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7 Powerful Ways to Build Relationships with Students

Inside: Healthy relationships with students improve life for everyone involved. In order to be able to think and produce high-quality work, students first need to feel supported and valued. They need to have agency and confidence.

Some classroom management issues can make it challenging to build relationships with students. When students refuse to complete work, when small groups misuse productivity time, and when bullying rears its ugly head, it can be tempting to throw in the towel.

Except, the concept of classroom management is beginning to evolve. Instead of thinking of management as actions teachers take do after a student behavior, we can view it it as a way to build a culture of respect…a community of learners. When students and teachers have a mutual trust and respect, fewer classroom management issues surface.

So, how can we cultivate those relationships?

Get to know students as learners…and as people.

It’s no surprise that having regular conversations with students is one way to build their trust. Students need to see we care about who they are, not just what they produce on paper. Teachers can talk with students during independent or group work time, before or after class. We can also talk with students in written format, like through dialogue journals or conversation calendars (Tovani 2011).

Building in flexibility to our class structure is really important for relationships with students. Do you have time to work with small groups? To ask students about what they did over the weekend? Could you use extra class time or designate a learning center to be a chat station where you can learn more about your class?

Give students a voice.

Teacher-student relationships improve when students feel their voice is heard. Are students off task because they don’t see the importance of the lesson? Is it because there isn’t enough choice or flexibility to cater to their interests or learning styles? Are they missing the relevance…the why?

It’s true that the teacher is the certified professional in the room, but students often have insights regarding how they learn best. We need to listen to them and ask for feedback regularly. Did this work? Did you like it? What did you learn? How could we make this better next time? Some answers will be profound…and others….won’t. But we still need to ask.

Use positive phone calls.

We can use positive phone calls to build confidence and respect. Many students have never had a teacher call a parent just to say something positive. Positive emails can work just as well. Letting students know that we see the good in them will encourage them to be productive and respectful during class. Here are some possible phone call scripts.

Create a support system.

Behaviors improve when students see that their teachers, coaches, parents, and administrators are all on the same team – students’ team. If students aren’t staying on task, if they are acting mean toward classmates, or if they are refusing to do work, inform all stakeholders. Let the student know that you want what is best for them.

At the beginning of the year, I’ve always found it helpful to send home a questionnaire. I love to hear what parents have to say about their child based on observations at home. This is where you can download my free editable parent survey template.

Use literature to spark discussions.

Books, short stories, nonfiction articles – these texts can all open doors of communication between teacher and student. Use questions inspired by themes or controversies in literature to lead students to a common understanding of which behaviors are respectful and which are not. Weaving in character-building picture books to spark analytical discussions is a fun approach. Confer with students about what they are reading!

Many teachers choose to have overarching themes for the school year. Trying to relate everything back to an important lesson or takeaway can be a powerful way to lead students toward respectful demeanors.

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Embrace awkwardness.

So maybe you’ve tried all of these things, but you’re still falling short of developing the type of relationship that results in mutual respect. Perhaps students are cheating on homework or tests or just having a bad attitude in general. Sometimes, we just need to ask students.

Tell them they won’t be in trouble and their grade will not suffer, but you just need to know. Why are they being dishonest? What is preventing them from using work time? Why are they treating classmates poorly? Is there something going on in class or at home that is causing a negative or disrespectful attitude? When we ask students these questions, we need to be prepared to analyze their responses objectively…to gain as much valuable information as possible from what they tell us. This means that we can’t respond defensively, and we can’t go back on our word.

Surprisingly, students will usually open up about their behavior and their thoughts if we ask them in a way that makes them feel safe and valued. Embrace the awkward conversations.


Students will let you into their worlds if they know you are cheering them on. When students do something – anything – well, praise them up and down. Of course, some students might prefer to receive this praise in private (after all, it can be embarrassing in front of friends).

We have to acknowledge that we all put up walls from time to time. Those walls are there to protect us. We have no idea what is happening in students’ lives unless they tell us, so our number one goal with building relationships is to knock those walls down. To do it, we need to build students’ confidence, point out their growth, and truly care about them.

A final thought: Document everything.

Efforts made to develop relationships with students need to be documented. It’s important that we record every effort we make to connect with and support a student. That way, if for some reason we aren’t successful at getting through to a student, we have evidence of what we have done that we can pass along to a response to intervention team.  I keep a Google doc open throughout the day that I can add to quickly. This way, I can also access it easily during meetings.

Documenting our conversations, intervention attempts, phone calls and emails, efforts to involve coaches, and assignment or assessment accommodations is a way to leave a trail that shows students we really care.  We are trying.

I’m a realist. I realize that teachers can lead a horse to water, but we can’t make it drink. Still, we can’t give up on a student. We have to try every possible method of guiding him or her to the stream. As one of my colleagues put it, we have to Maslow before we can Bloom.

When we take time to develop meaningful teacher-student relationships, we will inevitably see classroom management issues improve. Students will trust us and respect us. They will know we are on their team. In turn, they will want to work with us. Classroom management, although its use is becoming less popular, is not a negative concept when we think about in terms of leading students to behaviors that will help them be successful in life.

Need more ideas? Try these thoughts on building relationships from Language Arts Classroom.