The communication of social support is central to relationships in and outside of the classroom. Although scholars offer many definitions, social support is widely understood to be resources – time, money, comforting – that people possess and extend to others. These resources can be further defined by the type of help that is provided, using categories like emotional, informational, instrumental, and appraisal support (House 1981). Emotional support can be acts that demonstrate concern, empathy, trust, and caring. For teachers, emotionally supportive behaviors can also include being sensitive, positive, involved, and flexible. Instrumental support refers to providing tangible resources (such as gifts or loans) or time. Informational support can include advice, counsel, or information that assists another person, whereas appraisal support consists of evaluative feedback and/or social comparison. One other type of support relevant to classroom interactions is instructional support – reading to and with students, providing high-quality feedback, leading interactive discussions, and encouraging students to take responsibility in the classroom (Hamre & Pianta 2005).
Some of the most obvious benefits of providing students with a supportive environment are improved attendance and grades. When students perceive that their teachers have positive attitudes, are willing to work with students after class, and appreciate diversity among their pupils, students’ grades increase (Bowen & Bowen 1998). In addition, when students feel that their teachers care about them and are supportive emotionally, students have better attendance, spend more time studying, and are more likely to avoid problem behavior such as disrupting class.
These positive outcomes are even more pronounced among at-risk students. In some cases, teacher support can reduce the effects of factors that mark students as being “at-risk,” such as mother’s lack of education or other demographic characteristics (Hamre & Pianta 2005). Instructional and emotional support can increase students’ achievement and improve the teacher–student relationship. Overall, at-risk students who report no or only low amounts of social support have lower attendance rates, spend less time studying, have less ability to overcome school problems, and report lower self-esteem (Rosenfeld et al. 1998). Overall, support from teachers seems to be a key factor in obtaining positive outcomes among at-risk students (Rosenfeld et al. 2000).
Some additional benefits that have been associated with teacher social support are less concrete but equally gratifying. Emotional support from teachers can enhance students’ satisfaction with school (Rosenfeld & Richman 1999); students’ feelings that they can understand, manage, and find meaning in their studies (Bowen et al. 1998); and students’ perceptions of school engagement, or a sense of attachment, belonging, and involvement in school (Brewster & Bowen 2004).
Some techniques for enhancing the social support students receive from teachers intuitively flow from other efforts to improve communication in the classroom. For example, teachers can receive training on the importance of social support and how to convey caring, warmth, and respect in a positive classroom environment (Bowen & Bowen 1998). These types of training programs alone can contribute to a sustained and systematic improvement of student outcomes such as those outlined above. As for student training, Rosenfeld et al. (2000) suggested that students can be taught social skills such as how to know when a person might be available for a supportive conversation and how to initiate such a conversation.
Teachers are not the only potential sources for social support in the lives of their students. One of the best ways teachers can help students form supportive networks is by partnering with other important persons in students’ lives such as parents, guardians, community leaders, and school administrators. Studies show that when students feel supported by a variety of network members, positive outcomes are even more pronounced (Rosenfeld et al. 2000).
Finally, it should be noted that social support needs vary by student, and therefore teachers’ strategies for providing support should be tailored to meet the needs of each individual student (Rosenfeld & Richman 1999). Although it may seem arduous and impractical to develop individualized plans for each student, utilizing some of these simple assessment techniques may not only help students to succeed academically, but also assist them in building the self-esteem and other life skills that will sustain them well into their adulthood.
- Bowen, N. K., & Bowen, G. L. (1998). The effects of home microsystem risk factors and school microsystem protective factors on student academic performance and affective investment in schooling. Social Work in Education, 20(4), 219–231.
- Bowen, G. L., Richman, J. L., Brewster, A., & Bowen, N. K. (1998). Sense of school coherence, perceptions of danger at school, and teacher support among youth at risk of school failure. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 15(4), 273–286.
- Brewster, A. B., & Bowen, G. L. (2004). Teacher support and the school engagement of Latino middle and high school students at risk of school failure. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 21(1), 47–67.
- Burleson, B. R., & MacGeorge, E. (2002). Supportive communication. In M. Knapp & J. Daly (eds.), Handbook of interpersonal communication, 3rd edn. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 374–424.
- Hamre, B. K., & Pianta, R. C. (2005). Can instructional and emotional support in the first-grade classroom make a difference for children at risk of school failure? Child Development, 76(5), 949– 967.
- House, J. S. (1981). Work stress and social support. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.
- Rosenfeld, L. B., & Richman, J. M. (1999). Supportive communication and school outcomes, Part II: Academically “at risk” low income high school students. Communication Education, 48(4), 294–307.
- Rosenfeld, L. R., Richman, J. M., & Bowen, G. L. (1998). Low social support among at-risk adolescents. Social Work in Education, 20(4), 245–260.
- Rosenfeld, L. B., Richman, J. M., & Bowen, G. L. (2000). Social support networks and school outcomes: The centrality of the teacher. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 17(3), 205– 226.
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