Whether you teach young children or adolescents, building relationships with students is one of your most important tasks as an educator. The role of a teacher in a child’s life goes so much deeper than simply teaching them about history and math; teachers are often their students’ cheerleaders, guardians, and confidantes.
The 2020s were unusual years for all of us, and may have been a traumatic one for some of your students. The relationship you build with your students is more important now than ever before. You can create a more effective learning environment and safer school community by using our guide to build relationships with students.
Why is Building Relationships With Students Important?
The benefits of building relationships with students are proven by scientific research. A strong student-teacher relationship alone isn’t enough to boost student achievement, but kids who report having positive relationships with their teachers generally do better academically than kids who report conflict in these relationships.
Specifically, researchers have found that strong student-teacher relationships:
- Improve student behavior and outcome
- Increase student motivation and engagement in learning
- Lead to less school avoidance
- Support children’s adjustment to school
- Helps children build essential social skills
- Are linked to higher reading achievement levels
These benefits are even more powerful for students with behavioral or emotional difficulties.
Building relationships with students can also make children more resilient against trauma.
Resilience is the term that psychologists use to describe how much a person is able to bounce back from difficult or traumatic events. Researchers have studied the phenomenon of resilience to find an answer to the question, “Why is it that some kids are able to bounce back from trauma while others go on to suffer long-term consequences like substance use and mental illness?”
What they’ve found is remarkable. Although there are several different factors that might contribute to making a child more resilient, research has consistently found that caring relationships, with at least one adult, are one of the top things that protect a child from the negative effects of trauma. Often, these caring relationships are found at the child’s school.
In other words, building strong relationships with your students could, quite literally, change the course of their lives 一 especially after the traumatic year that we’ve all been through.
How to Build Great Relationships With Students
Of course, building relationships with students is often easier said than done, and it usually takes a lot of commitment and hard work. So how do teachers build relationships with students? Strong relationships are often about the little things. Try one of these seven simple ways to build great relationships with your students this year.
Simply pausing, taking a mindful breath, and being present with the student in front of you can make a huge difference when it comes to building relationships.
To listen mindfully to a student who has something to share with you, try your best to be all there with what (and who) is in front of you. When you feel your mind start to fill with thoughts and worries, simply notice that you’re getting distracted, and gently return your awareness to your student. Be present with both your students’ words and actions as well as what emotions the conversation evokes inside of you.
Attend Extracurricular Events
Whenever you can, attend your students’ extracurricular events 一 whether it’s a debate team championship, a football game, or the school’s annual carnival. Of course, it won’t always be possible to attend every student’s extracurricular activities - you aren’t superhuman, after all - but try to make the effort as much as possible.
Seeing you at their events lets your students know that you care about them and are rooting for them as people, even outside of the classroom. It may also show you some strengths that your students have that aren’t as visible in the classroom setting; maybe the class clown is actually a fantastic team player, for example.
Remember the Details
Did your student have a quinceanera party this weekend? Or perhaps their parents are going through a divorce, or their pet just died? No matter how much you know (or don’t know) about what goes on in your students’ lives outside of school, remembering the details they do tell you can go a long way in making them feel seen.
A simple way to start letting your students know, from the moment they walk into your classroom, that you remember things about them is to remember their names. Taking the time to learn, pronounce, and remember students’ names lets them know that you respect them as individuals.
Affirm intention and Effort
Praising positive behaviors and good grades is a wonderful start. To build even deeper positive relationships with your students, try affirming intention and effort as well.
For example, let’s say one of your students never completes their homework. One day, they arrive with their homework mostly incomplete, but you can see that they started to work on the first assignment. Affirm the effort they made to address their homework at all.
You don’t need to shower the student with praise. Just affirm them for their real efforts; your words must be genuine. For example, you might say something like, “It must have taken quite a bit of motivation for you to take that homework out of your backpack and get started on it!” The recognition and genuine affirmation of the positive qualities, efforts, and intentions that you see in your students will show them that you’re on their side.
Talk About Their Interests
Connect with your students over their interests and hobbies, not just academics. Media like music and television shows, for example, are great ways to express interest in what your students are passionate about. Even spending one minute each day talking to a student about something they care about is an excellent way to build a solid relationship with them.
If you’re looking for a more direct and practical way to learn about your students’ interests, consider hosting a “show and tell” session; we’ll talk more about this in the next section.
Share Your Own Stories
Self-disclosure is always a tricky subject for those working with children. Of course, it isn’t ethical to air all of your personal problems for your students. However, young people like knowing about who you are outside of the classroom.
Take into account how much self-disclosure you’re comfortable with, and always make sure to follow ethical guidelines. But is there something about your personal life that you can share with your students? Can you share a picture of your pet, for example, or tell them (appropriate) stories about when you were their age? Sharing often goes both ways 一 and when your students feel like they know and trust you as a person, your relationships with them will get stronger.
3 Activities for Building Relationships With Your Students
If you’re looking for more specific guidance around activities for building relationships with students, we’ve got you covered. Here are 3 easy relationship-strengthening activities that require almost no extra funds or preparation time.
Show and Tell
This classic classroom bonding activity can be a great way to build relationships with students of all ages. Young children may like to bring an item (like a toy) from home to show their class, but older children may like to bring something more meaningful to them, like a photo of loved ones or a song that speaks to them.
A great way to use show and tell to build trust with your students is to participate yourself. Again, be careful with the ethical lines of self-disclosure; as long as it’s appropriate for a professional setting, however, your students may feel closer to you after you “show and tell” something meaningful from your life.
Small Lunch Groups
Some teachers use the first few weeks of the school year to invite small groups of students to have lunch with them. Of course, this means giving up your lunch hour, and it’s completely understandable if you want to protect that time for yourself.
However, if you’re willing to, inviting small groups of students to have lunch with you can create some space for more 1-on-1 time. Use this time to get to know the individuals that you teach 一 their interests, unique personalities, and their strengths.
Lastly, the practice of mindfulness has been found to greatly benefit relationships, and you can harness its power to improve your relationships with your students, too. As your students (and you!) become more mindful, they’ll be more able to express their emotions in healthy ways. This, in turn, will lead to relationships with less conflict overall.
To practice mindfulness in the classroom, try this simple exercise. Ask your students to find a comfortable seated position, and to place one hand on their bellies. If you teach younger children and are comfortable with some wiggles, you can ask your students to lie down on the floor and place a plush toy on their bellies.
Now, invite the class to breathe deeply into their bellies. Their hands (or their toys) should rise up as their bellies fill with air. Ask them to notice how they’re feeling. If they’re feeling awkward or tense, that’s okay. They simply need to notice. Adjust the length of this activity based on your students’ age. Afterward, you may like to have an open discussion with your students about how this mindfulness activity made them feel.