As defined by the authors of a recent study on the subject, “teachers who show high emotional support are warm and kind, engage in positive and respectful communication with children, are sensitive to children’s needs and interests, provide children with appropriate levels of autonomy, and help them feel comfortable in the classroom” (all quotes are from the original study.)
Logically, such teachers should therefore “support students’ feelings of belonging and autonomy”, two important factors of motivation according to Self-Determination Theory. More specifically, emotional support could have a crucial influence on task persistence, i.e., the ability to demonstrate effort and not give up easily in the face of challenges or difficult tasks. Indeed, “experiencing emotional support from teachers creates a context where sudents feel safe, dare to try new things, exert effort, and engage in learning."
To test this hypothesis, the two researchers surveyed 660 young Estonian students as well as the 53 teachers that followed them from Grade 1 to Grade 3. In Estonia, a single classroom teacher is responsible for all primary subjects in the first three grades of schooling.
The children assessed their teachers’ emotional support on a scale measuring the level of “care” they personally experienced, while the teachers estimated their pupils’ focus, dedication, and “task persistence”.
As predicted, “higher perceived emotional support was related with more persistent learning behavior on an individual level.” What is more, emotional support was also found to be positively related to child-centered teaching practices (as observed by independent judges), which “emphasize the active knowledge construction process, include children in various discipline-related decision processes, and create a positive social climate via individual support and encouragement of peer interactions”; and negatively related to “psychological control”, which refers to the manipulation of a child’s emotions, cognitions and behavior through such means as withdrawal of affection, shaming, and induction of guilt.
Based on these results, future research should investigate the potential long-term effects of negative early school experiences. Likewise, it would be interesting to know how proper emotional support evolves, both in nature and in importance, as students get older and transition to middle and high school.
Reference: Kikas and Tang (2019), “Child-perceived teacher emotional support, its relations with teaching practices, and tasl persistence”, European Journal of Psychology of Education, April 2019, 34, 2, pp. 359-374