A positive student-teacher relationship correlates to a child’s ability to learn, and it improves their behavior.
You might teach amazing lessons, but by developing positive relationships with students, your teaching efforts will be more successful.
“If you feel safe and loved, your brain becomes specialized in exploration, play, and cooperation; if you are frightened and unwanted, it specializes in managing feelings of fear and abandonment,” writes Dr. Bessel van der Kolk.
Add to that the long-term research from Harvard University (and many other researchers) showing that “Every child who winds up doing well has had at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive adult.”
Not every child has that at home.
But you can be that person at school.
How to Build Positive Student-Teacher Relationships
Research shows that children learn best in environments with a positive teacher relationship. You can build positive relationships by getting to know each of your students — discovering their interests and passions, their struggles and strengths.
1. Care About Your Students
“Kids know when a teacher cares about them. If you don’t really care about the kids, it’s not going to work,” explains Michelle Gallegos, teacher, author, presenter, and consultant, from Colorado.
If a student is disruptive, teacher and author Pernille Ripp first asks, “Are you okay?” This question shows her students that she sees them because she’s engaging with empathy instead of irritation.
2. Greet Your Students
Greet each student at the door with a friendly hello and eye contact. Gallegos says, “The first thing I do every morning is greet my kids as if they’re the only ones in the classroom. I say their name with a gentle tap on the shoulder. After I say good morning, I ask how they are doing and if they are ready to learn.”
Similarly, make sure you have an exit routine at the end of the day. Wrap up the day with a routine that allows reflection and goodbyes.
3. Use Their Names
Make sure you’re pronouncing every child’s name correctly. This shows respect and kindness.
Also, consider how you are using each child’s name — is it in anger or in kindness? “I never use their name for a behavior correction,” Gallegos says. “The only time I use a student’s name is for a positive. If a child is doing something across the room, the worst thing is to yell their name across the room.”
4. Show Equity
Show acceptance and value for each student. Equity means providing each student with the tools and support they need to be successful. Consider gender, culture, ethnicity, neurodivergence, socio-economic status, and sexual orientation because not everyone needs the same thing, but everyone needs something.
5. Believe In Them
When we don’t have high standards for students, it conveys the message that we don’t believe in them. “I show them I care by not lowering the bar with academics but by giving them the tools to get there,” emphasizes Gallegos. “It’s about growth.”
6. Connect With Them
Find relational opportunities to connect with students outside of the academic classroom, such as lunch groups, before-school breakfasts, or playground games.
New York teacher Rachael Wilde’s fifth-grade class has a circle check-in time on Monday mornings where everyone can share something. She finds this a valuable time to get to know her students and help them relate to each other.
7. Have One-on-One Conferences With Them
Regular reading and writing conferences allow for conversations that deepen your relationship with each student. You can assess a child’s strengths, provide an instructional moment, and build relationships.
8. Write To Them
Use dialogue journals to get to know each student. Dialogue journals are when a teacher and student write back and forth in the same journal. It’s one of my favorite ways to build relationships with students, especially at the beginning of the school year.
9. Share Your Experiences With Them
Share appropriate stories about your life. Wilde explains, “In teaching the writing skills, I embed a personal story in the lessons.” For example, Wilde uses a conflict with her son to teach students how to write from the perspective of someone else, which, beyond teaching the writing skill, also shares about her life.
10. Give Them Choices
Give choices for how students will learn or demonstrate that learning. Kids get motivated when they can choose, and choices build trust and autonomy.
Relationships are foundational for learning, including social-emotional learning and success in school and life, because learning is social and emotional. When children feel safe and trust their teacher, they will be ready to learn.