Most agree: Strong, trusting relationships between students and teachers are the key to high-functioning, academically challenging classrooms. But according to high school Spanish teacher Natalie Lalagos, that’s only a fraction of the story.
To lay the groundwork for productive classroom discussions and truly fruitful group work, for example, teachers should think about relationships along four dimensions: teacher to individual student, teacher to whole class, student to student, and student to whole class.
It might start with simple adjustments that improve classroom cohesion more generally. A teacher’s identity, Lalagos suggests, should be known to the class, just as a student should feel “seen and known” by their teacher. Students, meanwhile, should develop bonds with each other, as well as a “sense of belonging” in the classroom community as a whole.
We’ve scoured our archives to highlight fun, quick, and easy-to-implement strategies that can (and should) be deployed daily, weekly, and even year-round to build and sustain strong classroom communities.
1. Morning meetings: The ubiquitous morning meeting, suitable for all ages, is simple to conduct and gives students and teachers a chance to reflect on the day ahead and recalibrate as they prepare to learn. The meetings can take many forms but tend to focus on prosocial greetings, reflection, and sharing: Tools like mood meters and strategies like roses and thorns allow students to convey how they’re feeling that day without oversharing. Integrating group activities into the first minutes of your lessons—relationship-building games, mindfulness activities like deep breathing, or even movement—can loosen kids up for learning while having fun in the process.
By establishing strong social connections, morning meetings can reduce classroom disruptions by up to 75 percent, according to a 2017 study.
2. Name tents/name toss: An easy and interesting way to tackle name pronunciation at the start of the year is to ask students to fold paper in half and create name tents, complete with the phonetic spelling of their name. Students can decorate the other side of these tents—with drawings or images that represent them, for example—so that teachers can glean valuable insights about their passions or identities, writes high school teacher Kati Begen.
To socialize pronunciations more broadly, Kristy Zamagni-Twomey recommends fun games. Arrange students in a circle, introduce a ball, and have each student pronounce their name before tossing the ball to another child (alternatively, you can have all students say “Hi, ____” before the ball is tossed). Or, you can give students blindfolds, have one student speak a simple greeting, and ask the blindfolded student to guess the name of the speaker. During the games, be sure to gently correct mispronunciations.
3. Get-to-know-you surveys: Use free tools like SurveyMonkey or Poll Everywhere to ask students questions that range from icebreakers like “What is the best gift you’ve ever received and why?” or “Who are you closest to in your family and why?” to more academically oriented questions, such as “What scares you most about this class?”
Because you can make responses anonymous to peers, “students will often reveal things that they wouldn’t otherwise,” says high school administrator Sean Cassel. The activity really bears fruit when you follow up with students, writes middle school teacher Lindsay Kervan: Pull a student aside and ask about the sibling they mentioned on the survey, for example, or integrate student interests in curricular materials.
4. All about me: Ask students to create a fun presentation including 10 facts about themselves: Encourage them to use media like video, photos, and music, Cassel writes. To model the activity, ease the pressure, and help students connect with you, make a presentation for yourself and go first.
Another spin on the activity? High school English teacher Larry Ferlazzo recommends “I Am” lists, which provide students with sentence starters they can complete, like “I am happy when ____,” “I hope to ____,” or “I am most scared when ____.”
5. Friendly Fridays: At the start of each week, a group of Elizabeth Peterson’s fourth graders pick a classmate’s name from a jar, keep the name a secret, and create a friendly art project—anything from a note to a card or a uniquely designed traced hand with a message on it—to present to the classmate on Friday. The final product is less important than the experience of doing something nice for a fellow classmate and promoting “kindness, friendship, reflection, and social awareness,” Peterson writes.
6. Gratitude walls: Dedicate a section of a wall for students to leave photos, sketches, or notes sharing whom they’re grateful for and why. Once a week, dedicate time for students to share out some of what has been put up on the wall. The activity, educator and author Lainie Rowell writes, helps students appreciate and value “the good in others.”
7. Identity portraits: This activity is really beginning to take off in the Edutopia community. To get to know her students better, and make their whole selves feel included and visible in her classroom, middle school teacher Shana V. White gives students crayons and colored pencils and asks them to draw an outline of their head and shoulders.
After drawing a line down the middle of their hand-drawn outline, they add skin tone, clothing, and other visible features on one side, and on the other side of the portrait they list words that describe their identity—their ethnic background, hobbies, or religion, for example. White says she hangs up the final portraits in her classroom so that students see them every day and “know that all those identities are accepted in this place.”
8. 5x5 assessment: Choose five students to think about for five minutes each day, suggests Todd Finley, a professor of English education at East Carolina University, in North Carolina. Dwell on questions like these: What have I noticed about them recently? What behavior patterns? What outside affinities, struggles, values, and goals have been revealed? After you’ve done this, interact with the students that same day and ask them a question that came up during your thinking—for instance, “Mike, a couple of days ago you were talking about your dad’s new job. How will that change things for you and your family?”
9. 2x10 strategy: A similar but more intensive approach to the 5x5 strategy, the 2x10, is especially useful for connecting with your most challenging students, according to Lori Desautels, an assistant professor at Butler University and former elementary school teacher.
For two minutes each day, 10 days in a row, have a personal conversation with a student about anything they’re interested in (as long as it’s G-rated). The strategy sounds simple, but its inventor, psychologist Raymond Wlodkowski, found that it can lead to an 85 percent improvement in one student’s behavior and improve the behavior of other students in your classroom too.
10. Greeting at the door: To get a quick pulse on how students are feeling and provide them with a jolt of encouragement before they take their seats, greet them individually at the door.
Kindergarten teacher Falon Turner starts her mornings by saying a student's name, making eye contact, and using a friendly greeting—like a high-five—to motivate students and gather important information about them. “Do they look escalated, do they look triggered, do they look upset?” High school teacher David Tow asks older students, “How are you doing?” when he greets them at the door. If he senses reluctance or evasion in the response, he makes a note and follows up with “Are you sure?”
11. Appreciation, apology, aha: During this closing activity, students stand in a big circle and one by one share an appreciation for another person in the room, an apology they’d like to offer, or an “aha” moment they experienced that day. “The whole purpose is just to have some space to reflect on our day,” according to high school teacher Aukeem Ballard, adding that “these types of appreciations and community recognitions can go a long way towards building bonds.”
12. Attendance check-in: Transform the drudgery of attendance into an easy, daily way to get students to open up, writes high school English teacher Jori Krulder.
Instead of having students say “Here” when their name is called, Krulder suggests giving them prompts that invite them to “have a voice, share a piece of themselves with peers, and build a culture of connectedness.” This can include using a mood meter to identify the color they’re feeling, sharing a word they’ve been dwelling on, or mentioning the last thing they read (a book or text message) that moved them in some way.
13. Assign seats (but change them often): Cicely Woodard recommends switching up seating assignments periodically—once a month or so. This gives students more opportunities to work together and “learn about each other,” Woodard writes. Apps like Random Name Picker and Smart Seat can make this simple to do. After each change, Woodard recommends making time for short icebreakers so that students can get to know each other a bit.
14. Show and tell: It’s old school, but it still works like a charm, according to Woodard. Starting at the beginning of the year, ask students to bring in something that represents them, their culture, or their passions. Plan to set aside five or 10 minutes each day for a few students to share what they brought until everyone in the class has participated.
15. Two-minute talks: Ask students to write down questions they’d like to discuss in small groups. High school English teacher Ashley Ingle says that these can be whimsical prompts like “Which restaurant serves the best pizza in town?” or “Would you rather be a dog or a cat?” Set aside two minutes at the beginning or end of class for students to discuss.
To mix things up, ask students to stand and find a random partner to discuss the questions with, using prompts like “Find someone wearing the same color shoes as you.”
16. Dialogue journals: Liz Galarza, a middle school writing teacher in New York, tells Cult of Pedagogy that exchanging short letters (three to five sentences) with individual students during the year can help you connect with them individually and improve their writing. She suggests using a simple notebook that teachers and students can pass back and forth. Initial entries can build off of surveys or other get-to-know-you activities. For example, “You wrote that you play basketball. Me too! Who is your favorite player?”
Galarza asks her students to write one letter a week and said she spends an hour writing back responses for one classroom—however, the timeline and frequency can be adjusted to fit your own needs.
17. Shout-out boxes: Set up a shoe box or something similar in the classroom, then provide paper and pens so that students can slip in shout-outs to their peers for things like good work in a group or even for saying something funny. At the end of the week, you can open up the box and read some (or all) of them out loud.
18. Class playlists: The shared love of an artist or a song can create instant connection. Ask students to write their songs on the board for consideration in a classroom playlist. Alternatively, turn the question of “What is your favorite song?” or “Who is your favorite artist?” into a group brainstorming activity first, which gives students the chance to bond over music on their own before they share their choices on an exit ticket.
19. Daily dedications: Build trust, community, and understanding with this short activity developed by high school humanities teacher Henry Seton. Each day, one student delivers a 30-to-60-second presentation dedicating their day’s learning to someone they admire or want to honor—whether it is a family member or a public or historical figure. Seton says the dedications are a “prized moment in the day, one that refocuses us, fosters community, and reignites our motivation.”
20. Gab and go: Split students into two groups and have them grab their chairs and make two long lines facing each other. Throw out a question to the room—it can be academic or conversational: “What’s the last show you binged?” or “Tell me what you really think of the novel we’re reading.” Have the students talk with the person sitting across from them, speed-dating style, for 30 to 60 seconds. When time is up, everyone on one side scoots down a seat, a new prompt is provided, and the process is repeated.
21. Two truths and a lie: This game is a staple of get-to-know-you activities for a reason, writes high school English teacher Kimberly Hellerich. Have students write two truths and a lie about themselves that are all presented as facts. Have students sit in a circle or in groups, then take turns guessing which alleged fact is the lie before the student reveals the real answer. Follow-up questions should be encouraged. “Using this activity at the beginning of the school year establishes foundational connections for the whole year,” Hellerich writes.
22. Scavenger hunt: Instead of asking students to hunt for items, give them a sheet with a list of prompts like “Has been to the ocean” or “Has broken a bone,” and have them go around collecting names of classmates who’ve experienced those things. Ferlazzo encourages this activity at the start of the year, when students need to break the ice between each other.
23: Four square: Fold a piece of paper into four boxes, then title and number each box—for example, sections might be “family,” “favorite hobbies,” “places I’ve lived or visited,” and “an interesting thing about me you might not know.” After students fill out each box, split them into different partners to share their “box ones” with, and then again for “box two,” and so on. For the end of the year, Ferlazzo suggests switching up the categories. They could include things like “the most important thing I’ve learned this year” or “the biggest challenge I overcame in this class.”
We'd love this article to be an evolving document of best practices, so please use the comments to add any of your own favorite strategies to build relationships in the classroom. If we see something we love, we may well add it to the list!