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Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

The ‘How’ of Building Deeper Relationships with Students

When students feel safe and supported in school, they can learn better. Here’s how to start making those connections.

October 14, 2021
A teacher and elementary school student speak at the teacher's desk
Dobrila Vignjevic / iStock

Building strong relationships with students is a vital part of the work educators do in schools, yet not every teacher enters the classroom having learned the nuts and bolts of how to develop and nurture teacher-student relationships, writes Gianna Cacciatore in Usable Knowledge.

But relationship-building is a skill we can all get better at, says Megan Marcus, a counselor and the founder of FuelEd, a nonprofit dedicated to teaching educators social and emotional skills. “Just one relationship with a caregiver throughout a lifespan can actually change the brain’s development, heal trauma, and promote learning,” Marcus tells Cacciatore. “Educators have the potential to utilize this power. Many do this organically—but we could do so much more if educators were equipped with the skills and self-awareness to systematically do this work.”

When teachers consistently prioritize building strong connections with students, research shows there’s a significant impact on kids’ long-term wellbeing as well as their ability to learn and stay engaged in schools. “Learning doesn’t happen without relationships,” writes Rebecca Alber, an instructor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education. “In the classroom, rules matter, but as many of us have learned after a few years teaching, relationships matter much more.”

Here are four ways to start building and nurturing authentic, strong relationships with students.

Develop Your “Empathic Listening” Skills

A natural response when a student is distressed is to immediately offer advice or reassurance, but that’s not always the most helpful or productive reaction. Instead, try slowing down and patiently “listening to what a student has to say and not responding. No reassuring, no offering advice. Just listening,” says Cacciatore. This can be hard to do, especially if you’re a problem-solver by nature, so take a breath and remind yourself that good listening isn’t necessarily about fixing anything or anyone. Ultimately, empathic listening builds trust: “Someone comes to you, they share their feelings, and instead of jumping in to problem-solve, you listen,” notes Marcus. “Now, not only is this person calmer and better able to solve their own problems, but they want to come back to you again, share more.”

Empathic listening also requires waiting until the person who’s speaking finishes and allowing ample space for pauses, writes neurologist and teacher Judy Willis. “Such pauses, which demonstrate your focus, may give the speaker the reassurance to reveal something they were reluctant to share,” says Willis. Remember to sustain eye contact and an engaged posture to signal that you’re actively listening rather than bored or distracted, she adds.

Carve Out Time for Small Talk

Small talk isn’t insignificant. Each Monday morning, middle school math teacher Cicely Woodard and her students form a check-in circle, pass a ball around, and take turns sharing how they’re feeling, offering compliments to classmates, or discussing what they did over the weekend. “Though it can seem like every minute is needed to get through the academic content, I’ve learned that a five-minute investment once a week to learn about each other is invaluable to my students and builds a better culture in my classroom,” writes Woodard.

But Woodard also connects with her students throughout the school day, finding a few moments prior to class to chat, for instance, or greeting students at the classroom door. “Because I’ve made myself approachable, some of my students will tell me stories about their lives during the five minutes between classes,” she writes. “I stop what I am doing, look them in the eyes, and listen. I love seeing their eyes light up as they tell me these stories, and these encounters always leave me a little more knowledgeable about who they are as people.”

Be Genuine, It’s OK to Show Vulnerability

Educators often feel pressured to maintain authority in the classroom and avoid expressing emotions or sharing personal details with students. But this can inadvertently put up a wall between teachers and students, ultimately hindering efforts to develop strong connections. The reality is that everyone experiences worries, anxiety, or frustration at times, and when teachers find opportunities to share their own feelings with students—in developmentally appropriate ways, of course—it helps normalize students’ own emotions and struggles.

“It starts with so much honesty and transparency with kids,” says Lindsey Minder, a second grade teacher. “It’s really easy to strive to be this idealized, always ready to go, elementary school teacher. And that’s not real, and that’s not human. My students connect most with me when they see that I also struggle, and I also have challenges.”

Showing vulnerability can be as simple as acknowledging imperfections or sharing a few personal tidbits, says instructional coach and educator Beth Pandolpho. Her students know, for example, that she “cried a lot in elementary school,” and that her big goal in middle school was to not cry at school, she writes. “There’s a chance for teachers to bridge the divide between the adults who seem to have all the answers and the students who are still figuring things out,” Pandolpho says. “When my students feel like they know me, they’re more actively engaged, seek my help outside of class, and are more receptive to my suggestions and ideas.”

Track Your Efforts

The many competing demands on educators’ time and attention can make the work of nurturing relationships feel overwhelming. That’s something educator Todd Finley decided to tackle. “Wouldn’t more students benefit if the [process] were less haphazard and unconscious?” writes Finley, a professor of English education at East Carolina University. “I decided to experiment with being deliberate and intensive in thinking about my students.”

Aiming to make his relationship-building efforts more systematic and intentional, Finley developed a 5x5 assessment time strategy. Each morning, he sets aside a short block of time—like when he’s driving to the gym—to think deeply about five students for about five minutes per child. During these minutes, he reflects on a set of guiding questions: what he noticed about the student recently, for example, and what this reveals about their struggles, values, and goals. Throughout the school day, he’ll use these reflections to start conversations with the focus students. “This can happen in the hall, or in class while I’m passing out papers—whenever it seems natural to do it,” he writes.

Plan for a bit of a learning curve with this strategy, Finley warns: “Don’t expect it to go perfectly at first. As with mindfulness, you’ll get better with consistent practice,” he writes. But the simple habit of consistent, systematic reflection “will build your capacity to notice, understand, and connect with students—competencies exhibited by transformational teachers that fortunately improve with practice.”

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