Relationship building is the single most important way you can impact a child’s life. So often, kids actually can’t learn from someone they can’t connect with. I’m also convinced that building a strong relationship with a kid or young adult diminishes a huge number of behavior challenges. Many times I worked with students who were “behavior problems” in the classes of several teachers. Those teachers would think I was crazy when I would say, “They worked great for me!” and I’d even invite them to come to see those students work in the resource room with me. Building that connection is the best proactive strategy to support learning and classroom management. It’s a no brainer.
It’s critical to work on building those relationships early, because it gets harder if a student acts out in a class first. At that point, so often the teacher and student are already not getting along. Resentment builds and fixing that relationship becomes more and more challenging. It can be done, but it starts with us as the adults. So, whether you are just starting the school year or in the middle of one, use these strategies to work on building and strengthening your bonds with each of your students.
1. Talk to them about non-school related subjects. Ask about the local fair in town, how the pizza at the new restaurant in town is, and even debate what the best phone is at the moment.
2. Let them teach you about their interests. Letting kids teach their teacher can be very empowering for them. A few years ago, I worked with an 8th grade boy who knew everything about dirt-biking. He taught me about dirt-bike races, customizing bikes, and where the local places to practice were. I will be the first to tell you that you will never see me on a dirt-bike, but that did not stop me from learning! I even picked out my would-be biking gear if I ever did race. In my past years as an educator, I’ve learned about everything from My Little Pony and makeup to robotics and basketball. Find out what each student is an expert in, and let them teach you.
3. Remember things about their lives. During a lesson, activity, discussion, or just interaction in the hall, bring up something that you remember about that student. During passing time, ask them how their team did during the game over the weekend. During afternoon homeroom, strike up a conversation about a students’ family or trip they are taking soon. These small gestures remind kids that you really know and care about them.
4. Share about your own life. This is one of the strongest ways to build connections early on. Share about your family, pets, vacations, and activities you do outside of school. My middle schoolers loved hearing about my dog, Nova. In fact, we had an ongoing joke that if you wanted to distract me from class, just bring up Nova. This really helps kids to see you as a real person. It’s important to keep boundaries, of course, but a balance can and should be done.
5. Engage in activities with them. If you are after school and see kids practicing basketball, run in and take a few shots. It’s fine if you’re not a basketball star. Kids won’t care about that. Instead, they will love that you joined in. Maybe they can even give you tips about playing. Check-in with students during art club or cheer on a student at the track and field meet. I know the educators are busy. Note that you don’t have to stay the whole time or dedicate yourself to leading one of these activities. Just stopping in and showing you care will help strengthen those relationships over time.
6. Tell hilarious (and even embarrassing) stories. Sharing funny stories helps you show vulnerability in front of your students. It shows you are a real person. The time my dog barked ferociously at a snowman on a walk. When I spent a lot of money on concert tickets only to stand directly behind a 6’5” man (note that I’m 4’11”). The time I slid completely into a mud pile from my arms all the way to my toes. These real-life stories are great to bring up when you need to get kids’ attention or shift the energy in the energy in the room. And trust me, kids will remember these!
7. Share inspirational stories from your life. I loved sharing with my learners that I was the first in my family to go to college and paid for it myself. I let them know that it was actually my 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Therrien, who told me that I could be the first in my family to get there, and she was right. I also loved sharing with my students about planning my trip to California, somewhere I’ve always dreamed of going. These stories help kids see you as a real person, but also remind kids that they, too, can achieve their goals and dreams.
8. Do crazy things. Don’t be afraid to do something different or wild in the classroom to get kids attention! Stand on a desk or chair while giving important directions, sing a song about a lesson, or . I’m pretty sure I embarrassed my middle schoolers with my songs, such “Write your name,” (to the tune of Destiny’s Child’s ‘Say My Name’) and “Who Let the Students Out,” (to the tune of ‘Who Let the Dogs Out’). Most importantly though, these experiences stood out for the kids. It’s fine if you’re not super comfortable going all out. Start with just one thing outside your comfort zone!
9. Use their interests in your lessons and activities. Sometimes this takes a little bit of planning but can go a long way! If you’re studying percentages in math, talk about the percentages of shots someone on a basketball team makes. If you’re learning about energy in science, discuss the energy used in a race car. There are so many options for this throughout the year.
10. Apologize when you mess up. Making mistakes does not make you a bad teacher. It happens to everyone – even the best and most seasoned educators. We do need to own up to our mistakes when we make them, though. Really apologize when you make a mistake. For whatever reason, sometimes adults don’t like to do this, but it truly goes a long way in building trust.
If you need more ideas, check out my store for lots of resources and freebies you can use with your learners right away. You might also want to read up on other blog posts I’ve written, including: