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The emotional bond between teacher and student is important for the functioning of students at school. But how teacher and student perceive the quality their mutual relationship, is partly shaped by cultural values. Mengdi Chen analysed teacher-student relationships in the Netherlands and China and how shyness played a role in this bond. She found interesting differences across countries. For example, Chinese students in upper elementary schools reported less conflict in their relations with teachers than Dutch children, but in early school years they reported more conflict. Wednesday 9 November she will defend her PhD thesis at the University of Amsterdam.

(photo: Shutterstock)

The emotional bond between teacher and student affects students’ school behavior and school results. Relationships characterized by warmth, open communication and support give students emotional security to comfortably explore the school environment and become well-adjusted in later life. High levels of conflict and dependency in the relationship do the opposite.

‘How students and teachers experience the relationship can depend on cultural values and differ from country to country’, says Mengdi Chen, child development and education researcher. To find out how these relations can differ from country to country Chen compared teacher-student relations in China, a country seen as more group-focused or collectivistic, versus the Netherlands, a country seen as more individualistic. ‘Teachers and students in China are believed to experience more closeness and dependency and less conflict in their mutual relationships than teachers and students in the Netherlands’, explains Chen. Chen also looked at the role of shyness, ‘generally deemed maladaptive in Western countries, but traditionally appreciated in Eastern.’

Mengdi Chen

Unconscious relationship perceptions

With questionnaires Chen measured teachers’ and students’ conscious perceptions of the relationship quality. For students, she furthermore used drawings to find out how they unconsciously experience the relationship. To look at relations in different educational stages, she conducted her study both in upper elementary school (third-to-sixth grade) and in the early school years (kindergarten and first grade).

The quality of teacher-student relationships differs across countries

Chen found interesting differences across countries regarding the perceived quality of mutual relations. In upper elementary schools, Chinese students reported less conflict in their relations with teachers than Dutch students. But in early school years, Chinese children reported less warmth and more conflict with teachers than Dutch children.

Looking at agreement about relationship quality, Chinese upper elementary teachers and students were more in agreement about the closeness they experienced than Dutch teachers and students. For the perceptions of conflict this was the other way around. At the early school level, there was no difference. ‘In early school years perceptions of closeness and conflict were equally in tune in China and the Netherlands.’

Shyness seems to be harmful in both countries

When zooming in on the role of shyness, Chen concludes that, unexpectedly, shyness maybe more harmful to teacher-student relationship quality in China than in the Netherlands. ‘Both in China and the Netherlands shyness was associated with less student-perceived closeness and more student-perceived conflict, but these associations were stronger in China.’ As a plausible explanation she mentions that shyness has been depreciated in China in recent decades due to the influence of globalization and Westernization.

Unconscious perceptions

And how do students unconsciously perceive the relation with their teacher? Chen found that the findings from conscious and unconscious perceptions of Chinese and Dutch students were in line regarding relational negativity. But regarding relational positivity they were not: Chinese students experienced more positivity in conscious perceptions than Dutch students, but they experienced equal levels of positivity in unconscious ones.  Unexpectedly, shyness did not influence students’ unconscious perception of the relationship, neither in the Dutch nor in the Chinese sample.

Be careful when using interventions across countries

Chen concludes that the quality of teacher-student relationships, as well as the associations between shyness and teacher-student relationships, can differ across countries. ‘The results suggest that these differences depend on whether teachers ór children report the relationship quality, and the developmental stage of the student. Caution is recommended when generalizing research findings and interventions based on one country to another.’

Thesis details

Mengdi Chen, ‘Spot the difference. A cross-cultural comparison of affective teacher-student relationship quality and associations with shyness between the Netherlands and China.’, promotor: Prof. dr. H.M.Y. Koomen, co-promotor: Dr. D.L. Roorda

Time and location

Wednesday 9 November, 10.00, Agnietenkapel, Amsterdam