolescent Development department at the University of Leuven. For his PhD thesis, he studied the influence of classroom relationships on student performance.

Your study focused on rebellious students. What did you discover?
The aggressiveness displayed by the students is a means to an end, and it serves the ambition of these rebels to be popular. The reason some children show aggression, both physical and psychological, is very often connected to their social status. These children, in particular older children, want to be the centre of attention. They aim for popularity and social status, which they consider more important than being nice.

But to gain that popularity, these students actively seek out conflict with their teachers who – like their parents – embody authority. When teachers react, the children can show their fellow students that their dominance stretches to the teaching staff.

What are the consequences?
I found that popular students show less commitment to studying: they spend less time on homework and studying at home and pay less attention in class. They are also more likely to miss classes, to lie and to tag along with their peers who display deviant behaviour. These factors have a negative effect on the student’s overall performance. On the other hand, we saw that students who have a warm, open and harmonious relationship with their teachers show much more commitment to their school life.

What is the role of schools and teachers?
They should pay attention to these dynamics, both in primary and secondary education. This is something that should be high on the agenda of both school psychologists and student counsellors. But even a single teacher can make the difference. There are several methods and interventions that can strengthen the quality of the relationships inside the classroom.

Photo courtesy Gradeslam