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Stressful Relationships in Preschool May Help Push Students Towards Special Education, Study Says

Guest blog by Carmen Constantinescu

Remember your first teacher? Yes, that person who was kind to you, smiled in the morning when you arrived at school and made you rehearse for your first end-of-the-year performance. Experts have long agreed that this relationship plays an essential role in influencing how children develop and think about their school lives.

Now, a new study conducted by Jordan Buckrop, Amy Roberts, and Jennifer LoCasale-Crouch at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education and published in Early Childhood Research Quarterly bolsters these claims. The researchers found evidence suggesting the type of relationships preschoolers form with their teachers can also be predictive of their school performance in early elementary school.

"A negative, stressful, relational experience in classroom seems to matter more for later special education referral than other classroom-level measures of the preschool classroom experience," write the UVA researchers. At the same time, "relationships characterized by closeness have higher levels of warmth, affection, and communication between the teacher and the child and are positively associated with children's outcomes in literacy, math and social skills at the end of preschool," the study adds. 

Through multiple statistical analyses of data on nearly 1,000 preschoolers, the researchers find that the likelihood for special education referrals was higher when a conflictual relationship with the teacher was observed in preschool, especially for boys whose language skills were low for their age.  Researchers based their conclusions on teacher self-reports and observations of classroom interactions, children's engagement levels, and closeness and conflict in teacher-child relationships. Student characteristics such as student vocabulary skills, race, gender, household income, and maternal education were also included.

However, the researchers said it's also important to note that when conflictual relationships occur, both teacher and student factors are at play. Also, "teachers may lack the necessary training for building supportive relationships or repairing conflictual relationships with their students, or there may be a mismatch between teacher and child personalities," or "children who are already more likely to be referred may develop conflictual relationships with teachers," stated the researchers. Other contributing factors might include teacher stress or an overly structured school day that might not allow enough opportunities for relationship building. 

The recommendations call for further research into potential sources of conflict between teachers and students, individuals' preschool experiences and the elementary education environment. Among the 1,000 preschoolers studied, 40 percent were white, 25 percent were Latino, and 23.5 percent were African-American. The remaining 11.5 percent included other demographic categories, such as multi-racial, Asian-American, and Native American. The findings were not affected, however, by the race or socio-economic status of the children.

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