Student Engagement

Building Relationships With Students on Positive Words and High Expectations

By affirming students and maintaining high expectations, teachers can solidify good relationships.

January 3, 2024
AVI stock / iStock

“If we’re not building to improve, then we may be tearing down” is a concept I’ve heard from others in my fitness journey—the same applies to the realm of relationships.

In professional development, educators often hear that we must build relationships with students. Still, we’re not always shown how—which creates a disconnect between aspirational ideas and what actually happens in classrooms.

Not everyone initially knows how to build rapport and foster relationships with students. But everyone can learn some of the contributing factors and reflective strategies to help us get started. Relationship building requires a nuanced approach that educators can use to develop insights about the youth they serve. It starts with knowing them as both people and students.

A good place to start can be their academic needs alongside their intrinsic motivations like their goals, interests, and assets. Researcher John Hattie explains that teachers must see learning through the eyes of their learners. Doing so can improve how we interact and make instructional decisions.

Teachers can use three quick strategies to gain insights into students’ personalities and interests: observation, having informal conversations, and empathy mapping, which can help educators connect with students after gathering pertinent information about them in one simple visual.

Observation and informal conversations rely on curiously paying attention to what students say and do during classroom activities and breaks. An Edutopia article by educator Valentina Melnikova provides six more strategies for connecting with students.

Overcoming Challenges and Fostering Connections

In interacting with students, one universal approach won’t work for all, and neither does hoping for the best. In my coaching work with partner schools, I acknowledge the hurdles that many experience when trying to forge meaningful relationships with kids. Significant obstacles overwhelming educators may include time constraints, heavy workloads, and varying student academic needs to consider when planning lessons.

Careful attention to research and my own experiences lead me to conclude that building deep relationships with every learner may not always be possible. That shouldn’t deter us. Instead, we can focus on building our classroom culture and better choosing our words to build rapport and foster goodwill.

Moreover, as educators, we can learn to be intentional about exhibiting acceptance, unconditional positive regard, and kind words even when students do not reciprocate initially. Doing so may sow the seeds of relationship development. Here are two significant factors to consider:

The Impact of Expectations

We have to believe in our students’ potential to achieve! To drive this point, I often ask educators with whom I'm codesigning lessons the following: Can our unconscious expectations impact the performance of others? Psychology professor Bob Rosenthal experimented using lab rats to explore this phenomenon, shedding light on the influence of expectations.

Researchers in a controlled laboratory setting were given rats to run through a maze for a few weeks and record their progress. Despite the rats being identical, researchers were informed that certain rats were either “very smart” or “very unintelligent.”

These labels impacted how the experimenters interacted with the rats, which affected how they learned. In a story on This American Life, Rosenthal said, “We do know that handling rats and handling them more gently can actually increase the performance of rats.” Remarkably, the rats labeled “very smart” displayed better performance, highlighting how expectations impact learning and interactions.

Luckily, this marvelous effect isn’t limited to rats; it can extend to humans, too. Other researchers have found that positive expectations can positively affect students’ academic scores, teenagers’ behaviors, and even soldiers’ performance.

Here are two reflective prompts to help us consider how to best improve our expectations:

  1. Reflect on times when your expectations influenced how you interacted with students. What might have been the effect of these expectations on their learning or performance?
  2. Consider when someone’s positive expectations significantly impacted your engagement and learning outcomes. What can you do to replicate this effect for all your students?

The Impact of Words

Some research shows that talking kindly to plants may support their growth. If that’s true, imagine what kind words can do for kids—the words we choose matter because they have the potential to uplift and motivate students who need them. Teachers can leverage the goodwill that our positive words foster among students to build the rapport necessary to engage them in learning.

Research supports intentionally using positive words and affirmations to increase the motivation of students to confront challenging tasks. Other positive effects of affirmations include students’ enhanced mindsets about their intelligence, emotions and feelings, and problem-solving ability.

A video called “Students React to Hearing ‘I Believe in You’”—created by Community Independent School District in Nevada, Texas—exemplifies the immediate positive effects of speaking positivity, such as “I believe in you,” to learners across various ages. Please take a moment to watch it before proceeding. Notice how their faces change from frowns or blank expressions to smiles and appreciation. Many educators can’t avoid shedding a few tears when I play this video in our professional development sessions. I encourage you to try it with your staff—it doesn’t disappoint.

Rapper and singer-songwriter Lauryn Hill once said, “Don’t be a hard rock when you really are a gem!” Upon viewing the Community ISD video, what she means becomes evident. Youth (all people) are intended to be treated kindly and appreciated, but many experience negative messaging.

Take a moment to reflect on the words you choose when speaking to students.
Consider a student who may benefit from positivity and encouragement. Identify their exceptional qualities and actions that merit recognition. Consider how you could communicate your appreciation and support to uplift and nurture rapport and connection.

Special thanks to Corcoran Joint Unified School District Superintendent Eduardo Ochoa in Corcoran, California, for exposing me to the powerful research and video shared in this article.

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