Seedling in dirt signifying a growing teacher-student relationship.

How to Build Better Teacher-Student Relationships in Your Science Class

June 10, 2024 No Comments

Recently, there’s been a lot of discussion about the importance of building positive teacher-student relationships. But, there’s been considerably less discussion on HOW that should be done. And, the idea of relationship building isn’t a skill that most of us have seen modeled well during our own schooling.

In this post, I’ll talk about the importance of building relationships. But, I’ll also discuss some easy strategies to use in your classroom.

Why are positive teacher-student relationships important?

You’ve probably heard the advice “students don’t learn from people they don’t like”. While this is true, it’s an oversimplification. In reality, the way a student interacts with a teacher actually affects the wait their brain functions.

An Overview of the Brain Science

The importance of these relationships has to do with the way our brain functions. In order to learn, students must be in a relative state of calm and safety. Safety allows higher order brain function to take place.

Quote with an ocean background.  "Students much be in a place of calm and safety in order for learning to occur."

In contrast, when a person perceives a threat, their brain functions in a very primitive way. The brain shuts down all parts that are not necessary for the flight-or-flight response. In other words, all of that person’s physical and intellectual resources go to keeping them safe.

There are two major reasons this matters in the classroom. First, social and physical threats are perceived in the same way by the brain. This means that negative social interactions with a teacher trigger the fight-or-flight response. When a student has a negative interaction with a teacher, it actually prevents learning.

On the other hand, positive relationships help to overcome this fear response. When students feel safe and welcome in your class, that experience releases cortisol. And, when cortisol is released, it enables learning.

Learn More About the Brain Science

There is a ton of great information available. But, my favorite resource is the book Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain by Zarreta L. Hammond. It’s a quick, easy to follow read packed with loads of information. To grab a copy, click here.

Easy Ways to Build Positive Teacher-Student Relationships

Creating positive student teacher relationships can be done during your regular class time. But, it will require some shifts in your thinking and communication. Here are a few of my favorite strategies.

Strategy #1: Assume Positive Intent

Generally, students want to do the right thing. But, they don’t always know what that looks like or HOW to do it. So, instead of presuming that student are misbehaving intentionally, assume the student needs clarify about procedures or expectations first.

Behavior is a form of communication.

Sometimes, students don’t behave in the expected manner. Instead, they get off task and sometimes take other students with them. It’s easy to get upset in this situation, especially in a room full of students.

But, when you approach the situation with curiosity, it helps alleviate some of the stress you are feeling. And, it can provide valuable insights that will help you improve learning and steer your relationship in a positive direction.

So, consider this question. “What is this behavior communicating?” Here are some things I try to ask myself:

  • Have I clearly taught the procedure or expectation?
  • Could I alleviate this issue by gently reminding the student what I’d like them to do?
  • Does this student need another type of support?

Sometimes, students simply need a break or a chance to move. Other times, there is a conflict happening with another teacher, a peer or a parent that is causing distress. From time to time, I have inadvertently done something that upset the student. But, I won’t know what is happening until I have a conversation with that student.

Reframing Your Redirects

When students are off task, it’s natural to redirect them. For example, when you walk by a student who hasn’t gotten started it’s natural to ask them what they are doing or ask them to get to work.

But, if we assume positive intent we assume that there is a barrier that is preventing students from working. So, to gain more insight we might say something like “Do you need help getting started?” This is a stated in a positive manner and offers the student help. The student is less likely to shut down because the teacher is approaching in a helpful manner.

Quiet and Non-verbal Redirection

Sometimes students are just off task and need to be redirected. When this happens, its best to redirect students using close proximity and a quiet reminder. Its never a good idea to call a student out in front of the class as that is likely to damage your relationship with the student. Even if you believe you have a strong relationship, or the ability to joke with a student, I highly recommend redirecting students as quietly as possible.

One strategy that I recently learned about is using non-verbal redirection cards. When this strategy is used, the teacher places a card on the students desk with a redirection. For example, if a student is talking during instruction, a teacher may place a card on their desk with a small emoji making a “shhhh” gesture. This strategy is effective because it can be done privately, requires the teacher to come into close proximity with the student and is less likely to end in a the student arguing about the direction.

To learn more about this strategy, check out Picture This.

Picture This! Visuals and Rubrics to Teach Procedures, Save Your Voice, and Love Your Students

This book will help you make your expectations incredibly clear through visual expectations, non-verbal redirection strategies and more.

Pros:
  • Helps make classroom expectations more clear without adding a ton to your task list
  • Ideas for redirecting students non-verbally
  • Tons of examples
Cons:
  • Some of the expectation included are outdated (ie. dress code)
We earn a commission if you make a purchase, at no additional cost to you.

Strategy #2: Consider your body language.

When I taught high school, most of my students were taller than me. But, when I shifted to a middle school classroom this was no longer the case. I assumed that my students would see me through a similar lens. Unfortunately, I was wrong.

After longer than I’d like to admit, I realized that I was often standing over these smaller students to talk to them. But, once I figured it out, it was an easy fix. Instead of leaning over, I crouched down or sat in the chair next to them. This helped me maintain eye contact without standing over them in a way they could consider intimidating.

Simple Twists on Using Proximity

When I was a new teacher, my administrator worked with me on using proximity as a way to redirect students non-verbally. This is a far better strategy than calling students out for unwanted behavior. But, if you are heading over to see a student, it’s a great opportunity to improve the relationship.

Here are a few things to try. First, drop a sticky-note with a positive message on a student desk. This only takes a minute and will make them feel special. Also, if you are walking over to a student anyway, use the time to check in. Ask them how their recent basketball game went or how their siblings are.

This reframes the scenario so students won’t be worried when you approach.

Strategy #3: Take a look at Your Ratio

Next time you teach, make note of the number of positive interactions to negative interactions. It’s recommended that you have about 4 positive interactions for every redirection. And, with students who are having difficulty in school or at home, that ratio should be higher.

Don’t worry if your ratio is out of whack. I know that my personal ratio varied from class to class and day to day. Instead, think about this as data. And, start moving in a more positive direction.

Caught You “Being Good”

When my daughter was in elementary school, the principal passed out “Caught You Being Good” tickets. It was a simple way to acknowledge students for doing the right thing.

I think about this often when I’m doing an observation in a classroom. The classrooms that are the most enjoyable are the ones that employ this same strategy. Teachers focus on positive student behaviors rather than redirecting negative ones. This doesn’t mean they always ignore negative interactions. But, when a teacher uses this approach, their ratio of negatives to positive is always much higher. And, students are more likely to show positive behaviors because they also want to be caught “being good”.

Re-Building Positive Teacher-Student Relationships

Sometimes, your relationship gets off on the wrong foot. Or, perhaps you have a really difficult class. Here are a few things I like to do to rebuild those relationships.

Survey your students.

I recommend that you survey your students regularly. For example, I would give my students a feedback survey once per quarter. But, if there is a negative dynamic in your room, a survey is a great place to start.

Usually, I like to ask students what is working and what’s not. And, I ask about what IS working in their other classes because I love stealing other teacher’s ideas.

These surveys give me valuable feedback and insights that I might not have otherwise realized. But, they require an open mind and a lot of vulnerability.

Try the 2 for 10 strategy.

If you are having a hard time with a particular student, the 2:10 strategy is one of my favorites. With this strategy, you select a single student to focus on. Then, everyday for the next 10 days, you spend 2 minutes talking to that student about something that isn’t academic.

More Resources For Building Positive Teacher-Student Relationships

Erin Sadler

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