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Bored or scared children? Teachers’ behaviour makes a big difference

Teacher training should do more to prepare teachers for the pedagogical aspects of teaching, Professor of Educational Sciences Tim Mainhard will argue in his inaugural lecture. ‘Children who find learning difficult particularly benefit from a close relationship with their teacher.’

School is an important place not just for learning skills but also for developing your personality and identity. ‘Child development studies mainly looks at children’s development in the family and friendship group, but children also spend a lot of time at school. How do children’s interactions at school affect their emotional development and self-image?’

Mainhard researches relationships and interactions in class, mainly between pupils and teachers. He looks at the socio-emotional results of certain interactions. ‘These interactions are important for the pupil’s motivation. They determine whether a child likes going to school or is scared or bored.’

Better results

At present, schools mainly focus on literacy and numeracy, says Mainhard. ‘Which is quite right because children fell behind during the pandemic. But the danger is that you think less about the social context that you should offer a child.’ The atmosphere in class is important for good results. ‘If children are at ease and feel comfortable, they also learn better.’

For his research Mainhard seeks out the ‘complexity of the class’. That is, teachers in their own class, with their own pupils, with all the daily interactions and unpredictability inherent to this. ‘I want to see what happens when teachers are teaching and the effect this has on children. I work a lot with video recordings and code exactly what happens.’ He uses the interpersonal circle for this. Here you record from moment to moment how dominant or compliant and how friendly or hostile a teacher or pupil is.

‘You get back what you give’

How can this information help teachers? ‘To put it simply,’ says Mainhard, ‘you get back what you give. Your behaviour invites certain behaviour. We call this interpersonal complementarity. If you are friendly or foster closeness, you encourage pupils to reciprocate. Influential or dominant behaviour elicits subservient behaviour. So if you do not take the lead as a teacher, there is a real chance that the group will.’

Teachers can make conscious use of this interpersonal complementarity in class. ‘In certain teaching situations you want the group to do or come up with something itself. Then it’s important that rather than spend the whole time talking or giving directions you are more reticent instead.’

At-risk pupils

Mainhard’s research shows, for example, how at-risk pupils can be encouraged to engage in cooperative behaviour. ‘With children who find learning difficult, it is extra important to motivate them and make sure they do not lose attention. We saw that these pupils became more cooperative when they were regularly given the chance to lead the conversation.’ A too-dominant approach is counterproductive, he says. ‘If children have little interest in school, they will become bored or disrupt the lesson. The trick is to provide a clear structure without strictly enforcing it all the time. This requires a lot of insight on the part of the teacher.’

Teacher-pupil interaction can also be very important to a child’s position in the group. A child that is often addressed sternly or correctively will increasingly be liked less by its classmates. ‘A child’s position in the group also determines its development. If you do not fit in the group or are bullied even, this can have negative effects on your well-being and psychological development.’ Teachers therefore have to be careful with strict or very corrective behaviour. ‘You can’t really be too kind.  At most, you can offer too little structure.’

Teacher training

Mainhard thinks it is important that teachers learn to be aware of interpersonal processes during their training. Is this the umpteenth task to add to a teacher’s workload? ‘No,’ Mainhard replies, ‘it makes teaching easier and more efficient. If you are able to be friendly but clear at the same time, it will take less effort to deal with or even prevent difficult situations in class.’

Tim Mainhard’s inaugural lecture is on 20 January 2023 at 16.15. Register here. The inaugural lecture will also be live-streamed.

Text: Tom Janssen
Photo: ANP

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