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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: Why It’s Important to Build Positive Relationships With Students

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 06, 2018 23 min read
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(This is the first post in a seven-part series)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are the best ways to build relationships with students?

The research is clear that having positive relationships between students and teachers are critical to the learning process - and that reflects most teachers’ experience. I know, for example, that the best classroom management advice I ever read was from Marvin Marshall, who wrote that before we deal with any kind of discipline issue we should reflect on one thing: Will what we plan to do bring us closer together or push us apart? This question, of course, does not mean we have to shy away from hard discussions.

This topic will be covered in a seven-part series. With that many contributors, I don’t have much to add to the discussion. However, I would encourage readers to explore two resources:

Previous posts that have appeared here on this issue can be found at Relationships in Schools.

I’ve collected additional materials, including related research, at The Best Resources On The Importance of Building Positive Relationships With Students.

Part One in this series is kicked-off with responses from Adeyemi Stembridge, Candace Hines, Jacki Glasper, Mary Beth Nicklaus, Valentina Gonzalez, and Julie Jee. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Adeyemi, Candace, Jacki and Mary Beth on my BAM! Radio Show. You can find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Response From Adeyemi Stembridge

Adeyemi Stembridge, PhD provides technical assistance for school improvement with a specific focus on equity. He works with districts around the country to identify root causes of achievement gaps and formulate pedagogy- and policy-based efforts to redress the underperformance of vulnerable student populations. Follow him on Twitter at @DrYemiS:

Equity can’t be said to be possible without the element of connection, and the connection that students feel to teachers and school spaces is an enormously important factor in our efforts to close the racial-/ethnic and class-based performance and achievement gaps that persist in American schools. Relationships matter because when students see themselves as connected to the learning community, they are much more likely to engage and self-regulate appropriately (Caprariello and Reis, 2014) which, by extension, means that they are more likely to feel connected to the content and concepts taught in school. Positive relationships reduce defensiveness toward failure and play a pivotal role in whether students view school as responsive to their needs.

Positive relationships are also conduits to identity. Where one is in relationship, one is more likely to feel validated and affirmed through connections to the people in the spaces where these relationships occur. When one feels in connection to the people and spaces, one begins to identify with them in terms of values, ethic, and beliefs. Where one identifies in these ways, one develops a sense of identity themselves, cognitively and emotionally; and where one has a sense of identity, one is most willing to invest themselves, thus maximizing the likelihood for success. As such, the purpose of relationships with students is always a function of a higher cause -and that is ultimately to support each student’s authentic relationship with learning. Here I briefly describe three strategies that can be scaled developmentally and also in terms of content.

Strategies to Support Relationships

Beyond merely helping students to improve in the mechanics and conventions of writing, one-to-one and small group Student Conferencing is a profound space for supporting students in finding their voice. To see oneself as a writer is liberating, and the coaching students receive in Student Conferencing can lead to insights that confirm the value of the students’ investment in their own growth. The most important thing to remember here is to not try to cover an entire piece in any one conference. Rather, focus in on some paragraph or even a sentence that the student agrees is especially significant in the overall purpose of the piece. Conferencing is less about mechanics and more about meaning. A favorite question of mine to ask in conferencing is: “What do you most want your reader to understand?” And then, “What is a key word(s) (or sentence) that we can build around to best communicate that most-important understanding?”

Reflection is an essential component of relationships because it is in the replaying of experiences that we arrive at shared understandings of the significance of our feelings. When students learn to effectively communicate what they are feeling, they gain an agency in their own learning that heightens their sense of academic identity. Their sense of agency makes it clearer how their choices contribute to their learning outcomes. I love these 40 Reflection Questions because they are categorized as backward-looking, forward-looking, inward looking, and outward looking. I’ve found that some of the richest reflections are uncovered through the use of video. There are several platforms that allow students to upload short reflection videos and share them with their teachers and other students. Many authentic relationships are forged when students have the opportunity to share with their teachers specifically what they were thinking and how they were able to leverage their agency in the interests of their learning; and a palpable sense of community is formed through opportunities to learn together, struggle together, and reflect together.

Assessments can also be fantastic opportunities to build relationships. The “Interview You” assessment asks students to document themselves - either in writing or on screen - asking and answering questions about what they have come to understand in the learning process. Both the design of the questions as well as the responses students provide are an exercise in critical thinking. The “Interview You” technique is a fun way to highlight students’ voice while determining the breadth and depth of their understandings.

With each of these strategies, it is essential to find an opportunity to coordinate a safe space where the teacher and student can think carefully together about the text(s) the student is creating. The best ways to build relationships are through efforts that convey a trustworthy sense of connection and understanding. When students feel validated in caring environments, they are better managers of their own engagement (behavioral, affective, and cognitive) and much more invested in their academic identities. These are necessary to support resilience and the behaviors associated with high performance in school.


Reis, H. T. (2014). Responsiveness: Affective interdependence in close relationships. In M. Mikulincer & P. R. Shaver (Eds.), Nature and development of social connections: From brain to group (pp. 255-271). Washington, D. C.: APA Press.

Response From Candace Hines

Candace Hines is an Elementary Educator and a Regional Presenter, training teachers across various districts in Tennessee. She also serves as a Collaborative for Student Success- Teacher Champion Fellow, and a Hope Street GroupTennessee Teacher Fellow; engaging her colleagues in providing classroom feedback to the Tennessee Department of Education on public education policy issues:

4 Quick Tips for Building Positive Relationships with Students

Do we focus enough on teaching new teachers about relationships with students or just instruction? Education specialist, James Comer said, “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship” (lecture, 1995). Staying up late to review curriculum and craft lessons, and then arriving at school early to set up is an equation that can sometimes equal investing less time into strategically fostering quality relationships with students. Consider these tips for improving connections and building positive relationships with students:

1. Freely make mistakes

“It’s okay, grownups make mistakes, too”. I will never forget staring into the shocked face of a Kindergartner and hearing her shaky voice reply, “They do?” Almost every student perked up in anticipation of my response. I was appalled by the number of students that were unaware that adults could be wrong. What we fail to consider is that always appearing to be perfect can be detrimental to our young learners. If our students never see us make mistakes; gracefully remaining flexible, they could develop an unhealthy view of success. They may also struggle with self-perception and constructive criticism.

2. Listen with your heart

Wow, I’ve been wondering what was going on with them! How did you get them to tell you that? These are statements that over the years, regardless of the setting, I have heard from inquiring adults. From parents, to counselors, to my fellow educators, I am often asked how I do it. I know I am not the only adult that knows what it’s like to have children randomly open up to you. However, because it has frequently occurred, I have had to ask myself why. After pondering my encounters, I realize that they all have one thing in common. Listening. No matter what is happening - lunch, recess, bus rides, dismissal, restroom breaks - I listen to my students with compassion.The dynamic between my students and I is one based on mutual trust, which helps me reach and teach them.

3. Foster intentional connections

I am very fortunate to have experience teaching in diverse learning environments. No matter the student, each one benefits from having positive relationships with educators and vice versa. Some may say that forming relationships should be organic. I beg to differ. It has been my experience that cultivating relationships should be intentional. As a tool, Trauma Informed PBS suggests that as educators we develop the 3-2-1 formula as a relationship building strategy. To implement this strategy, we must: Find out 3 things about the student, 2 interesting or unique things about the student and 1 question you still have about them.

4. Cultivate meaningful greetings

On the last day of school I was told by the parent of my most challenging student that she appreciated that I always verbalized and practiced, “Every day is a new day”. I intentionally greet my students with open arms and a smile each day. When necessary, before students enter the room, I mention to them that no matter what they have done, the previous day is over and “today” is a new start. I was pleasurably surprised when I read Dr. Justin Tarte explaining that his “most memorable teachers took the time to chat ... and gave him a clean slate the next day”. This warms my heart and inspires me to continue this practice. When speaking on this issue, fellow educator, Adam Faulkner believes that “Grace cultivates growth, it goes a long way in building trust between the student and teacher”.

Response From Jacki Glasper

Jacki Glasper has a 14-year background in education and has spent the majority of that time in the special education field. She has worked in all grade levels and has a passion for inclusive education that provides equitable outcomes for students. She has a Masters of Arts in Education and is currently a training specialist for Social & Emotional Learning in the Sacramento City Unified School District:

Culturally Responsive Ways to Build Relationships with Students

Relationships are the precursor to learning. It is something that I have believed since I began teaching 14 years ago. Initially, I developed relationships with students as part of my classroom management so that students would behave and allow me to teach.

As I grew as an educator, I realized that when my students liked and trusted me, they pushed themselves in their learning. In studying the pedagogy of culturally responsive teaching, I have learned that relationships have a direct impact on the brain and that without them learning can be difficult - especially for students that do not represent the dominant culture. By building relationships with students, we can leverage oxytocin in their brains to help them get into a relaxed and receptive state. This helps students access their prefrontal cortex and do higher order thinking and learning. Below are a few ways that you can be intentionally culturally responsive while developing relationships with students:

  1. Be Reflective of Your Mindset. Mindset is deeply influenced by our own cultural upbringings and directly impacts the engagement and learning of students because it influences the relationships that we are able to build with students. Reflect on how your cultural upbringing and experiences have influenced the way that you have designed your classroom and the expectations that you have set for students of varying cultural backgrounds. What was the neighborhood like that you grew up in? How did you feel growing up there? Do your instructional practices reflect your own cultural upbringing and make you feel safe or do they reflect your students and make them feel safe? What types of behaviors trigger you to have negative or positive responses?

  2. Intentionally Build Trust. Many students of culturally diverse backgrounds have had negative experiences in school and may be hesitant to engage in the classroom. Zaretta Hammond says that "... building trust is designed to help dependent learners avoid the stress and anxiety that comes with feeling lost and unsupported at school.” To be culturally responsive, we need to consistently build trust with students. We can do this by taking as little as two minutes out of our day to connect with a student on a personal level. Simply listening, remembering, and asking about key things in a student’s life can make a huge difference. Building trust is critical because brain science tells us the brain feels safest and relaxed when connected to others we trust to treat us well. Without trust, students may be unwilling to take risks with new learning.

  3. Make is Social. By organizing learning so that students rely on each other, we not only help to develop and maintain a safe and trusting learning environment, but we also build on diverse students’ communal orientation. The brain is a social organ that works and learns best when it has the opportunity to connect and interact with others. Creating social interactions in learning increases a student’s level of attention and engagement. Learning can be made more social by playing games or having community circles. Another great strategy is the 30/10/90 Process and Connect strategy - every 30 minutes, create opportunities for students to move at least 10 feet, and take 90 seconds to verbally process the learning with a peer.

James Comer could not have said it better when he said, “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.” Building relationships is as important, if not more important, than the content that we teach. We should not underestimate the power of relationships in education.

Much of the inspiration for this article comes from Zaretta Hammond’s book, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain.

Response From Mary Beth Nicklaus

Mary Beth Nicklaus enjoys inspiring vulnerable teens to become enthusiastic life-long readers, writers and learners. She is currently a secondary level school teacher and literacy specialist with Wisconsin Rapids Public Schools in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin:

Relationships with students occur inside and outside of your classroom. They grow from planned moments where you are engaged with your students in projects and activities. They blossom when you are observing and making mental notes of what is important to individual students and using it later to connect with them. Building relationships opens pathways to learning in our classroom mainly because it strengthens levels of trust.

Here are four ways to invest in student relationships:

1. Begin before students even get through the door. Stationing yourself outside the room instead of at the doorway creates all kinds of opportunities for interactions. You can observe students’ social lives as they navigate the halls and you can learn who their friends are and what they’re about in their social circles. Learning who students’ friends are and acknowledging their friends can be powerful. Greeting them as they pass your room to go to other classes or conversing with them as they are coming into your class is yet another deposit in the relationship account.

2. Consider using conferencing in your classroom. Use this as a time to ask students questions regarding how they feel about their progress in your class. Check in on how they are doing with their projects or assignments. Ask them about themselves and their opinions and record their answers. Take inventory on the different ways you can use one on one with students throughout the month in order to strengthen the teacher/student bond.

3. Create contact outside of the classroom. During one of your lunch periods, or lunch duty, greet or compliment students in front of their friends in the cafeteria. (Be sensitive about those who may be embarrassed by the attention.) Attend games or band, choral, or drama performances. If you can’t attend pay attention to the announcements or ask about scores and other information that you may be able to comment on during class. Show students you are interested in their lives outside of the classroom.

4. Read or tell stories. Students love to hear that you are a real live person outside of the classroom. They like to hear stories about your children, spouse or pets and other interests. They even like to hear about the meals you make for supper. They especially enjoy it if you ask them to talk or write about a time when... Reading stories or pieces of articles relevant to what you are teaching can have a similar effect in building students’ relationships with you.

Remember that every time you show students you like them and care about them, you foster communication and self-efficacy in their lives in and out of your classroom. Students will also form stronger relationships with each other. As they feel strengthened and respected in your interactions with them, they are likely to grow in respect for their peers, as well. A classroom where students care about each other is fertile ground for learning in all areas.

Response From Valentina Gonzalez

Valentina Gonzalez is currently a Professional Development Specialist for ELLs in Texas. She works with teachers of English learners to support language and literacy instruction. In addition to presenting, she writes a monthly blog for MiddleWeb focused on supporting ELs. She can be reached through her website elementaryenglishlanguagelearners.weebly.com or on Twitter @ValentinaESL:

Relationships are the cornerstone of all that we do with the people we interact with. The relationship we have with one another can make or break the outcome we are trying to reach. If our goal is to take our students from where they are academically and grow them at least a year, then the relationship we have with each one of them plays a critical role in the outcome of that reality. Will we be able to achieve success? Will they grow?

If we want success, investing in a relationship will have to come first. And it’s not hard, it just takes effort.

Getting to know each student individually as a person helps more than we will ever be able to measure. This type of knowledge of our students goes beyond the permanent record folder. When kids know that we are interested in them as people, they begin to care about the work that we do in school. There are a few specific times during the school day that are conducive to one on one student to teacher conversation.

  1. Greet students at the door

One way very easy and simple way to show we care is by greeting students at the door. This time together is super important because it sets the tone for the class period. A smile and, “Hello, how are you?” goes a long way. Kind eyes and, “Are you okay?” can mean a lot to a child who’s had a rough morning. For some of our kids, our classrooms and schools are the happiest places or safest places they come to each day. We don’t know what they are carrying in with them from the morning, but we do know that our first contact with them as they walk in can change the trajectory of the day. Saying their name, making a positive comment to them, greeting them at the door and acknowledging their presence can be the catalyst that changes the way they perceive the instruction for the remainder of the class period.

  1. Know their name

Names are part of our identity. Taking the time to know how our students want to be called and pronouncing names correctly let’s students know that we value their identity. That may mean asking students what their name is and asking them multiple times how to pronounce it. I like to write the pronunciation next to their name on my roll call that way I can practice saying it correctly. I tell students in advance that I’m learning, so please tell me if I say it wrong. I never want a student to feel like they have to change their name for my sake. Their name was given to them by their parents and has meaning. I work hard to value that.

  1. Build a community

One of the most basic needs is to feel valued and a part of something. Students want to feel like they are part of the classroom community. Creating a safe environment that fosters individuality while at the same time building a cohesive community is key to the success of an academically rich classroom. When students feel valued for who they are but also feel included as part of the group, greater gains are made in growth and learning. Some teachers have achieved this by including students in creating the “rules” for the classroom, having daily or weekly class meetings, practicing daily teacher lead read alouds, and grouping seating so that students are not in rows.

  1. Confer with students

Another perfect opportunity to build relationships with students one on one is when kids are reading, writing or working independently. This actually kills two birds with one stone. We build relationships and we can support the content instruction. Conferring with students can send students the message that we care about them, their success and growth, and that we won’t give up on them. While conferring I’ve found that it’s best to listen more than I talk. I ask open ended questions and not just academic but also related to their personal lives. This is when I find out about their passions, goals, family lives and much more.

At the beginning of the year, conferences with students are very casual. Sitting down beside each student while the others are reading or writing and just holding a conversation. Each conversation is different. I might need to ask a student how they would like to be called or how to pronounce their name. With other students, I may want to learn more about their hobbies or what their day looks like when they leave school. As the year progresses, the conferences become more and more academically inclined.

This time together solidifies our relationship and builds a common goal towards achievement, growth and success for each student. It’s a quick. Sometimes only five minutes per child, but it’s powerful.

  1. Watch your nonverbals

Often times it’s what we aren’t saying or our body language that speaks volumes to our students. They pick up on a lot more than we think. They crave our presence and attention and they deserve it. A smile and eye contact go a long way. A listening ear and a nod can change a heart.

If they think for a minute that we don’t value their time, they won’t value ours. This is even more true as kids get older in secondary school. Teaching is hard work. But it’s important work and our kids deserve the best. That’s why we do this, right?

Building relationships with students takes time and effort and can happen anywhere! Even in the halls of the building or at recess and lunch break. These time frames are usually more casual and allow for a lower anxiety atmosphere for students. We can use these opportunities to walk around and visit with our students. If they only see us as hallway monitors, disciplinarians, and lecturers, they will not be able to achieve maximum learning potential. It’s just not possible. We have to create an environment where they feel comfortable enough to take risks, spread their creative thoughts, and want to learn. In my mind I see this like a garden. If we provide the rich soil, enough sun light, bountiful water, and plenty of space, our plants and flowers will grow to maximum capacities. But if we forget to add the nutrients, the environment is too dark, it lacks water, and we crowd them then we could stifle their growth.

Response From Julie Jee

Julie Jee has been an English teacher at Arlington High School since 2001. She teaches 12 AP English Literature and Composition and sophomore English at the Regents level. Julie loves to read, run, take photos and spend time with her husband and three children:

Whether it’s through having conversations about sports, reflecting their identities in the literature they read, or starting discussions about future goals and dreams, getting to know your students and having ongoing dialogues with them is so important. Students care about many things, but they don’t often have the opportunity to share. Shifting the focus to students is vital. That builds community. Each student feels noticed. Think about what makes you, you. Personally, I see myself as a teacher, but also as a mother, a wife, a runner, a photographer, a reader and so much more. They live rich lives outside of your classroom. Bring that into your classroom.

In the beginning of the school year, I give my students a survey. Some of the questions are pretty basic, like asking about favorite books or TV shows. Some questions are more personal (Who are your heroes in real life?). The Proust Questionnaire has some great examples. It’s long, but I often ask my students to choose 5-10 questions and answer them at length. Their responses provide a foundation for me to build upon. The student who loves theater might also be a huge Marvel fan. Another student might be experimenting with different artistic mediums. You never know until you give them the opportunity to share.

Acknowledging the reality that adolescence is a stressful time also builds trust. I give my students opportunities to decompress throughout the year. I give my students stress balls and I ask them to write me short notes about how they’re feeling if I notice that they seem overwhelmed or preoccupied. The notes don’t have to be long. Sometimes they take only a minute or two to write. I’ll give them half an index card and ask them to tell me what’s on their mind. They are often stressed out throughout the school year, so small acts of kindness go a long way.

Thanks to Adeyemi, Candace, Jacki, Mary Beth, Valentina, and Julie for their contributions.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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Look for Part Two in a few days.

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