Belonging in School – The Effect of Teacher-Student Relationships: A Systematic Quantitative Review of the Literature

Tracee Nix, Donna Pendergast, Mia O’Brien

School of Education and Professional Studies, Griffith University, Australia

Education Thinking, ISSN 2778-777X – Volume 2, Issue 1 – 2022, pp. 63-90. Date of publication: 9 December 2022.

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Declaration of interests: The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest.

Authors’ notes: Tracee Nix is a PhD candidate and is employed as a sessional academic at Griffith University and works in the capacity as Lecturer and Tutor in post-graduate and undergraduate education studies within the School of Education and Professional Studies. Professor Donna Pendergast is Dean of the School of Education and Professional Studies at Griffith University. Her expertise sits at the intersection of educational transformation and efficacy, with a focus on: young adolescent learners and student engagement; initial and professional teacher education; and school reform. Mia O’Brien (PhD) is a Senior Lecturer and Initial Teacher Education Director in the School of Education and Professional Studies at Griffith University. Mia’s research applies a strengths-based approach to educational and professional learning settings and investigates professional learning, efficacy and pedagogy within teacher professional learning and initial teacher education contexts.

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Journal’s areas of research addressed by the article: 8. Classroom Management; 50. Quality in Education; 71. Teacher-Student Relationships


The literature reveals that positive teacher-student relationships encourage students’ work habits, engagement, and wellbeing; and create an environment that encourages students to experience a sense of belonging at school. When adolescent students feel a sense of belonging at school, they are more likely to attend school, engage in their learning, and feel like they are included and wanted. This is important because at the core of education is the student. Working with students in a holistic manner has positive implications for their wellbeing and academic performance. This study set out to examine the nature of the relationship between teacher and student interactions and student’s experience of the sense of belonging at school, through the lens of Interpersonal Theory in order to examine teacher pedagogical choices. The Systematic Quantitative Literature Review (SQLR) methodology is utilised at the intersections of Teacher-Student Relationships (TSR) and Sense of Belonging at School (SOBAS), and TSR and Interpersonal Theory to review the contemporary literature. Following the SQLR methodology that applies specific inclusion and exclusion criteria, 32 studies were identified for review. The analysis identified fairness, engagement, and achievement as key themes in the TSR and SOBAS literature; and the TSR and Interpersonal Theory literature highlighted the importance of moment-to-moment interactions to improve student engagement and achievement. The findings of the SQLR provide a basis for discussion of teacher choices in pedagogy and school-wide interventions that may promote student SOBAS.


Interpersonal theory, Sense of belonging at school (SOBAS), Systematic quantitative literature review (SQLR), Teacher-student relationships (TSR)

In recent years, the body of literature exploring students’ sense of belonging at school (SOBAS) has grown as education jurisdictions broaden their focus to the holistic education of the student (Aldridge et al., 2016; Allen et al., 2018; Cornelius-White, 2007; Greenwood & Kelly, 2019). A student’s sense of belonging at school has been found to enhance resilience, engagement, and motivation; and students with a strong sense of belonging are more likely to have a strong sense of self-belief and self-efficacy (Ibrahim & El Zaatari, 2019; Pendergast et al., 2018; Phan, 2017; Sanders & Munford, 2016). The widespread prioritisation of wellbeing in schools has necessitated a broader examination of the potential influence of student/teacher interactions on student wellbeing and sense of belonging. This paper reviews the literature describing SOBAS, teacher-student relationships (TSRs), and Interpersonal Theory phenomena. These areas of research and their points of intersection will be explored to critically examine the potential implications for students. At present, there is no literature that examines the intersection of SOBAS and TSRs through the lens of Interpersonal Theory. To contextualise the study, the paper begins with a review of the literature informing each of the three areas of examination: SOBAS, TSRs, and Interpersonal Theory. Then an SQLR focused on the intersection of these three fields is presented and discussed. This review enabled an analysis of each of the fields and how each has been conceptualised over time, as well as a presentation of how the intersections of these three constructs facilitate new ways of understanding the phenomena and their potential.

Framing Literature

Sense of Belonging at School

Belonging as a scholarly concept is receiving greater attention (Pendergast et al., 2020). However, it is a fluid and contested concept that can refer to both the act of self-identification or the identification by others in any given context (Yuval-Davis, 2006) or to a person’s sense of attachment to a place or familiar locality so that a person has a feeling of being ‘at home’ (Antonsich, 2010). A widely accepted historical definition provided by Goodenow (1993, p. 80) is that sense of belonging at school refers to “the extent to which students feel personally accepted, respected, included, and supported by others in the school social environment”. More recently, belonging has been described as the entanglement of context-specific elements experienced in situational relationships that are fluid by nature and experienced in various socio-political and cultural conditions (Lähdesmäki et al., 2016). In an increasingly diverse school environment that has become overlaid with growing digital connectedness, values, ideas, and practices are now available to students at a local, national, and global level. This diversity has influenced students’ SOBAS in multiple contexts, as students simultaneously belong to various groups. Those contexts have differing levels of importance to students at different times, yet all can inform their sense of belonging (Halse, 2018; Lähdesmäki et al., 2016; Shochet et al., 2011).

Sense of belonging is of particular importance for adolescents in school (Allen et al., 2018) as this is a developmental period when young people transition from childhood to adulthood. During this time, “the need for belonging, social support, and acceptance takes on special prominence (…) when young people begin to consider seriously who they are and wish to be, with whom they belong, and where they intend to invest their energies and stake their futures” (Goodenow, 1993, p. 81). As a student’s sense of belonging is malleable and susceptible to both positive and negative influences throughout adolescence, educators should be concerned with ensuring there is positive social integration in school and within classes (Allen et al., 2018; Goodenow, 1993). Comber and Woods (2018) describe classrooms as spaces where students can be recognised, included, or excluded, and that these spaces are influenced by those that inhabit these places. It is important that teachers create classroom spaces, through their explicit choices in classroom management practices, curriculum, and pedagogy, that provide students with the opportunity to feel a sense of belonging (Pendergast et al., 2018). At the same time, students have the potential to learn how to give others the opportunity to feel a sense of belonging, through their behaviours and ways of relating, as they negotiate being together in a shared space (Pendergast et al., 2018). To make belonging realisable and practical, teachers can acknowledge and consider the contexts that their students inhabit – spatially, geopolitically, and historically (McLeod, 2018). The responsibility of the teacher to create an environment that encourages positive emotional and educational outcomes is great.

Research in SOBAS demonstrates strong relatedness between SOBAS and academic engagement. For example, Duffy and Elwood (2013) describe the importance of engagement as a mitigating factor for low achievement, disruptions in classrooms, long-term unemployment, disadvantage, and a lack of SOBAS. Students in the Duffy and Elwood (2013) study described factors that are more likely to encourage engagement, including having strong relationships with teachers and peers, which enhances their feelings of belonging and acceptance. There is research evidence to show that students with high SOBAS have greater participation and motivation, academic achievement, and educational outcomes (Cemalcilar, 2010; Fong Lam et al., 2015; Goodenow, 1993; Osterman, 2000; Pendergast et al., 2018) as well as more positive personal characteristics such as self-efficacy, conscientiousness, and happiness (Allen et al., 2018; Chiu et al., 2016; Fong Lam et al., 2015; Osterman, 2000). Research has also shown that nurturing SOBAS has positive effects on students at risk of disengagement (Duffy & Elwood, 2013; Pendergast et al., 2018; Sanders & Munford, 2016; Tillery et al., 2013) and can work to positively influence resilience (Pendergast et al., 2018; Shochet et al., 2011; Tillery et al., 2013). In the school context, belonging “is not a simple matter of transition, induction or readiness;…what is required is explicit, specific and focused attention to creating socially just spaces where all children can learn to belong and then engage with belonging in diverse ways” (Comber & Woods, 2018, p. 264). When students have a place where they feel they belong, they can engage in relationships in a productive and positive way.

This research also shows that teacher-student relationships influence students’ SOBAS. The study by Pendergast et al. (2018) on engaging marginalized middle years learners, conducted with 25 students, 25 of their teachers, and 39 school leaders, highlighted that both teachers and students recognised the need for strong student SOBAS. In the study, students reported that having teachers they trust were available, could provide them with support, and most importantly, genuinely cared about their wellbeing, was a key factor in developing and maintaining a strong SOBAS. The teachers in the study highlighted the importance they place on engaging with their students holistically, rather than just as a student in their class, and on providing them with multiple opportunities for success as a strategy for creating SOBAS for their students. Additionally, the teachers highlighted the benefits of having a safe space in the school where students could come and engage with teachers. This also provided an opportunity to build TSRs and enhance students’ SOBAS (Pendergast et al., 2018). Both teachers and students in the study affirmed the importance of approachable teachers that students could contact during the out-of-class time to create a space for open, non-judgmental, and supportive communication.

Teacher Student Relationships (TSRs)

TSRs are defined as “the generalized interpersonal meaning students and teachers attach to their interactions with each other” (Wubbels, Brekelmans, den Brok, Wijsman, et al., 2014, p. 364). The relational pedagogy literature emphasises that positive TSRs encourage positive learning and social behaviours (Allen et al., 2018; Cornelius-White, 2007; Pianta, 1999; Roorda et al., 2011). Similarly, Howells (2014) draws from a variety of educational theorists such as Freire, Greene, Noddings, Rogers, and Palmer, to establish that respectful and trusting relationships are at the heart of effective pedagogy; and note that “indeed it is difficult to view the art of teaching as anything less than an interpersonal and relational act” (p. 59).

Students in the Duffy and Elwood (2013) study frequently mentioned poor or negative relationships with teachers being a barrier to their learning; this affected their motivation and engagement, disrupting their learning and making them feel like they weren’t valued or liked as individuals. These poor relationships increased the likelihood of students being removed from the classroom due to disruptive behaviours, further compounding the disruption to their learning. Alternatively, students reported they “were more willing to engage in learning when they felt that the relationship between them and the teacher was warm, caring, respectful and positive” (p. 119). Given that student-teacher relationships have been demonstrated to be an important influence on students’ SOBAS and their academic engagement, and that students often have different experiences and relationships with different teachers, Duffy and Elwood’s call for “building capacity amongst teachers to minimize differential treatment and to respond more positively and proactively in classrooms” (p. 122) seems to be a valid one.

When there are positive teacher-student relationships there is a concurrent positive effect on students in their conduct, work habits, engagement in the classroom, performance, well-being, behavioural self-control, and friendships (Jennings & Greenberg, 2009; Myers & Pianta, 2008; Wubbels, Brekelmans, den Brok, & van Tartwijk, 2006; Wubbels, Brekelmans, den Brok, Wijsman, et al., 2014). Furthermore, studies have demonstrated the relatedness between the quality of TSRs and student’s affective and cognitive outcomes (Cornelius-White, 2007; Roorda et al., 2011; Wubbels, Brekelmans, den Brok, Wijsman, et al., 2014). TSRs that are characterised by conflict and mistrust have a negative effect on children’s learning (Hamre & Pianta, 2001; Spilt et al., 2011). Within a primary school setting, the negative aspects of TSR have been shown to have a stronger influence on students’ adjustment than positive relationships (Hamre & Pianta, 2001; Roorda et al., 2011). In secondary settings, the “effect sizes for positive relationships and both engagement and achievement” (Roorda et al., 2011, p. 513) are significantly larger. As students move into secondary schooling, the positive qualities of TSRs, including closeness and relationships outside the classroom (Claessens et al., 2017; Hargreaves, 2000), become more important. Roorda et al. (2011) “suggest that TSRs are more important for the academic adjustment of older children” (p. 517). Having a positive TSR has been shown to have a positive effect on students and these relationships can be fostered in a variety of settings.

Teacher-student relationships exist in a variety of spaces. Some spaces are formal such as the classroom and some are informal, like the playground or excursions. In a study by Claessens et al. (2017), 53% of behaviour described in positive relationships took place outside the class context, happened spontaneously, and the topics of conversation were diverse. Whereas, in problematic relationships, 67% of behaviours took place in the classroom, and topics of talk were mostly around behaviour issues in class and were mostly during formally organised meetings. When teacher-student relationships are friendly in out-of-class spaces, misbehaviour within the classroom appears to be less damaging to the relationship and an overall sense of positivity is easier to maintain (Claessens et al., 2017). When teachers connect with students in out-of-class spaces there is an opportunity for the student to be seen in a new light and it can be a source of positive emotion for the teacher (Hargreaves, 2000). The negotiation of teacher-student relationships in out-of-class spaces may influence student’s learning in a positive way and although it is a long-term process, the “loss of time” in the short term can lead to gains in the long run (Frelin & Grannäs, 2010).

Interpersonal Theory

The Interpersonal Theory describes the perceptions of behaviour of people in the act of relating to and interacting within a system; and is based upon the assumption that human behaviour is best understood as transactional and with reciprocal influence (Horowitz & Strack, 2011). All human behaviour and perceptions can be described along two dimensions: agency and communion. Agency is the degree to which one controls the interactions, demonstrates power or behaves independently from the others in the interactions; and communion is how someone shows friendliness or affiliation towards another (Claessens et al., 2017).

Claessens et al. (2017) reported that in positive relationships, interactions were experienced as high on both communion and agency, and these interactions could be characterised as supporting and warm. However, in problematic relationships, interactions were rated low on communion and high on agency. This shows that relationship quality is determined more by the level of communion than by the level of agency. In a study of problematic relationships, Spilt et al. (2011) found that the internalisation of negative affect and beliefs about the relationship with the student can cause a perceptual bias. This bias can lead to automatic negative thoughts about the student’s behaviour, which in turn reinforces the negative beliefs about the relationship. A negative self-fulfilling prophecy results.

Interpersonal complementarity refers to the ways in which the interactional behaviours of people may fit together and influence each other (Horowitz & Strack, 2011). Kiesler(1983) proposed that the notion of complementarity “is that our interpersonal actions are designed to invite, pull, elicit, draw, entice, or evoke ‘restricted classes’ of reactions from persons with whom we interact, especially from significant others” (p. 198). The complementarity principle can be used to predict people’s reactions to the other person involved in the communication, in the case of this study, interactions and communications between teachers and students. For the communion dimension, complementarity would include reactions that are similar (friendly met with friendly or anger with anger), whereas, on the agency dimension, the expected behaviour would be the opposite (dominance met with submission) (Wubbels, Brekelmans, den Brok, Levy, et al., 2012). Micro-level interactions, such as moment-to-moment teacher-student interactions serve to shape macro-level outcomes, including TSRs (Wubbels, Brekelmans, den Brok, Levy, et al., 2012). Conversely, macro-level factors can be reflexively related to moment-to-moment interactions. In this way, macro-level factors serve as both outcomes of previous processes and as constraints for subsequent processes (Wubbels, Brekelmans, den Brok, Levy, et al., 2012).

The Pennings and Hollenstein (2020) research on moment-to-moment interactions and their impact on students’ perceptions of their teacher’s interpersonal style, found the attractors in teacher-student interactions indicated a pattern of interpersonal complementarity. However, some of the non-complementary attractors in their results were due to teachers remaining agentic and friendly in the face of dissatisfied or confrontational students. This study also identified that although teachers with a less preferred interpersonal style showed more variation in their behaviour, the students’ reactions to that behaviour remained predictable. The Pennings and Hollenstein (2020) research concluded that although there is a lot of changes and many different behaviours exhibited within teacher-student interactions, they still follow a predictable pattern.

Contemporary Literature and the SQLR


A review of contemporary literature was undertaken employing SQLR methodology as prescribed by Pickering and Byrne (2014). The benefit of this method of literature review over that of a narrative method is that “this type of review is systematic because the methods used to survey the literature, and then select papers to include, are explicit and reproducible” (Pickering & Byrne, 2014, p. 10). This serves to quantify the themes within the relevant literature “but not extend too far into less-pertinent fields” (Pickering & Byrne, 2014, p. 543). This methodology is becoming increasingly popular in education research. Recent SOBAS studies, including those by Pendergast et al. (2020) and Greenwood and Kelly (2019), demonstrate the strength of the methodology through a purposeful and systematic selection of literature to answer research questions pertaining to belonging in pre-service teachers and how teachers create a sense of belonging for their students. Additionally, SQLRs have been presented in education research examining varied phenomena including multi-age education by Ronksley-Pavia et al. (2019), school-university partnerships by Green et al. (2020), and NAPLAN discourses by Rose et al. (2020). The process undertaken in this SQLR is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Systematic Quantitative Literature Review process


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Through the exploration of the framing literature, the missing intersections between the three phenomena were uncovered. For this SQLR, an initial search of the three combined phenomena yielded no usable research papers using the terms: (teacher AND student AND interaction*) AND (“school belonging” OR “sense of belonging at school”) AND (“high school” OR “secondary school”) AND “interpersonal theory”. Within the framing literature, numerous studies linked the phenomena of TSRs and SOBAS (Duffy & Elwood, 2013; Eccles & Roeser, 2010; McLeod, 2018; Pendergast et al., 2018; Tillery et al., 2013) and likewise, TSRs were linked with Interpersonal Theory in multiple studies (Claessens et al., 2017; Horowitz & Strack, 2011; Pennings & Hollenstein, 2020; Wubbels, Brekelmans, den Brok, Levy, et al., 2012). The intersections of the research, as illuminated by the review of the framing literature, provide a justification for this SQLR to be conducted in two parts: between TSRs and SOBAS, and between TSRs and Interpersonal Theory, as the combination of the three phenomena (TSR, SOBAS, and Interpersonal Theory) is still absent in the contemporary literature.

To review the contemporary research, searches were conducted across five databases: Griffith University Library, Informit, Sage, Taylor & Francis, and ProQuest. The searches were carried out in September 2021, and the date range of January 2016 to September 2021 was specified to ensure the most recent relevant studies were identified. After screening, based upon the inclusion and exclusion parameters listed in Table 1, 26 papers remained for analysis for TSRs and SOBAS search, and six papers remained for TSRs and Interpersonal Theory search.


Geographical distribution, participants, and methodologies

Of the 26 TSR and SOBAS studies presented in Table 2, and six TSR and Interpersonal Theory studies presented in Table 3, there were trends in geographical location, number and type of participants, and methodologies utilised.

Background pattern

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SOBAS research in the past five years has predominantly been conducted in North America (n=66), however, excluding the meta-analysis by Korpershoek et al. (2020), there are only nine remaining studies in North America. The majority of studies on TSR and SOBAS occurred in Europe (n=18), Australia (n=12) and Asia (n=11) (see Table 4). Similarly, the contemporary TSR and Interpersonal studies are primarily based in Europe with the Netherlands (n=5) being a hub for contemporary Interpersonal Theory research (see Table 5).

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The studies included a range of participants such as students, teachers, and administration personnel. In the TSR and SOBAS literature, there were six studies that utilised standardised testing instruments, longitudinal data, or meta-analysis to inform their research (see Table 6). There were no studies in the TSR and Interpersonal Theory literature that utilised standardised testing instruments, longitudinal data, or meta-analysis.

The research methodologies for each of the two focus areas (see Table 2, Table 3, and Table 7) reveal a mixture of qualitative, quantitative, mixed methods, and case studies. Within the TSR and SOBAS studies, 14 out of 26 studies are quantitative (53.8%) whereas only 2 out of 6 (33%) of the TSR and Interpersonal Theory studies share this methodology. Qualitative research design as represented through both purely qualitative as well as mixed-methods methodologies represents a significantly higher proportion of the total TSR and Interpersonal Theory studies (n=6) than the TSR and SOBAS studies (n=26).

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TSR and SOBAS Findings

The studies (n=26) reported mixed findings and linked TSRs and SOBAS to an assortment of variables. Fairness, along with achievement and engagement were recurrent themes in the contemporary literature examining how those variables enabled or inhibited TSRs and SOBAS in secondary school students.


A sense of fairness as it related to TSR and SOBAS was a focus (n=3) and the findings in each study revealed that students who experience fairness in their relationships with their peers and teachers experienced higher perception of their TSRs and felt a more significant SOBAS (Ahmadi et al., 2020; Bayram Özdemir & Özdemir, 2020; Burns et al., 2020). None of these studies provided a research-based definition for fairness. However, Ahmadi et al. (2020) referred to the Cambridge dictionary definition pointing to “the quality of treating people equally or in a way that is right or reasonable” (p. 472). In a longitudinal study of 829 Swedish students, fair and supportive relationships with teachers was positively correlated with school satisfaction and the level they valued achievement, and negatively correlated with the anticipation of failure (Bayram Özdemir & Özdemir, 2020). This study found that the majority of students (90%) who perceived their relationship with their teachers as having fairness at its core, will continue to either maintain this perspective or improve it over time. Additionally, forming positive TSRs with their teachers early in their secondary schooling conveys the message that they are valued and cared for and this in turn has positive effects on their SOBAS and thus increases their academic performance(Bayram Özdemir & Özdemir, 2020).

In an analysis of the 2015 PISA data, a sense of teacher unfairness was demonstrated to negatively impact achievement in reading, mathematics, and science for 210381 students in 7694 schools across 32 OECD countries (Burns et al., 2020). The analysis of this data was completed using multi-level modelling to disentangle student-level and school-level impacts. The findings show that the impact of teacher unfairness is identifiable at the student level and interventions should be targeted at individual relationships (microsystem); whereas SOBAS is measurable at a school level and interventions should focus on school systems and processes (Burns et al., 2020). Alternatively, the Ahmadi et al. (2020) study situated the sense of fairness and TSRs at the school level to explain the variance in school belonging. Their findings articulate fairness as positively associated with SOBAS and the positive impacts this relationship has on emotional stability, achievement, and school attendance for students.

Engagement and Achievement

Engagement and achievement were key focus variables within the TSR and SOBAS studies (n=11). Newmann et al. (1992, p. 12) define engagement in academic work as “the student’s psychological investment in and effort directed toward learning, understanding, or mastering the knowledge, skills, or crafts that academic work is intended to promote”. School engagement is a multidimensional construct and school engagement models typically include emotional, behavioural, and cognitive dimensions (Geng et al., 2020; Quin et al., 2017; Yusof et al., 2018). Keyes’s (2019) qualitative study with 31 grade 10 students uncovered strong links between TSR and classroom belonging. Teacher behaviours that encouraged positive relationships with and between students, along with pedagogy that encouraged student participation in the work, were found to be strong predictors of engagement and achievement in the classroom. Booker (2021) describes the value of acknowledging student’s developmental needs and the peer group by creating “a positive space for learning” (p. 79). Martin and Collie (2019) found that the more positive TSRs a student had, the more they were able to engage in school. These positive relationships served as a protective factor against any negative relational dynamics with other teachers. As with the literature on fairness, it has been found that there are class-level and school-level interventions that can occur to increase TSRs and student engagement. At the class level (microsystem), students need to be engaged in a curriculum that is seen as important, significant, and interesting, and delivered with pedagogical practices that support quality relational links between the teacher and the students (Cornell et al., 2016; Martin & Collie, 2019). At the school level (mesosystem), there is a need for systemic focus on consistency in discipline and training of teachers to ensure high-quality TSR and a positive school climate that promotes student engagement (Cornell et al., 2016; Martin & Collie, 2019). In the Yusof et al. (2018) study, students in Singapore reported the importance of positive TSRs in increasing their motivation, engaging in school, and consequently increasing their academic achievement. This finding is common across many of the studies, including Korpershoek et al.’s (2020) meta-analysis of 82 studies that reported strong TSRs related to SOBAS, student self-efficacy, and academic achievement. High-quality TSRs were found to support student engagement and academic outcomes in most of the studies, however, there were two notable differences. The Geng et al. (2020) study in China (n=628) and Quin et al. (2017) study in Australia (n=88) both utilised year 7 students, yet their findings were contradictory. The Geng et al. (2020) study in China reported findings contrary to their expectations, reporting TSRs could predict the cognitive aspects of student engagement, but not the behavioural or emotional engagement. Whereas the Quin et al. (2017) study reported teaching quality, and its affective elements of autonomy support, competence support, and relatedness support, did not make a significant contribution to the cognitive engagement of the students. Overall, however, the literature supports the view that high-quality TSRs increase SOBAS and student’s engagement and achievement. The Allen et al. (2018) meta-analysis of “individual and social level factors that influence school belonging” (p. 1) affirms this by reporting the importance of school-level support for improving TSRs to enhance students’ SOBAS that contributed to students’ academic success and enhanced wellbeing across 51 studies and over 67000 participants.

TSR and Interpersonal Theory Findings

There is a common theme threaded throughout the six studies in this part of the SQLR. Relationships between teachers and students are built upon moment-to-moment and daily interactions that occur between teacher and student, and it is those interactions that determine the quality of the ongoing relationship (Claessens et al., 2017; Mainhard et al., 2018; Pennings & Hollenstein, 2020).

It is notable that students adapted their behaviour based upon the behaviour of the teachers and attention to the micro-processes in classroom can benefit macro-level investigations of interpersonal relationships (Pennings et al., 2018). For example, it was observed that interactions between teacher and student agency and communion show that when teachers react without hostility, there is a reduction in dominant student behaviours. When a student is demonstrating dominant or hostile behaviours in the classroom, the teacher can de-escalate the situation by reacting with non-complementary behaviours such as remaining calm. It was also found that the response to preceding behaviours is not only driven by the actual behaviour, but also by the anticipated behaviour that has been established during previous interactions. The cyclical nature of interactions and previously established moment-to-moment teacher friendliness can prove beneficial in the classroom by acting as a preventative measure for disruptive students, which then allows for an easier continuation of teacher moment-to-moment friendliness (Pennings et al., 2018). In another study by Pennings and Hollenstein (2020) the predictableness of interactions was more evident in the classes of teachers who demonstrated a more preferred teaching style and who facilitated interactions in terms of attractors of dyadic behaviour and these interactions largely followed the principles of interpersonal complementarity. This finding is supported by another Pennings (2017) study that described the agency and communion levels of two early career teachers. Consistent with the principle of complementarity, the teacher with high agency (dominant) and communion (friendly) had students that were, on average, very friendly and quite submissive; and the teacher with negative agency (submissive) and communion (unfriendly) had students who were unfriendly and quite dominant.

Following on from Baumeister and Leary’s (1995) and Horowitz and Strack’s (2011) work, Mainhard et al. (2018) examined the effect of teacher-student interactions and the student’s perception of teacher agency and communion to explain variability in student emotion. The results of this study indicate high interpersonal teacher communion was associated with lower anxiety and higher enjoyment and although student emotion is not a specific feature of this review, anxiety and enjoyment are part of the suite of emotions that impact students’ SOBAS (Allen et al., 2018). The study yielded medium to large effects for students’ negative emotional outcomes when they had uncertain or aggressive teachers (relatively low levels of agency and communion) and repressive teachers (high agency and low communion) (Mainhard et al., 2018). This finding was also evident in the Sun et al. (2020) study where high communion had a greater impact than agency in supporting positive student emotions. These findings indicate that interpersonal teacher behaviour has the potential to impact student’s emotions and their SOBAS.

Summary and Implications

This systematic quantitative literature review reveals the gap in the research that addresses teacher-student relationships and how they impact students’ sense of belonging at school through the lens of Interpersonal Theory. There is comprehensive research that highlights the importance of positive teacher-student relationships. Goodenow (1993), Hargreaves (2000), and García-Moya et al. (2019) all identified the malleable nature of belonging during adolescence and note its susceptibility to both positive and negative influences. This highlights the importance that educators should place on ensuring positive social integration in school and within classes. This affirms the importance of assuring that schools and classrooms are characterised by positive relational behaviours that allow for complementarity, and that ensure that students have opportunities to maintain or enhance their sense of belonging. Booker (2021, p. 81) wrote the following: “the evidence provided in this study shows that teachers are the gatekeepers of belongingness. The choices they make to actively engage with students and build positive relationships determine the degree to which the learning environment will thrive”. Through intentional choices, teachers can create a sense of belonging for their students in ways that encourage engagement in the classroom and build a sense of warmth and community (Keyes, 2019; Pendergast et al., 2018; Quin et al., 2017). Additionally, school-wide interventions that promote student’s sense of belonging can promote student resilience (Aldridge et al., 2016; Sanders & Munford, 2016) and connection to the school community (Gindi & Paul-Binyamin, 2021; Greenwood & Kelly, 2019). At the intersection of the three phenomena examined here are the needs and wellbeing of students. For students to experience SOBAS, teachers can create an environment where learning can thrive, and student wellbeing is prioritised. This can be facilitated through moment-to-moment interactions that utilise both dimensions of Interpersonal Theory, Agency, and Communion, to build positive teacher-student relationships. In turn, this creates an optimal environment that promotes student’s sense of belonging at school, encourages active engagement in learning, and provides the best opportunity for success at school. This review has highlighted the gap in the literature and research and outlines the potential relatedness of the effect teacher-student relationships have on a student’s sense of belonging at school through the lens of Interpersonal Theory.


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