Approaching Trust and Control in Parental Relationships with Educational Institutions

Annika Schweizer, Sebastian Niedlich, Judith Adamczyk, Inka Bormann


Trust is a crucial factor in parent–teacher relationships. However, research on this subject to date has largely concentrated on a narrow range of theoretical perspectives and empirical methods. Most studies collect, analyze, and aggregate quantitative data on trust from a psychological or sociological perspective. The present paper starts by reflecting on previous research in brief and discussing its limitations with regard to a selected case: parents' relationships with educational institutions. On this basis, the paper aims to contribute to the scientific exploration of trust as a holistic phenomenon that encompasses explicit as well as implicit dimensions. In this context, we argue for a broader range of theoretical and empirical methods in research on the phenomenon of trust and its apparently tight entanglement with control in education settings. To this end, we focus on the one hand on the five distinctive facets of trust introduced by Tschannen-Moran and Hoy (2001): benevolence, reliability, competence, honesty, and openness. On the other hand, we refer to Möllering's understanding of trust and control as a duality (2005) where trust and control can go hand-in-hand instead of being understood as inherently conflicting phenomena. Because of this assumed duality, efforts to explain the relationship between trust and control need to be able to account for the complex interplay between the two on different levels of interactions between parents and schools. To demonstrate this point, this paper presents three studies using different methodological approaches: study 1 analyzes relationships between parents and educators in childcare centers, focusing on the collective relevance accorded to trust by educators. Applying the qualitative, reconstructive documentary method to the analysis of group discussions among educators and video-recorded parent–educator meetings, the study places particular emphasis on reconstructing the implicit knowledge underlying educators' implicit orientations toward parents. Its result show that, in contrast to the common rhetoric of partnership between childcare centers and parents, educators perceive and enact their relationships with parents in very different ways. Study 2 aims to shed light on how trust is shaped differently in various settings of interactions between parents and schools. To this end, a survey is being conducted using a vignette design which provides descriptions of eight forms of parent–school interactions followed by a number of questions corresponding to each of the five facets of trust. The study, which is still in its pilot phase, will thus provide insight about which facets of trust are triggered by the different forms of interaction and, consequently, how the relationship between trust and control is affected by these interactions. Similarly to study 1, study 3 uses a qualitative approach to the analysis of trust. In contrast to study 1, however, the focus of the episodic interviews lies in exploring different elements that shape parental perceptions of teachers' trustworthiness in the transitional phase from primary to secondary school. Using qualitative content analysis, the study remains open to new and unexpected aspects of trust and is thus able to provide a deeper understanding of trust and trustworthiness in parent–school relationships. The results reinforce the notion that parents' educational backgrounds play an important role with regard to trust and control, with higher-educated parents placing less trust in teachers and exercising a higher degree of control in order to ensure their children's educational success. We conclude that qualitative and context-sensitive approaches focusing on the implicit and behavioral dimensions of trust seem particularly promising for developing a more accurate understanding which shows how trust and control simultaneously refer to and create each other while remaining mutually distinctive. Through this example, the paper aims to show how researchers can avoid a one-dimensional or fragmented view based solely on either trust or control.

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parent–teacher relationship; trust; control; methodologies

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