Relationship Building with Students

Article by Katie Currens

One of the most challenging aspects of being an educator is building meaningful relationships with a new group of students every year. We become very attached to the kids as we get to know their families, likes, dislikes, and watch their academic growth. While we want to know about all of our students, some of these relationships come more naturally than others. So how can we connect with kids that we don’t seem to have any connections with? Having worked in many suburban and urban schools, I have found that there are many ways we really all are connected.

Family – Not all families look the same and allowing students a place to share their story creates a feeling of safety and comfort. I knew which of my students lived with two parents, a single parent, a grandparent, who had a parent incarcerated, who had siblings in the building and so on. Being able to ask about their weekend and put names with their story allowed kids to start the day knowing they were appreciated. I also was often able to have an easier time understanding why some students had difficult days on Monday (transitioning back from visiting a parent), or could have deeper conversations with the families on how I could support them with their needs while their child is in my room. This was a reciprocal relationship because I also shared details about my family. Together we felt more connected based on the knowledge of one another beyond the classroom. Students and their families know when they are truly respected and are likely to see you as a confidant when you engage in meaningful dialogue about their family.

Friends – Much like the family relationships, it’s always helpful to know who is friends with whom. Not only does this help understand your class dynamic, but also will allow for more personal dialogue about students’ social life. It’s no surprise that kids love spending time with friends, so why not allow them to open up to you about those relationships? Again, it can help you better understand your students and get to the bottom of things on those days they are clearly agitated over something.

Games – Games are one heck of a way to find out who your competitive students are! Whether it’s a round of Apples to Apples to build vocabulary, or creating a version of Jeopardy, kids always love to engage in a game. One of my most fond memories of elementary school was getting to play “Homeworkopoly.” My teacher had a bulletin board based on the classic Monopoly game with a variety of rewards you could earn as you roll the dice and travel around the board. Believe it or not, the most popular reward was getting to eat lunch with the teacher. I tried something like this when I was a teacher and again was amazed how many kids were determined to get to have lunch with the teacher. It was never seen as a punishment because they knew I was as excited as they were. We can all step away from the bickering in a staff lounge and engage in good old conversation with the kids. And of course we’d play Uno or another quick game once we finished our meal.

Sports – While I may not have always been able to make it to my students’ sporting events, I always made sure to ask. They always love sharing about the wins, the losses, and their big plays. Likewise, many students have recitals and plays that are one of their main motivators. Just as we have hobbies and interests, our kids do too. By engaging in the conversation about what they like or taking the time to celebrate their events we are showing that we know just how many talents they have.

Technology – How do you make a lot of elementary school kids laugh? Talk about taking a selfie. Seriously. They think we are ancient no matter how young you are, but there are some terms that will connect you with the younger generation. Likewise, if you casually mention social media in your conversations it can be a way of making them aware that you aren’t completely out of the loop. Believe it or not, kids often see you as “in the know” when you drop names of pop culture, and while they may giggle when you first mention it, you’ll be surprised how many kids suddenly become engaged. One of my favorite door decorations was titled “What are you Tweeting About?” and student would put sticky notes on the door as an exit slip. It was almost comical how much more engaged the kids became when they acted as though they were tweeting.

Sometimes we get bogged down by the idea of growth measures, assessments, and learning goals that we forget about beginning of the year basics. Taking time to get to know your students is going to set the stage in your classroom as a safe and caring environment. Don’t ever let yourself think that you are wasting time by talking about their families or interests. You’ll be saving a lot of time in the long run by building those trusting relationships with your students.

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