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Early Maternal Sensitivity and the Quality of Teacher-Student Relationships Across Grade School

Sat, March 23, 8:00 to 9:30am, Baltimore Convention Center, Floor: Level 3, Room 329

Integrative Statement

Although there is much evidence that the quality of teacher-student relationships is predictive of children’s adjustment (Lei, Cui, & Chiu, 2016; Roorda, Jak, Zee, Oort, & Koomen, 2017), it is not yet entirely clear that these associations derive from the unique influence of the teacher-student relationship itself. Teacher-student relationships are assumed to in part reflect the quality of early experiences with primary caregivers (Davis, 2003), but their social provisions also undergo notable normative change over the course of primary school (Furman & Buhrmester, 1992). Given these changes in teacher-student relationships over the course of primary school, it is important to consider how early caregiving experiences predict the quality of teacher-student relationships as children progress through the elementary grades. Selection into teacher-student relationships could follow a dynamic developmental course, with the effects of early caregiving waning over time for some aspects of teacher-student relationships.

Leveraging prospective, longitudinal data from the Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development (N = 1306), this paper addressed two primary research questions. First, we examined whether the association between early caregiving and teacher-student relationships remains stable or diminishes in magnitude over time (Figure 1). Second, our study built upon the methods developed by Fraley, Roisman, and Haltigan (2013) by asking, when applicable, what mechanisms might account for enduring associations between early sensitivity and later teacher-student relationship quality (Figure 2).

Early maternal sensitivity served as a measure of early caregiving environment quality and was assessed when children were 6, 15, 24, and 36 months old using videotaped mother-infant play sessions. Classroom teachers completed the Student-Teacher Relationship Scale, Short Form (STRS-SF; Pianta, 2001) each year between Kindergarten and Grade 6. Two subscales were estimated from responses to the STRS-SF to represent teacher-student relationship quality: closeness and conflict. Child externalizing problems were reported by teachers annually from Kindergarten to Grade 6 using the Teacher Report Form (Achenbach, 1991b) and by mothers when the study children were 24, 36, and 54 months; in Kindergarten; and in Grades 1, 3, 4, 5, and 6 using the Child Behavior Checklist (Achenbach, 1991a). Growth curve modeling was used to estimate an intercept for each child representing behavior problems at 54 months, and the estimated intercepts were then used in the mediational models.

Results demonstrated that associations between the observed quality of early maternal sensitivity and teacher-student closeness faded from Kindergarten to Grade 6 (b paths = .00). In contrast, associations between early caregiving and teacher-student conflict endured (b paths = -.07), and were partially accounted for (i.e., the enduring effects were sustained in part) by child externalizing problems. These findings suggest that, as children age, they may differentiate between teachers and parents in some domains (Copeland, Denham, & DeMulder, 1997; Davis & Lease, 2000), such as closeness, but not others, such as conflict.

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