Last year, my school’s social and emotional learning staff distributed a survey to every student, asking how connected they felt at school. Eighty-four percent reported feeling connected to at least one adult. While this is a large majority, it still leaves a sizable proportion of kids who believe that they have no connection with teachers or other school staff.
How is that possible? Many of my colleagues go out of their way to engage kids, particularly those whom they perceive are disconnected from their peers. While I’m not sure why some students say they don’t have any adult contacts, or if they desire any, I’m aware that this isn’t a unique phenomenon in my school.
According to Search Institute, only 29 percent of middle school students reported having a great developmental relationship with their teachers. In the same study, barely one-third of middle school students strongly agreed with the statement, “Teachers really care about me,” and even worse, by high school, only 16 percent strongly agreed with the statement.
These troubling figures make one thing certain: Students need meaningful adult connections now more than ever. While every teacher does what works best for them, I’ve discovered four actionable strategies that help me connect with students more effectively.
1. Greet students at the door
I’m sometimes too busy in between bells and forget to go into the hallway to greet students as they enter my room, but I’ve tried to be more conscious about getting there early to say hello and maybe give a fist bump. Research shows that greeting students as they enter the classroom increases their sense of belonging and readiness to engage.
It’s an opportunity to get class started on a positive note and connect with each student—which we don’t often get once we begin our lessons. As I think about it, I also find that starting my classes at the door rather than behind my desk makes me happier and more energetic.
2. Discussion assessments
To differentiate how I evaluate student work, I designed an activity that was structured as a discussion. I discovered that the advantages of this exercise exceeded my expectations. Despite the fact that each discussion was only five minutes long, it allowed me to speak to each of my students individually, address them by name, and make eye contact.
I frequently use these discussion evaluations in class while other students are working on something else. I meet with individual students in an area of my classroom where we have one-on-one conversations. Although brief, they allow me to spend time with each student and get to know them in a manner that wouldn’t be possible if I merely read their work. These dialogues also allow me to provide immediate feedback and solicit students’ thoughts or concerns. Discussions help me create an open channel of communication that generates trust and rapport.
3. Attend student events
While attending student events does require you to spend some time outside of the school day making connections, it’s a tried-and-true approach for building relationships because it shows that you care about your students’ interests and achievements outside the classroom.
I always get such great feedback from my students whenever they see me at their sporting events, performances, and club activities. Attending these events will give you and your students something to talk about. Even if you can’t stay the entire time, showing up for even a portion of it can be a great way to demonstrate your interest in your students’ lives. In my experience, kids remember when you showed up for them, so while this may take some extra effort on your part, it can have a huge payoff.
4. Introduce yourself and call students by name
Every day, I walk down the halls and see kids I don’t know. I see students sitting alone, eating, or playing on their phones. This year, I've made a concerted effort to interact with those kids by just introducing myself to them.
A simple introduction enables kids who may feel like outsiders to know that you notice them. It only takes a minute, and you’ll be able to address that student by name the next time you see them. Learning a student’s name is an important first step in developing a personal connection with them and making them feel like they belong. It’s important to remember that a kid doesn’t actually need to be a student in our classrooms for us to create a connection with them.
A brief (and sincere) one-on-one interaction with a student in the hallway or in your classroom will most likely mean more to them than the entirety of your lesson that day. It might mean the difference between a good and a bad day for them. I sometimes have students stop by my room to talk, and it’s almost never about the curriculum.
For example, at the start of the year, I had a student tell me about a college to which they had applied. Recently, they found out they were admitted and rushed to tell me. Only a few minutes of conversation months ago made an impact. What may seem to be inconsequential to you may be truly significant to a student, and you may be their meaningful adult connection.