6 Ways to Build Strong Teacher-Student Relationships with SEL

Most of us remember a teacher who went above and beyond to engage us in learning. That teacher likely connected with us and made us excited to learn. 

As an educator, one of the strongest impressions you can make on students is how you make them feel. When students feel you care about them and want what is best for them, they are more likely to engage, work hard, and cooperate. 

The opposite is also true: When students lack strong, supportive relationships with their teachers it impacts their academic achievement, increases their likelihood to engage in disruptive behavior, and even factors into their decisions to drop out. 

One of the most effective ways to increase student engagement and achievement is by building strong relationships with your students. And strong relationships are more important than ever after a year when we’ve all felt disconnected and have been physically distant from one another. 

Here are six social and emotional learning (SEL) strategies to build strong teacher-student relationships.

1. Show students you care.

An unfortunate trend among students — especially among those who make the decision to drop out of school — is the belief that their teachers do not care about them. A first step in creating strong teacher-student relationships is to communicate your feelings in a way that gets through to students and lets them know you care about them. 

Here are a few ways to show students you care about them:

  • Be mindful of how you talk to students, especially in front of their peers. 
  • Make a list of your students and rank how well you think you know them. Make a point of learning more about the students who are at the bottom of your list — often these students can benefit the most from extra attention. 
  • Say hello and goodbye to each student every day. 
  • Ask students about their lives outside of school. Host regular morning meetings where you invite students to share about themselves or any problems they are having.
  • Listen to students and ask them questions to show you are interested in them. You can do this in class discussions, or through individual or small group meetings.  
  • Pay extra attention to students who display high emotions, disrupt class, or seem withdrawn.  

2. Develop mutual trust.  

Mutual trust is important in any relationship. With students, educators often need to take the lead in building trust. One way to start building trust is to share about your own life. You don’t have to get too personal, but telling students about yourself outside of school or sharing how you overcame an obstacle will help them see you as a real person, and they might feel like you value them because you opened up. 

Giving students opportunities to make choices can go a long way in building trust. As often as possible, offer students choices. This could be in their assignments, how they demonstrate specific skills or knowledge, setting class rules/consequences, etc. 

You can also build trust by asking students about the challenges and hardships they are facing and helping them take action to resolve or reduce those problems. For example, you might offer extra one-on-one support, direct students to needed resources (i.e. free school lunches or tutoring services), and/or connect students with counselors and social workers. 

Another way to build trust is to advocate for your students and consistently act in their best interests. This could mean sitting in on a disciplinary meeting to show support or collaborating with other educators on interventions like restorative justice circles. 

3. Consider students’ perspectives. 

Just as we teach students empathy and encourage them to consider the perspectives of others, try to put yourself in your students’ shoes to understand their experiences. Students may be dealing with hardships in their home or personal lives that you may not be aware of. Is the student bullying others because she was bullied? Is the student habitually late because he works to support his family? Is the student unable to concentrate in class because she doesn’t have enough money for food? Putting yourself in students’ shoes can help you understand the root cause of an issue or problem behavior so you can better address their needs. 

To help consider students’ perspectives, ask these questions: 

  • What might be going on outside the classroom that is causing the problematic behavior? 
  • How often does the student receive positive or negative feedback? 
  • Does it seem like the student believes you care about him or her? 
  • How does the student feel about you? 

The answers might surprise you! You also can try explicitly asking the student what he or she likes or dislikes about class, teachers, and the school environment. 

4. Practice constructive discipline.

Believe it or not, correcting behavior can be an opportunity to strengthen relationships with your students. The number one rule when it comes to discipline is to be respectful. Losing your temper and reacting with sarcasm, scolding, or anger can harm your relationship with a student. Instead, take a deep breath and administer a consequence that is fair and meaningful. Show that you respect and care for the student and communicate in a way that preserves the student’s dignity. 

Be mindful of equity in your discipline and corrective behavior. Research shows that students of color receive significantly higher rates of disciplinary action. Take steps to reduce unconscious bias and make sure all students are being treated fairly. Here is a quick tip sheet to help you begin this process. You can then dig deeper by watching our webinar, Promoting Educational Equity Through SEL Assessment

5. Offer words of encouragement.

Words of encouragement can go a long way in developing trust, mutual respect, and a strong teacher-student relationship. Consider this example from our webinar, Implementing and Sustaining SEL in Alternative Settings with New Visions AIM 1&2. In the webinar, a teacher shared a story about a student with a reputation for being a troublemaker. Every day the teacher would go out of her way to write an encouraging note for the student. One day she forgot her notepad, and the student came up to her, nearly in tears, asking where his note was. He said his mom was so proud of the notes and would post them on the refrigerator. The teacher realized that the notes meant a great deal to the student as well. The student started opening up to the teacher and respecting her rules. He also became less disruptive and would make an effort in her class.  

6. Get to know students’ families.

Introducing yourself to students’ parents or caregivers, if you have not already, can encourage effective communication and can be particularly helpful with students who disrupt class or seem withdrawn. Connecting with families can help build strong teacher-student relationships because your efforts show students that you care enough about them to take interest in their home and family lives. 

Additionally, when you are in close communication with students’ families, you can alert one another if something is going on with a student that should be addressed. If something is affecting the student at home, you can talk with the student, offer support, and connect the student to outside resources. 

Strong relationships are an important cornerstone of any SEL program and can improve student engagement and achievement. Take an active role in connecting with students to show them you care and are committed to their success. When students believe you care about them, they are more likely to enjoy school, perform well, and follow class rules and policies.

Learn more about how SEL programs and efforts to build strong relationships contribute to positive student outcomes. Contact us through the form below.

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