While countless programs have been introduced into classrooms to try to reach these students, researchers Bridget K. Hamre and Robert C. Pianta of the University of Virginia examined how everyday interactions between teachers and students affect struggling students’ performance in school.

Their results, recently published in Child Development, show that first graders who have had problems in school fare significantly better when they receive ongoing emotional support from their teacher.

© Jim Cummins/Corbis

“We consistently find that teacher sensitivity—what we call their ability to read kids’ cues and respond to them—greatly improves kids’ ability to perform well in a classroom setting,” said Hamre.

Hamre and Pianta used a sample of 910 first graders from a long-term study run by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. They found that even students who had had trouble in kindergarten showed significant increases in all-around academic performance if they were placed in a first-grade class with a teacher who was more sensitive and attentive to their emotional cues. Their levels of academic achievement were roughly the same as those of kids who hadn’t had problems in kindergarten.

The study is especially illuminating for its focus on everyday teacher behavior. Rather than implementing a complex—and often expensive—new curriculum, Hamre and Pianta have found that helping teachers hone basic interpersonal skills can give their students a big academic boost.

“The significance of this study is that by changing the way teachers and students interact on a regular basis, you can create a sustainable and long-lasting improvement in teaching,” said Hamre. “And importantly, the findings are not limited to early education. There’s no reason these methods won’t work in all grade levels.”

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