The effect of teacher autonomy and teacher-student relationships on depression

The Effect of Teacher Autonomy and Student-Teacher Relationships on Depression

Jun 26 2022

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The prevalence of depression among adolescents and early adolescents in China has received more attention in recent years. Few studies have examined the influence of both autonomy and relatedness support combined as a protective and corrective effect on depression. The authors find the Chinese context a “strong testing ground for the universal importance of the combined impacts of autonomy and relatedness support on depression.” The authors examine the trends in depression in a 3-year longitudinal study investigating the impacts of teacher autonomy and support and teacher-student relationships on students’ depressive symptoms.

How teachers can help students

Some studies have shown that teacher autonomy support can act as a protective factor against student depression. In a teaching context, this means providing students with choice, providing rationale for tasks, showing respect and allowing the expression of negative effects. 

Again studies have indicated that positive teacher-student relationships act as a protective factor against student depressive symptoms, including enhancing students’ social competence. 

The Chinese education context is characterized by high-stakes testing and exam systems and more authoritative teaching styles. This highly competitive system has caused unique features of depression in Chinese students. Meta-analyses suggest that contrary to the gender differences reported in Western cultures for Chinese primary and middle school students there are no significant gender differences in the prevalence of depressive symptoms. The great value that Chinese culture places on interpersonal harmony also means that the quality of interpersonal relationships exerted a stronger impact on depressive symptoms in Chinese adolescents than in their western counterparts.

The importance of teacher autonomy support

This research is based on a 3-year longitudinal study. Data was collected as part of a large-scale educational assessment of all schools in the Mentou-gou School District, which is located in the western area of Beijing, China. In total, 1613 4th-grade students from 25 primary schools and 1397 7th-grade students from 14 middle schools were recruited during the baseline assessment in 2014. Tracking the same group of students, a second and third assessment was implemented in 2015 and 2016. “The results of this study revealed that for both the primary and middle school samples, teacher autonomy support and teacher–student relationships consistently buffered the students’ depressive symptoms over time.” These findings align with the conclusions from previous studies.

The importance of teacher-student relationships

Gender differences were only present in the primary school sample, with females having a lower initial score that increased significantly over time, compared to the male students whose scores declined over time. In middle school, depressive symptoms increased significantly with a similar rate of change regardless of gender, although females still maintained a higher baseline. The authors suggest that this is different from the Western cultural context (where female students were more likely to show a higher rate of increased depressive symptoms than their male peers) because of Chinese cultural influences. Female students who are more likely to follow and obey rules would receive more positive feedback from teachers and parents, and Chinese females typically academically outperform their male peers at this age, both of which could act as protective factors. 

Students who had higher socioeconomic backgrounds reported lower levels of depressive symptoms. This finding is consistent with current research. 

“The study confirmed the significant effects of teachers’ autonomous and supportive strategies on reducing students’ depressive symptoms in both primary and middle school.” In China, studies have found that interpersonal stress significantly predicted the depression levels of Chinese pupils. This implies that teacher-student relationships are an especially crucial factor in students’ development in a Chinese context, with a higher potential impact to offset students’ depressive symptoms.

Notable Quotes: 

“As indicated by this study, establishing a harmonious and autonomy-supportive school environment could benefit students in many ways and might reduce the potential risks of psychological problems. This implication is particularly meaningful in the schooling context, where the general teaching styles are less autonomy supportive.”

“Therefore, schools should provide teachers with training programmes regarding need-supportive teaching strategies and enhance teachers’ awareness of the importance of mental health.”

“To empower students with more autonomy, teachers could provide students with opportunities to express their thoughts and make choices, show concern for students’ negative emotions, and use noncontrolling language during instruction. In addition, teachers could improve students’ sense of relatedness by listening, expressing care, and being available during difficulties.”

Personal Takeaway:

This study serves as further research on the importance of positive student-teacher relationships and the benefits it has for teaching and learning as well as meeting a student’s developmental, emotional and academic needs. It also highlights the benefits of promoting student autonomy in the learning process. When students are given voice and choice they are more empowered, engaged, and connected to the learning environment, ultimately having positive impacts on both their academic and mental-wellbeing.

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Ayla Reau

Summarized Article:

Zhang, D., Jin, B., & Cui, Y. (2021). Do teacher autonomy support and teacher–student relationships influence students’ depression? A 3-year longitudinal study. School Mental Health: A Multidisciplinary Research and Practice Journal. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12310-021-09456-4

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