Conflict Increases in Teacher Relationships with Boys and African Americans

Date Published: 10/31/2013

In the first study of teacher-student relationships that examines student behaviors and literacy skills in an exclusively rural population, researchers have determined that boys and African American students experience increasing conflict with their teachers as the school year progresses, regardless of the teacher’s ethnicity. A recent issue of Early Childhood Research Quarterly reveals the findings of the study from UNC’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, which explored teacher-student relationships in 20 kindergarten and first grade classrooms in the rural southeast.

“Increasing evidence suggests that relationships are important for children’s academic and social skills,” says FPG’s Kathleen Cranley Gallagher, the study’s lead author. “Understanding how relationships develop between teachers and students is crucial.”

Previous studies have shown that students in better relationships with teachers are more engaged in their work, participate more often in classroom activities, and like school more. Not surprisingly, conflict in teacher-student relationships negatively impacts children’s adjustment to school and learning. Earlier research also suggests that African American students may reap more academic benefits from positive relationships with teachers than do white students.

Teachers commonly struggle in their relationships with children of both genders who are less self-regulated, less attentive, and more hostile in their reactions. Gallagher’s team determined that increasing conflict that teachers reported in their relationships with boys was explained by the boys’ challenging behaviors. That is, conflict did not increase with boys who did not present challenging classroom behaviors.  

However, regardless of student behavior, teachers in Gallagher’s study reported more conflict in their relationships with African American students at the end of the year than the beginning, even after Gallagher’s team accounted for additional factors that included gender, maternal education, and teacher experience and ethnicity. Student literacy skills also had no bearing on the increasing conflict in these relationships.

In addition, the research from Gallagher and her team contradicts a previous study that found that non-white teachers were more likely to rate their relationships with non-white students positively. In this examination of rural classrooms, African American and white teachers did not differ generally in their reported relationship conflict with African American students.

Because the study determined that teacher relationships with African American students not only grow in conflict but also begin with less closeness, thoughtfully building relationships with children’s families—on the families’ terms—may be essential. By visiting students’ homes and providing ongoing opportunities for communicating and connecting, teachers might help to provide a foundation for better teacher-student relationships.

“It’s possible that an early feeling of less closeness arises from early uncomfortable interactions that emerge into growing conflict over the school year,” says Gallagher. “Our challenge is to identify factors that enhance positive relationships and minimize conflict for all children.”

The study’s coauthors include FPG’s Kirsten Kainz and Lynne Vernon-Feagans, as well as The College of Charleston’s Kelley Mayer White.

Read the study's 2-page Snapshot

Kathleen Cranley Gallagher
Scientist, UNC’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute
Clinical Associate Professor, UNC’s School of Education

Full study:

Gallagher, K., Kainz, K., Vernon-Feagans, L. , & White, K. (2013). Development of student–teacher relationships in rural early elementary classrooms. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 28, 520-528.