The Power of Positive Relationships

The research is clear: humans are literally “hard-wired” with the desire and need to connect. We are social beings who thrive on healthy relationships. And yet, the importance of positive relationships in our schools is often overlooked.

Despite the proven connection between positive relationships and student achievement, some discount relationship building in middle grades and high schools as a bunch of “fluff” more appropriate for the elementary school.

For middle grades kids who are trying to gain some independence and figure out which way is up, relationships with classmates and teachers are crucial to success. I offer seven relationship-based strategies that can transform your classroom into a positive learning environment.

1. Be the CEO of your classroom.

Students look for reasons to respect and follow you. You must send the message from Day One that you are in control and worthy of their respect.

This message, however, should not convey an overbearing, authoritarian, inflexible approach. Striking the right balance between being approachable without being their friend is the challenge and art of teaching.

Communicate to your students your absolutes. Establish the boundaries and don’t move them. Because conflict is a part of growing up, they will test those lines. Be firm.

Still, keep rules to a minimum. Review and practice these rules the first weeks of school. Don’t make the false assumption that students know what you want from them. Simply stating rules and putting them on the wall is not sufficient. Discussing, practicing, and reinforcing your rules are crucial to ensuring all students thoroughly understand your expectations.

2. Embrace their individuality.

If we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that embracing students for who they are is likely one of the toughest challenges for educators. Young adolescents are trying to sort out who they are and how to “show up” in life; sagging pants or piercings don’t tell the whole story. You can give them a gift by embracing them for their individuality and uniqueness rather than giving in to stereotyping and judging.

At the beginning of the year, pass out a student profile form. Ask about hobbies, family, goals, dreams, talents, interests, likes, dislikes, and favorite things. Spend time reading these profiles and using the information to connect with your students in casual conversation.

Taking an interest in their lives, their quirks, and their desire to dance to their own beat is often the most powerful strategy you can use to open that door and reach a child.

3. Create a community within the classroom.

Help students get to know each other. The sooner you are able to help students realize that there are more similarities than differences among them, the more comfortable they will be in the class. You can do this in several ways.

  • Pair up students and give them three minutes to find as many similarities between themselves as possible, such as love baseball, play the guitar, been to Canada, have two brothers. Then combine pairs so four people are trying to find similarities in three minutes. When they realize how much they have in common, they’ll help you build a more productive learning environment.
  • Give students two or three minutes to share their life highlights with a partner, who then shares this information with the class. Reverse roles and do it again. This activity will quickly get everyone talking and learning something about everyone else.
  • Get a large 12-month wall calendar that you can write on with dry erase markers. Let students mark their birthday on the calendar. They will find even more similarities among themselves as they see who has birthdays close to theirs or are the same zodiac sign. You could even designate someone to compile a list of all birthdays that fall in each month of the year and come up with a unique way to celebrate each month’s birthdays.

4. Let them get to know a part of you.

Some educators really struggle with this concept because they fear familiarity might create a more undisciplined atmosphere in the classroom. The fact is, the more comfortable your students are with you, the more relaxed and receptive they will be.

Have students submit questions they would like to ask you about yourself. Designate time at the end of class on random days and just pull out questions and answer them. You can have a lot of fun with this, and it will help your students begin seeing you as a real person.

Another strategy is to share hobbies, favorite sports teams, pets, talents, books, movies, and music. I’ve known educators who brought in tomato plants and let their students help grow them, or who incorporated juggling or singing or their love of sports into lessons and dialogue.

One colleague met with several students before school and during lunch to work on guitar riffs together. One of those students told me that playing guitar with that teacher was the only thing that kept him coming to school.

Don’t be afraid to let your hair down and have a little F-U-N with your students.

5. Learn all students’ names within 48 hours.

Many students feel invisible as they walk down hallways and can literally go the entire day without talking to anyone. When you address your students by name, you are showing them respect. It sends the message that they are important enough for you to take the time to learn and use their names. Acknowledging an individual creates a connection.

After you learn their names, use them everywhere: in the class, in the hallway, and in the cafeteria. Some students will be shocked that you addressed them by their name after only two days, and it will have an impact.

Nicknames can be even more powerful because of the uniqueness to that individual. When I was 13, my middle school principal nicknamed me “Slim,” and years later, when I saw him in town, he still called me “Slim.” Even as an adult, that made me smile and I felt the same feeling that I did when I was 13: special.

6. Examine and improve nonverbal communication.

We all know how dreadful speeches and presentations can be when the speaker is unenthusiastic and disconnected from the audience. It’s all about effective communication.

Are you connecting with your students and presenting yourself and the material in a way that gives them a reason to get excited, to sit up and pay attention? Do your body language, voice inflection, volume, and facial expressions convey a sense of high energy, excitement, and relevance?

Do you smile at your students? I’ve worked with teachers who wouldn’t smile if you paid them. SMILE! It is welcoming, inviting, high energy. Students (and even more so, students from poverty) rely heavily on nonverbal communication and are always watching those around them for their nonverbal cues.

Ask a trusted colleague to observe you and take notes about your nonverbal communication for a class period. Honest assessment and feedback are crucial, and helpful to making positive changes. Or, set up a video camera in the back of the room, turn it on, and press record. When you review the tape, it will serve as a powerful reminder of those things you do that are surprising, distracting, repetitive, annoying, boring, or irritating. This one painful exercise can fast forward improvement in your nonverbal communication and your overall presentations.

We are all lifetime learners. You can’t improve if you don’t know what to work on. Be brave—take the plunge! Your students will thank you.

7. Treat all students with dignity and respect at all times.

What if all the teachers in your school embraced the concept that their classroom would be a Yell Free Zone? What if every administrator could say to every parent in the community, “My personal pledge to you is that your child will never be yelled at by any adult in this building”? How would that transform the culture and climate within the school? Within your classroom? Within the community?

As adults, we may be the only positive role models in many of our students’ lives. As frustrated as we get at times, we should never yell at or demean a student. When we incorporate good manners in our classrooms and maintain a consistent demeanor, we show respect and help our students understand and learn the power of positive, healthy interaction.

Sometimes we lose our temper, overreact, or respond negatively toward a student because of something that’s going on in our own lives. My plea to every educator is to maintain a personal routine of exercise and healthy nutrition to decrease stress, increase energy, and help maintain a positive attitude toward every student.

All About Relationships

Positive relationships truly have the ability and the power to unleash untapped potential in our students. While many teachers may not think they have the time to spend building relationships, I suggest that we don’t have the time not to. Relationships and instruction are not an either–or proposition, but are rather an incredible combination. Research tells us this combination will increase engagement, motivation, test scores, and grade point averages while decreasing absenteeism, dropout rates, and discipline issues.

Begin to unleash the power of positive relationships in your classroom.

Previously published in Middle Ground magazine, August 2010

Tara Brown, an AMLE member, is an educator, speaker, trainer, and author of Different Cultures—Common Ground: 85 Proven Strategies to Connect in the Classroom. E-mail: