Teenagers who have poor relationships with their teachers are more likely to develop anxiety and depression than their classmates, new research reveals.
They are also more likely to misbehave in school and ultimately turn to delinquent behaviour, according to academics from Cambridge University. But schools tend to overlook the importance of the relationships.
Colleen McLaughlin and Barbie Clarke reviewed 133 academic papers, published largely within the past 15 years, to determine the impact of school on the mental health of pupils between the ages of 10 and 14.
They highlight the importance of relationships with classmates. "Friendship can replace the inadequacy, or lack, of family support," the researchers said.
"The ability to form friends, especially in school, appears to have a direct effect on how children cope with crisis, and their levels of wellbeing."
During adolescence, pupils often turn to close friends for comfort. Self-esteem inevitably improves when they have friends who they believe are willing to listen to them.
The researchers quote a 15-year-old's account of the role her friends played when her parents divorced. "These people ... understood what to do and how to do it, to make me happy," she said.
Large groups of friends also allow teenagers to experiment with different identities while retaining a sense of belonging.
But, the researchers point out, the importance of peer relationships is generally recognised by schools. "There are many initiatives, such as peer counselling, circles of friends and peer mentoring, that aim to harness the learning and social capacity of peers," they said. "It is the area of teacher-pupil relationships that has been neglected."
Pupils who believe that they are supported by their teachers are less prone to depression and low self-esteem than those who do not feel supported.
Academic achievement is often affected by pupils' relationships with individual teachers. This in turn affects confidence.
Many of the skills required for classroom success also play a part in pupils' well-being: persistence, problem-solving, feelings of competence and efficacy.
The researchers said: "Perhaps the best mental health intervention teachers can implement in middle schools is good teaching."
However, many adolescents report that their teachers do not provide necessary support. Teachers tend to be described in negative terms, and pupils often feel unmotivated and disengaged at school.
Disengaged pupils are more likely to be anxious or depressed, to misbehave in school, and to use drugs.
"Attachment to school is related to young people's behaviour ... and more widely to delinquent and criminal conduct," the researchers said. "The most important dimension is attachment to teachers."
By contrast, schools that focus on enhancing teacher-pupil relations tend to have higher standards of behaviour, and fewer problems during transition stages.
"Support enables adolescents to feel safe, and to feel that they belong," the researchers said.
"Young people struggling to explore adult relationships can depend on teachers to be more of an objective outsider.
"They learn about themselves and relationships, through relating to teachers. This perceived support is related to self-esteem and depressive feelings."
- Adolescents who have poor relationships with their teachers are more likely to be anxious and depressed than those who get on.
- They are also more likely to misbehave, and to turn to crime.
- A good relationship can help pupils to feel that they belong.
- Pupils who get on well with their teachers are more likely to do well academically, with positive effects on their self-esteem.
- Good friendships can compensate for inadequate family support, but they do not compensate for a lack of strong teacher-pupil relationships.