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Adolescence has been described as a time of increased psychological stress (Roeser, Eccles, & Sameroff, 2000) and anxiety (Kessler et al., 2005). The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH, 2016) reports that approximately 1 in 5 youth ages 13 through 18 experience a severe mood, behavior, or anxiety disorder. The impact of psychological difficulties in early adolescence is a growing national concern (Goldstein, Boxer, & Rudolph, 2015; Grills-Taquechel, Norton, & Ollendick, 2010). For example, anxiety, which is one of the most prevalent childhood disorders (Kessler et al., 2005), is found to affect approximately 1 in 3 adolescents nationally (Merikangas et al., 2010).
This study examined early adolescents’ perceptions of teacher supports as a way to protect their psychological difficulties when they make a transition to adolescence. Reddy, Rhodes, and Mulhall's (2003) longitudinal study (n = 2,585) revealed that student perceptions of teachers’ support decreased over the middle school years, while symptoms of depression increased. In Wentzel’s (1998) study, negative correlations were exposed between social supports and psychological distress such as anxiety and depression. Moreover, perceived social supports have been correlated significantly with motivation (Wentzel, 1998) and academic achievement (Tennant et al., 2014). Gaining an understanding of student perceptions of teacher supports can increase attunement in the supportive relationship, thereby improving student social and emotional well-being (Suldo et al., 2009). Studies measuring student perceptions are common; however, few since Babad’s (1990) intervention compare student and teacher perceptions.
This mixed method study compares sixth-grade students’ perceptions of their teachers’ supports in middle school using a sample of 87 students and three teachers. The following research questions were explored: (1) To what extent do discrepancies exist between teachers’ and students’ perceptions of teacher support in four dimensions (emotional, informational, appraisal, and instrumental)? (2) What are the students’ perceptions of teacher supports related to the four dimensions of support? Using the Child and Adolescent Social Support Scale (CASSS; Malecki, Demaray, Elliott, & Nolten, 2000), data comparisons were analyzed to reveal the extent to which perceptions of the frequency of supports exist. A total of 24 students were selected from the larger quantitative sample and asked to participate in student focus groups examining students’ perceptions more in depth. The four focus groups elaborated on the meaning of these supports in this explanatory design.
It was hypothesized that mean score differences would be found between sixth-grade students’ and teachers’ perceptions of the frequency of teacher supports. Using the t-test of independent means, findings revealed sixth-grade students having significantly lower perceptions of teacher supports than reported by teachers, with appraisal supports exposing the greatest difference (see Table 2). Student responses to focus group questions emphasized the value of listening to student voice and input. Results of this study suggest the need for teachers to become more attuned to student perspectives on teacher supports. Understanding students’ perceptions of teacher supports through seeking student voice can lead to greater attunement in the supportive student-teacher relationship (Suldo et al., 2009), thereby facilitating psychological well-being (Rueger, Malecki, & Demaray, 2010).