Special Education Professor Investigates the Positive Effects of Teacher-Student Relationship
“Psychosocial,” the intertwining of the psychological and social aspects of an environment, is a term not usually associated with classroom education. We often think of classrooms simply as utilitarian environments, like offices or conference rooms — places where instruction is dispensed to waiting minds.
The truth is that a classroom is an environment every bit as alive and complex as other social environments and, in fact, is the primary social environment for developing children. The delicate balance of relationships in a classroom – between students, and between teachers and students – can make the difference between academic achievement or disappointment.
This dynamic is no surprise to Jessica Toste, a second-year assistant professor in the Department of Special Education.
“My work is centered on the idea that consideration of psychosocial factors, such as motivational beliefs, is essential to understanding how students learn,” she said. “The focus of my interests is in understanding psychosocial processes for kids who struggle with reading.”
With a background as an elementary school teacher and reading specialist, Toste is passionate about utilizing psychosocial elements of classrooms to better serve students.
“I’m very interested in how we support kids with learning difficulties,” said Toste. “Alongside that, I’m very interested in psychosocial processes. What’s happening in classrooms that makes it more likely that kids will succeed, especially those students who are struggling?”
Toste’s approach to studying teacher-student relationship is unique. While working on her dissertation, she delved into the counseling psychology literature and was intrigued to find that the concept of a therapeutic working alliance (the relationship between a healthcare professional and a client) had clear parallels to the classroom environment.
“The idea of the therapist and client having a strong working alliance is one of the main things that’s focused on in therapy,” said Toste. “The way we talk about teacher-student relationship is usually very focused on an emotional attachment between the teacher and student. I have worked with enough students and teachers to know that this emotional attachment can be very difficult, and that sometimes teachers have a hard time connecting with students in this way.”
Toste focused on borrowing the idea of the therapeutic working alliance, which includes both the affective and collaborative components of the relationship.
“I applied this idea to a classroom context and developed the classroom working alliance. Looing at relationships through this lens sets up an environment where teachers can naturally connect and bond with kids,” she said. “But they can also create collaborative partnerships where students feel very invested in what’s happening in their learning and in the classroom.”
That initial investigation led to some of her recent publications, which examine classroom working alliance for children with and without high-incidence disabilities, i.e. learning disabilities and behavior disorders.
“We looked at teacher and student ratings of classroom working alliances, and then at how they were predictive of different school outcomes,” Toste said. “Not surprisingly, kids who had difficulties had more challenging relationships with their teachers.”
What Toste found particularly interesting was that students with high-incidence disabilities demonstrated greater overall satisfaction with school, as well as exhibited higher academic competence, when they felt they had a strong collaborative relationship with their teacher.
“When kids who struggle in school feel that they understand what they’re being asked to do, it can actually help them in their learning,” she said. “They understand that their teacher has their best interests at heart and, for a variety of reasons, they tend to have better outcomes.”
Toste is also examining psychosocial factors within the context of reading interventions. During the last school year, she ran a pilot randomized field trial that examined the effectiveness of a multi-syllabic word reading intervention for struggling third- and fourth-grade readers. The intervention featured an embedded motivational beliefs training element designed to restructure performance by enhancing and supporting behaviors that then enhance and support learning.
“When kids who struggle in school feel that they understand what they’re being asked to do, it can actually help them in their learning. They understand that their teacher has their best interests at heart and, for a variety of reasons, they tend to have better outcomes.” – Dr. Jessica Toste
“The project has two pieces,” said Toste. “We’re looking at whether or not the reading intervention worked first, and then whether or not having this added motivational training supported students’ learning even further.”
Evidence revealed that children who received the reading intervention outperformed control students on word reading measures. Toste also found that students who had the added motivational training outperformed controls on their sentence comprehension and reading attribution.
“The idea is that this embedded motivational beliefs training will foster an instructional environment that makes it more likely that students will respond to the intervention,” said Toste, who plans to re-run the study next year. “This year was a pilot to see if there’s potential. Next year, we’re going to scale it up with more students, and refine and expand the motivational beliefs training.”
From there, Toste plans to look at the development of psychosocial processes as they pertain to reading skills. Specific reading skills may then be identified as affecting various psychosocial factors like motivation, self-esteem, and self-efficacy.
“Struggling with reading is a huge risk factor for kids as they go through school,” she said. “They’re not able to successfully engage in the primary task of the early grades, learning how to read. And then as they get through third and fourth grade, when instruction is no longer focused on learning how to read, they’re now unable to access many tasks of school that involve text.”
For students struggling with reading, the results of Toste’s work could be life changing.