Four Strategies for Building Relationships With Students

Building relationships with students sometimes takes a back seat to achieving passing test scores. That doesn’t have to be the case, according to this sixth-grade teacher.


With the push for accreditations and student test scores, many teachers are using every instructional minute for what they are intended for: instruction. However, maximizing academic time often comes at the cost of minimizing time spent building relationships. That doesn’t have to be the case. A little patience and a few adaptable strategies can help educators prioritize relationship building and effective instruction.

Here are four strategies I use to connect with students and to build stronger relationships.

Create student-defined rules of respect.

Teachers often have students help with classroom rules. It’s a wonderful idea used to empower students. I used it my first three years of teaching, but in reflecting, I had to analyze whether those rules ever really mattered to students. The answer was no, because the rules were not grounded in relationships. 

This year, my students sit in “colleague committees.” Each day begins with a conversation, the first of which was to define respect and disrespect. From our discussions, we jointly developed five “Rules of Respect.” The students led the discussion, and I served as the scribe. Now, each time a student shows signs of disrespect, I can reference the established rules.

Correct behaviors using I-messages.

Students often perceive corrections as criticisms. In those moments, teachers may not realize they have offended students. I once had a student say to me, “You’re always telling me what I’m doing.” When I wrote my reflection that night, as I often do, it made sense to me—and that something had to change. Instead of naming behaviors first, I decided I would personalize my feedback and explain my corrections with I-statements. Here are two examples of such feedback:

I’m sorry, Jaden, that your peers are choosing to talk while you’re talking and I can’t hear your ideas. I’ll wait because I want to hear what you have to say. 

I don’t like when you choose to use the words shut up because they sound disrespectful. We don’t use words like that to each other in this classroom because colleagues don’t speak that way to each other.

Both responses name a feeling first, name a behavior and explain why or how that behavior is inappropriate. I have found that students who feel respected show respect. 

Share mistakes and weaknesses often.

The second colleague conversation of the year asked the students to answer the question, “What are two of your weaknesses?” I modeled by sharing my painful experiences playing soccer and the effort that went into learning geography. I discouraged use of the word can’t, and students shared their insecurities with each other in small groups. We shared as a whole group as well. Almost half of my students admitted to struggling with reading. When I leveled them, I was excited—and overwhelmed—by the truths they had told. My students are now used to sharing their weaknesses and failures, which allows us to have real conversations without fear of embarrassment.

Survey your students to learn about interests and experiences.

I have life experiences unique from those of my students, and we often hold different worldviews. Regardless, my job is to relate to them. By halfway through the school year, my goal is to be able to answer the questions listed below about each of my students. I ask them in conversations, I listen to them talking to each other and I survey them. 

  • Where does the student live? Where does the student spend weekends?
  • Who does the student live with? Who does the student want to live with?
  • What does the student do after school?
  • Which subject does the student enjoy most?
  • What hobbies does the student enjoy or want to pursue?
  • Who does the student trust?
  • Name three academic strengths.
  • Name three academic goals.

I use the answers to these questions to determine how to approach students, how to connect with them and how to teach them effectively. Prioritizing getting to know my students shows them how much they matter and motivates them to learn. 

Most important, at the start of every school day, I remind myself of Jean Anouilh’s words: “Things are beautiful if you love them.” And that is my most effective strategy of all.

Coombs is a sixth-grade teacher for Fredericksburg City Schools

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