Interpersonal dynamics in teacher-student interactions and relationships

H.J.M. Pennings

Research output: ThesisDoctoral thesis 1 (Research UU / Graduation UU)


Many studies have demonstrated the crucial role of teacher-student relationships for the quality of teaching and learning. Teacher-student relationships are associated with student cognitive learning outcomes and motivation and with teachers’ well-being. As daily interactions in classrooms are the building blocks of teacher-student relationships, we explored how moment-to-moment teacher-student interactions are related to the teacher-student relationship. We added to the existing literature by (1) taking a two-sided approach to studying interactions through observing teacher behaviour as well as student behaviour, and (2) focussing on how partners respond to changes in one another’s behaviour on a moment-to-moment base (time-dependent interpersonal dynamics).
We examined three aspects of interactions, i.e., interpersonal content, interpersonal structure, and interpersonal adaptation, using insights from interpersonal theory, literature on mutual adaptation in social interaction, and complex dynamic systems theory.To study interpersonal content, we observed the degree of Agency (dominance vs. submission) and Communion (friendliness vs. unfriendliness) in teachers’ and students’ moment-to-moment interpersonal behaviours. To study structure, we analysed the predictableness of interactions and the presence of recurrent patterns. To study the adaptation of teachers’ and students’ interpersonal behaviours, we analysed how their behaviours fit together in terms of complementarity (i.e., oppositeness regarding Agency and sameness regarding Communion).
In three studies, we explored differences between classrooms regarding these aspects of teacher-student interactions, and how they are associated to the teacher-student relationship. We found cyclical patterns in teacher-student behaviour and interactions, and large variations in the degree of adaptation. We also found that the degree of Agency and Communion in teacher behaviour during 10 minutes of a single lesson (micro-level) is associated to how students perceive the relationship with their teacher (macro-level). Results showed that in classrooms where teachers have more preferable relationships with their students, interactions are more predictable. This probably is because predictable behaviour contributes to students perceiving their teacher as more reliable and orderly. In line with research in other fields, where the importance of complementarity for stable and healthy relationships was shown, we found that degree of complementarity, was higher in classrooms with more preferable relationships. In these classrooms, adaptation of teacher behaviour to the behaviour of their students and vice versa was more in accordance with professional standards for teacher behaviour and their interactions with students. In these classrooms teachers had higher levels of Agency and Communion and student Communion raised and their Agency decreased during the beginning of a lesson. Teachers were also more competent in refraining from hostility and subordinate behaviour in case of hostile, respectively dominant behaviour of their students at the beginning of a lesson.
In an additional study, we examined the association of the teacher-student relationship with teacher burnout in a longitudinal study over a period of five school years.The more Communion students perceived in their teachers’ interpersonal behavior the lower teachers’ feelings of burnout. When examining teachers’ individual trajectories across the five school years, we found that teachers experienced less burnout, when their Agency was higher in their class with a relatively negative relationship.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Utrecht University
  • Brekelmans, J.M.G., Primary supervisor
  • van Tartwijk, Jan, Primary supervisor
Thesis sponsors
Award date4 May 2017
Place of PublicationEnschede
Print ISBNs 978-94-028-0580-2
Publication statusPublished - 4 May 2017


  • Teacher-student relationships
  • interpersonal behaviour
  • joystick coding
  • time-series analysis
  • teacher burnout


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