The effect of teacher-student interaction on primary school children’s working memory performance: A multi-method study on causality
Executive functions (EF), and especially working memory (WM), are fundamental for children’s learning, school functioning and academic achievement. WM continues to develop throughout preschool, childhood, and well into adolescence, with a particular developmental spurt between 6 and 9 years of age. However, WM fails to develop to its full potential if contextual stimulation is not adequately presented. Therefore, recent research has shifted the attention towards malleable environmental factors; more specifically, to the school/classroom environment as an important developmental context and teachers’ role in promoting WM development. Observational studies have shown a correlation between, on the one hand, the quality of teacher-student relationship (TSR) at the dyadic level or teacher-student interaction (TSI) at the classroom level and, on the other hand, children’s WM skills. However, to date, the causal relationships between TSR/TSI and WM performance remain understudied, which will, therefore, be examined in this doctoral project.
For causality between variables to be assumed, three conditions should be met. First, an association between variables should be established. To meet this criterion, we have conducted a systematic literature review (Study 1) on the interventions aiming to improve children’s EF by manipulating TSR/TSI. This review allows us to understand the association in more depth (whether the effects depend on the type of manipulation (i.e., dyadic versus classroom-level) and component(s) being activated (e.g., instructional versus emotional support)). Second, the order between variables should be explored. To meet this criterion, we have completed a correlational study (Study 2) using a cross-lagged panel design, allowing us to test not only the uni-directional but also the bi-directional nature of the relationships between these constructs over time. Finally, for causality between these variables to be presumed, all possible alternative explanations for the relationship should be accounted for (and dismissed). By using data from the correlational study, we will next (Study 3) aim to address the main moderators that might play a role in the association between TSR and WM performance. Given that a positive TSR might especially protect children with social and behavioural problems, and those with a poor relationship with their primary caregiver, we will explore possible factors, such as communication problems, presence and severity of behaviour problems, and quality of parent-child relationship. Given that WM development is susceptible to stimulation from the environment, especially in sensitive periods of development (i.e., early and middle childhood), and the key role of the teacher during the primary school age, we aim (Study 4) to explore which TSI strategies lead to the best outcomes and most effectively impact WM performance. Furthermore, this study can inform us on the association between TSI and TSR (separately) and WM. Employing a microtrial approach will allow us to manipulate teacher behaviour on the classroom level (i.e., TSI) and explore the immediate effects (and to examine whether the effects are conditional to the quality of TSR) of the applied instructional support strategies on WM performance of children presenting WM-related problematic behaviours in the classroom.
Taken together, this doctoral project will provide an investigation of the causal effects between TSR/TSI and children’s WM performance. These findings should inform how teachers can effectively promote this important cognitive process in children (and presumably, how children’s increased WM can facilitate a positive relationship with the teacher), which specific teacher behaviours and aspects of the relationship are important, and whether this association is influenced by individual differences between children and by teacher and parent/family characteristics.