Behavioral Science Study Teachers Effects on Students

The teacher-student relationship is one that is perhaps second only to the parent-child relationship in terms of a young person’s development.  It’s only natural then that a teacher, a sort of pseudo-parental figure and a legal guardian of students (in loco parentis), is going to have behavioral effects on students.  This can be positive, negative, and both.  A teacher’s actions, interactions, and behavior are examples provided on at least a weekly basis.  Students then must evaluate what they see and incorporate that into their behavior, both in class and outside of class.

Positive Effects

The two most obvious effects a teacher has on students are grades and verbal praise.  Regardless of whatever methods a school might employ to keep a student’s grade private, students share this information with other students.  As a result, a student can be bolstered both internally and externally by a grade.  For instance, a student that works hard, pays attention, and makes positive contributions in class is likely to receive high marks in scholarship and citizenship.  The high marks serve as positive reinforcement to bring about the same behavior.  A student’s friends, once they learn of the grade, then provide the student a second means of positive reinforcement in their praise.

Likewise, when a teacher praises a student in class in front of that student’s peers, it is an acknowledgement of a positive contribution in some way that again reinforces that behavior.  It is precisely for this reason that teachers should find some way to praise each and every student for some behavior, even if it’s just arriving to class on time or having the proper materials.  Positive reinforcement creates a positive feeling, which in turn encourages more positive behavior.

Negative Effects

On the opposite end of the spectrum, teachers can also negatively affect a student’s behavior.  Generally not done intentionally, what a teacher might perceive as an offhand remark, “Are you awake this morning?”, can be viewed by the student receiving the remark, and that student’s peers, as an insult or put-down.  Most students lack the mental tools to deal with a perceived slight, and as a result get angry or defiant in the face of something that might not have really been intended as harmful.  The result is, naturally, a student with anger issues who, in one way or another, is influenced by them in some way, such as refusing to work or cooperate, or perhaps even being disruptive in class.

While there are those who love grades, grades can also produce a negative effect on a student.  It would be foolish to suggest doing away with grades (an evaluation system is necessary both in school and in the working world), but grades cannot exist in a vacuum.  It is understood that 2+2=4 and any other answer is incorrect, but grades do not always accurately reflect a student’s effort.  Some students just don’t take readily to certain subjects, in spite of how much they try.  A failing grade to student who made a sincere effort sends just as wrong a message as passing a student who put forth no effort.  It’s important that teachers reach out to these students and offer them some sort of recourse.  It would be unfair to give a grade of proficiency to a student who is not proficient, regardless of the effort applied, but it would be wrong to fail a student who could, with a little extra help from one resource or another, make it through.

Suggested Solutions

In order to maximize the beneficial effects teachers can have on students, here is a list of behaviors that teachers can employ:

*  Catch students being good.  Offer some form of praise to each and every student for doing something right (getting a question right, being attentive, etc.).  Yes, it might seem phony at first, but positive encouragement brings out positive behavior. 

*  Provide alternative testing methods.  Some students don’t test well, even though they have an understanding of the material.  Offer these students an alternative, either in the form of a verbal question-and-answer test or one-on-one assessment conference.

*  Ask students “Why?”  As students, young people (and older students) often view themselves as cattle in a herd.  By taking the time to ask a student how he or she arrived at a conclusion, it offers a validation of their thought process.  Sure, that student might be totally off base, but it doesn’t crush the student’s sense of themselves like being totally disregarded or laughed at would do.

*  Lead by example.  How a person behaves speaks many times louder than what a person says.  Teachers cannot forget this.  Being derisive, dismissive, argumentative, or rude provides an example that students will follow.

Many people who are no longer students can often have vivid memories of one teacher of another.  Quite often, the teachers that stand out are the ones that the student saw as the best and the worst.  But even of the ones that are not most prominent, a single act or word on one day is often remembered as well.  The effect of a teacher on a student is long-lasting, and continues for years, even decades, after the student is no longer even in class.