How Children's Relationships with Teachers Shape their Social-Emotional and Executive Function Skills

New Research Further Supports the Importance of Continuity from Pre-K to Kindergarten
Blog Post
Feb. 7, 2022

Children’s executive function and social-emotional skills lay the foundation for their life experiences and outcomes. Their executive function skills will determine how well they study in school, problem solve in the workplace, and take care of their health. Their social-emotional skills will help them navigate friendships, love interests, networks, and conflict.

A key window of opportunity to target these skills is between the ages of three- and five-years-old, when an enormous amount of brain development occurs. For many children, this is the phase of early learning that encompasses pre-K, kindergarten, and the transition in between. This transition point can be stressful, as children adjust to kindergarten settings with less play time, more academic instruction, and often twice as many classmates, which can affect their relationships with their teachers and peers.

A new study from the University of Virginia points to how continuity between the two learning environments can support children’s social-emotional and self-regulation skills (which include executive function). Researchers evaluated how these skills are impacted by children’s relationships with their pre-K and kindergarten teachers. They hypothesized that a decrease in the quality of teacher-child interactions and a decrease in teacher-child closeness between pre-K and kindergarten would be associated with lower social-emotional and self-regulation skills. Researchers also assumed they would see a greater decline in students’ scores when they experienced wider disparities between the two relationships.

Participants in the study included 1,358 children in center-based public pre-K and kindergarten programs. The cohort evaluated was diverse and multilingual. Sixty percent of children were Latine, 17 percent were Black, 10 percent were white, and 13 percent identified as another race. Fifty-eight percent of the children spoke Spanish at home and 23 percent spoke another language. Students were evenly split between genders.

Researchers conducted assessments in the fall and spring of children’s pre-K and kindergarten years. They observed teacher-child interactions using the CLASS tool and conducted one-on-one assessments with students, including the Head-Toes-Knees-Shoulders (HTKS) test, which is intended to measure executive function skills. Teachers completed questionnaires to rate their students’ skills and their feelings of closeness to each student. Researchers gathered classroom behavior reports throughout the year.

Findings confirmed researchers’ hypotheses. A decrease in teacher-child closeness was associated with lower levels of frustration tolerance, lower task-orientation, lower scores of social competence, and higher incidence of teacher-reported behavior problems. A decrease in the quality of teacher-child interactions yielded marginally higher reports of behavior problems from teachers and lower scores on the HTKS test.

Another important finding was the impact of teachers’ relationships with boys. When boys had large decreases in teacher-child closeness, their task orientation, social competence, and frustration tolerance decreased, and their incidents of behavior problems increased at rates significantly higher than girls.

A key takeaway from this study is that teacher-student relationships enhance or diminish the development of students’ social-emotional and executive function skills. This finding is in line with overwhelming research showing that teacher-student relationships matter, especially in the early years. Secure and responsive relationships with adults are essential for young children’s development and learning.

There are multiple steps that schools can take to improve continuity across grade levels and support positive teacher-student relationships in kindergarten. One recommendation is to reduce the teacher-student ratio. Reduced class sizes allow for more individual attention, more time to assess, and more time to differentiate instruction to meet students’ needs. This strategy also creates better alignment between pre-K and kindergarten environments, as the teacher-student ratio often doubles between pre-K and kindergarten.

According to best practices, the ideal teacher-student ratio in kindergarten is a maximum of 1:15. When this goal is impractical due to staffing or space, hiring more paraprofessionals is another effective option that ensures students have more individualized support. As highlighted in New America’s 2021 kindergarten transition toolkit, states and localities should direct federal funding towards ratio reduction to better meet students’ individual needs and goals.

Executive function and social-emotional needs are closely related to mental health, which the pandemic has harmed for many. Districts and states can support students’ and teachers’ well-being by allocating federal funds to provide mental health services and to increase the number of social workers, counselors, and early intervention specialists.

The findings from this study also reinforce the need for intentionality in building positive teacher-student relationships. Home visiting or summer learning programs led by children’s kindergarten teachers can aid in forming early connections with students. Teachers can also embed social-emotional and executive function learning within their classrooms by using Responsive Classroom techniques, encouraging creative play, providing opportunities for movement, establishing routines, and modeling conflict resolution.

Considerations from this study include the impact of language on relationships. While 57 percent of students spoke Spanish at home, 28 percent of their kindergarten teachers spoke Spanish. The study did not mention whether teachers spoke the languages represented by the 23 percent of their students who spoke languages other than English and Spanish at home. For children who were dual language learners and emergent in their English skills, communication may have been a barrier in developing strong teacher-student and teacher-family relationships if adequate language support and translation were not provided.

Strengthening children’s social-emotional and executive function skills is especially pressing as children are struggling with the transition into kindergarten and elementary schools in the wake of COVID-19. Educators are reporting a delay in expected social-emotional development, with increased crying, hitting, inability to focus, over-the-top reactions to conflict, and trouble with problem-solving, turn taking, and sharing. The trauma and longevity of the pandemic have taken their toll, and the longer term effects of the pandemic on young children’s development do not look promising. More investment in and attention to kindergarten to enable deeper teacher-student relationships may be key to laying the social-emotional and executive function foundations that children will need to thrive as they begin school and beyond.

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