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Positive student-teacher relationships: 8 Ways to build stronger connections in the classroom

Every teacher was once a student. When remembering those years on the other side of the teacher’s desk, we know that students don’t learn when they don’t like their teachers. Positive student-teacher relationships, as Rita Pierson reminds us, it's all about building an adequate learning environment where teachers raise students’ self-esteem and apologize when needed.

Student-teacher relationships have long-lasting implications for students’ academic and social development and contribute to higher achievement levels. When teachers choose to be guides instead of critics, students show trust, are more engaged in learning, and behave better in class.

However, building positive student-teacher relationships involves more than that. It requires meeting students’ emotional needs besides the academic ones. When teachers do their part, even when things are tough or they cannot resonate with every student, it has a visible impact on students’ academic performance, but it also reduces chronic absenteeism, promotes self-motivation, strengthens self-regulation, and improves goal-making skills.

In this way, students will feel more confident to share personal information, admit to needing help in class, approach teachers to seek help in situations such as bullying, and show lower levels of conflict and higher levels of independence.

The importance of positive student-teacher relationships

We cannot underestimate the importance of positive teacher-student relationships. Research shows that having a close relationship with students impacts them positively in being more cooperative, engaged and having higher achievements in math and reading. They also demonstrate better social skills. Other benefits include:

More resilient students

In their book Relationship, Responsibility, and Regulation: Trauma-Invested Practices for Fostering Resilient Learners, Pete Hall and Kristin Van Marter Souers state that teachers should promote relationships, accountability, and regulated behavior to shape a positive learning environment. Teachers play a key role in designing instruction and providing the right learning environment, considering that students learn better when interacting with others and that they should become autonomous learners with self-regulatory abilities.

Raising student achievement

Trying to compare the impact of many influences on student achievement, John Hattie reviewed over 800 meta-analysis covering approximately 80 million students His conclusion was that teachers who create positive student-teacher relationships are more likely to have students with above-average results. Hattie also underlines the student-teacher relationship variables that were among the most influential factors on student performance such as empathy, warmth, encouragement, authenticity, and respect for student backgrounds.

Modeling appropriate behavior

A negative teacher-student relationship is detrimental. This happens when we show signs of frustration, irritability, anger, making inappropriate comments, being in conflict with students, classroom management through harsh punitive control, bullying or sarcasm.

As a result, teacher behavior shows students what to consider acceptable and can trigger similar behavior from students. Therefore, teachers need to start by realizing their approach has a consequence. Teachers should start by not giving up on their students and taking action before negative behavior unfolds.

According to The Harvard Graduate School of Education, educators can learn the skills necessary to build strong relationships. These skills improve teacher-student relationships for the benefit of both parties. Besides the positive impact a good relationship has on students, it also leads to better teaching.

Eight ways to build stronger connections in the classroom

In order to understand how teachers can help create a positive relationship with their students, we need to decode the theories that explain student behavior:

  1. attachment theory - close teacher-student relationships offer a secure base. Students feel safe to ask questions and make mistakes while also having the ability to compensate for insecure parent-child attachment;
  2. social cognitive theory - teachers model and regulate student behavior through positive communication skills, feedback, and encouragement;
  3. self-esteem theory - focuses on students’ three main needs: competence, autonomy, and relatedness. If teachers offer the right environment, they become more motivated and engaged. Students need feedback to support their feelings of competence and help them become autonomous learners.

Based on these theories, teachers can understand their roles and apply in their classrooms the approach they feel is suitable for their students. Here is a list of things you can try with your students:

  1. Get to know your students

    Each student is unique. However, it is harder for teachers to have a strong positive relationship with every student. Therefore, we need to acknowledge every student and provide personalized lessons that suit their needs.

    Students need to be seen. Even the little things, such as remembering their names and finding out something about their personal lives will increase their level of self-confidence, validate them among peers, and ensure a trustworthy learning climate.

  2. Give meaningful feedback

    As mentioned above, teachers should model the behavior they want to see in their students. Feedback not backed by subsequent teacher behavior has a negative effect on student behavior.

    As a result, students will feel targeted and this will be detrimental to their academic and social performance. Moreover, students need to receive equal attention from their teachers. Focusing the attention only on “problematic” students will negatively impact all students since some will lack the necessary guidance and some will feel overanalyzed and unfairly criticized.

  3. Create a positive classroom climate

    A good learning environment starts with creating a positive classroom climate where students' needs are met. Whether it’s about allowing enough time to finish tasks, organizing fun activities, or providing social and emotional support, teachers are responsible for creating a safe space where students can make mistakes and evolve.

    Teachers can develop a trustworthy relationship with their students to help them thrive and reach their potential. To add to the positive learning climate, teachers must create a community of learners in which students learn from and support each other.

    Read more: Transforming our schools through empathy

  4. Be respectful and sensitive

    Students need to feel respected and valued. Showing consideration for their struggles will boost their self-esteem and even compensate for the attention and understanding they don’t receive at home.

    This is especially important for working with teenagers. Although they are more mature and can be made accountable for their actions, they often need more attention. Teenage students are usually experiencing an emotional rollercoaster and often feel misunderstood because they are supposed to be role models for younger students without the support they need to overcome their struggles. Teachers need to show respect toward their opinions, be sensitive in managing conflicts, help them understand what their feelings are, and try to provide the silver lining so they can go on to overcome their problems.

  5. Positive interaction

    The Center for Promoting Research to Practice names active supervision, circulating, scanning, encouraging, and providing choice as the steps to ensure a positive student-teacher relationship. When interacting with students, teachers need to be in the proximity of their students, actively getting involved in their learning process, constantly offering their support, encouraging them, and offering alternatives to demonstrate learning.

    Offering students a voice and choice will allow them to take agency over their learning and become autonomous learners capable of making choices that suit their needs to overcome challenges and reach goals.

    Read more: Giving students a V.O.I.C.E. in your classroom

  6. Consistency

    Students need to know they can count on their teachers to be there to meet their needs. It's vital to sustain a relationship in time with difficult students showing reliability and trust in the long run. This way, students feel confident, trust their teachers and the learning environment and display less defiant behavior. Consistency is important when it comes to attention, but also feedback. Students will spot discriminatory treatment and inequity, which triggers unwanted behavior.

  7. Effective communication

    Any relationship is based on communication. Having effective communication with students means less conflict, healthy boundaries, clear expectations, and fair consequences.

    Communicating clearly, regardless of the topic or the message, will have a positive result in the long run because it provides students with a socially adequate learning environment from which they can learn and apply social skills in their own relationships by re-enacting what they see in the classroom.

  8. Involve parents

    When we talk about students, we cannot overlook the important role their families play in their academic and emotional development. When possible, involving parents in building a positive relationship with students will demonstrate to students there is coherence between the education they receive at home and at school which strengthens the teacher-student-parent partnership.

    Read more: How edtech strengthens parental engagement in online learning

Creating positive student-teacher relationships

Teachers will always have to manage their relationships with their students carefully. Depending on how they approach this role, they can have positive or negative student-teacher relationships. Although teachers cannot make all students like them, they have to try their best to create a positive learning climate where students feel heard, understood, appreciated and supported. This strengthens their connection, all for the benefit of student academic and emotional development.