Classroom working alliance for students with disabilities : differences between special education and general education teachers and association with student engagement

McClelland, Amanda Marie
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Students with disabilities (SWD) are at risk for a multitude of negative outcomes including academic failure, behavioral difficulties, and incarceration (e.g., National Center for Learning Disabilities, 2014; Rudasill et al., 2010). Students work throughout their day with both special and general education teachers to support their school progress. Upon entering middle school, additional challenges come in terms of developmental changes as well as changes in the school setting/dynamic, which can be very difficult for students. Positive relationships with teachers may help mitigate some of the risks that these students face (e.g., Hamre & Pianta, 2001). Positive teacher-student relationships (TSR) have been defined as high ratings of closeness and low ratings of conflict and have been associated with increased academics, and engagement (Murray & Zvoch, 2011; Spilt et al., 2012). Students that are more engaged show increases in academic achievement, social skills, behavior, and school success for both SWD and typically-developing students. At the same time, some studies have used measures to extend TSR to include the collaboration between teachers and students, called alliance (e.g., Heath et al., 2007; Rogers et al., 2015). Studies have shown associations between alliance and engagement for SWD from first through sixth grade (Knowles, 2017). The present study extended current research to identify the following: (a) Do student ratings of their classroom working alliance with teachers differ between their special education and general education teachers? (b) Do student ratings of classroom engagement differ between their special education and general education teachers? (c) Are student ratings of classroom working alliance differentially associated with engagement for special education or general education teachers? (d) Are the magnitudes of the relations between student ratings of alliance and engagement different for special education and general education teachers? These questions were addressed by recruiting 20 SWD in middle schools. Individual sessions were held with student and they answered surveys about their special and general education teachers. Results showed that students had higher levels of alliance and engagement with their special education teacher than their general education teacher. Significant differences were found within Emotional Engagement. Findings from this study show that alliance and engagement are moderately associated for special education teachers, while large, significant associations were found for general education teachers. When examined there were small associations between teachers, though most were non-significant. A better understanding of how relationships work across different teachers could impact the way teachers work and interact with their students and work together within the classroom.