I’ve heard it said that rules without relationships lead to rebellion. This sentiment has rung true many times in my classroom, and I always remind myself that even though I’m an adult, just like an adolescent, I can find it difficult to heed the direction and instruction of someone with whom I have no relationship.
We’ve trained children to be skeptical of strangers, but I’ve found that if we want them to be successful in our classrooms, we need to counter that with relational equity—building the value of the relationship between teacher and student over time. Students must know that their teachers are on their team and want the best for them, rather than think of them as authority figures waiting for them to make mistakes. When teachers show genuine interest in their students’ well-being, kids are quick to listen, trust, and learn.
Kids need food security, shelter, and safety in order to have a foundation to grow emotionally, academically, and personally. It’s a challenge for any kid to learn, much less thrive, if they’re worried about when they’ll have their next meal and who will provide it, where they will sleep, and if they are safe.
In the classroom, that security is found largely in their relationship with their teacher. It is vital for teachers to recognize that fostering supportive relationships with students is a fundamental part of a child’s educational experience.
Over time, I’ve discovered three strategies to build that all-important relational equity and leverage it to help my students thrive.
Disarm Students With Understanding
When students are underperforming, a busy and overworked teacher might not take the time to look into the reason why. But the breakthroughs happen when I prioritize engaging the student before jumping to conclusions.
Behaviorist B. F. Skinner theorized that most behaviors—good and bad—are the result of conditioning (rewards and punishment) and coined the term operant conditioning. Adults and kids alike learn how to act in order to achieve their desired outcome. Adolescents have often experienced operant conditioning subconsciously; they’ve learned which behaviors to avoid in order to escape negative consequences. They can become ashamed and reluctant to ask for help when they need it, even if their underperformance is the result of external factors they can’t control.
Students often expect teachers to react to underperformance with certain consequences, so when a teacher does the unexpected, like reacting with empathy, compassion, and understanding, the student becomes disarmed and vulnerable in a good way.
I’ve seen it again and again: When I confront a student about their performance in an empathic way and even surprise them with a smile, there is greater likelihood for a productive conversation. Instead of giving one-word answers and responding defensively, often the student relaxes their self-preserving posture and engages with me in a way that leads to solutions. They need to know that I’m there, not to scold but to support.
Problem-Solve in a Meaningful Way
Once I’ve empathetically identified and addressed the obstacle that a student is facing, such as not having a good place to study in their home, having poor Wi-Fi, or struggling to keep track of deadlines because of distractions at home, I focus on problem-solving.
Students tend to struggle with this skill, and using underachievement as an opportunity to practice problem-solving is highly productive. I start by brainstorming possible solutions to the root issue and then choose the solution that seems most realistic.
This year especially, a student might need help becoming efficient in their schoolwork, so they might need to learn how to use a calendar or specific interventions. Some of these issues can be solved through coaching and conversations, while others might require the teacher to widen the circle of support. For example, if the student needs better Wi-Fi, reach out to your administrators or district to find solutions. Responding in this way will help build the relational equity that is so valuable in our classrooms.
Nurture Students’ Self-Advocacy Skills
I’ve found that when I’m addressing issues in a student’s academic performance, it helps to see it as an opportunity to strengthen their self-advocacy tool kit. Successfully communicating with teachers is a learned skill, one that sets the stage for later self-advocacy with professors and supervisors—and students don’t always get the opportunity to deliberately practice that skill. While my students know that I’m willing to help, often they have no idea how to ask.
If a student is struggling in my class, odds are that they’re struggling in other classes as well. I use the conversation about my class as a catalyst to address performance in other classes. Often I help them write an email to their other teachers, and that leads them to be successful in those classes—and builds their confidence. I have seen tremendous improvement from students over the years when using this approach.
Helping students through underperformance requires sensitivity and authenticity. For me, it’s often meant setting aside the daily clerical demands of education and being deliberate about supporting my students’ welfare. When I prioritize the whole child, rather than just their academic performance, it can bring the child to life, in a sense. Some of my students who have struggled the most academically just needed one adult in their life to be their advocate.