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  • Published October 25, 2018

“Children that need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving ways” – Russel Barkley

Research tells us that when children have at least one trusting adult in their lives, their well-being and overall resilience is elevated.  Since student relationships are pivotal in our work, we felt it was important to create some posts over the next few months around the science of what is involved in building these positive relationships.

As adults, it is important to remember that we can develop a set of tools that can positively impact the trajectory of a relationship with any child – especially when that child’s behavior may be difficult.  Testing boundaries in relationships is a child’s way of asking “can I trust you?” Additionally, children impacted by trauma or chronic stress have difficulty developing trust in others and with the larger world. The following are some universal and actionable strategies to consider when we are building relationships with students.

  • Are We Being Consistent Enough? – Predictability and consistency for children creates psychological safety which is central to trust. It’s important that we follow through with the expectations we have set up, both rewards and discipline. Additionally, children thrive on routines, which further builds predictability and consistency.  There are many resources geared towards building solid classroom routines including our own past post here and this recent article.
  • Do We Know Enough About Our Kids? – Relationship building can sometimes take a backseat to the hustle and bustle of our daily routines and schedules. Developing positive relationships requires effort and patience.  As much as possible, try and create opportunities to learn about your students and to build in quality 1:1 time for students that are struggling.  This article from Cult of Pedagogy suggests a 4-part system for getting to know your students that contains creative ways to learn what your students love and what is happening in their lives.
  • Are We Aware of Our Own Verbal and Nonverbal Communication Styles? – Eye contact, smiling, tone of voice and open body language all matter. Maintaining our own calm when dealing with challenging behavior effectively models the behavior we are trying to teach children, building credibility and trust.  If we find ourselves losing our tempers or yelling at students frequently, we have to consider the damage that does to the relationship. While we all have moments of frustration, it’s important to ask ourselves if there is a consistent pattern of interactions are getting in the way of building trusting relationships.
  • Are We Actually Listening to our kids? – One important way students feel ‘seen’ and ‘heard’ is having an adult validate their thoughts and feelings, especially when they are upset. Approaching students with “what happened” instead of “why did you that” opens up the conversation for the student to explain themselves without being defensive.  It allows us as adults to get the facts before reacting to the behaviors.
  • Have We Shared Our Own Stories? – There is tremendous power in storytelling, for stories of both success and struggle. Sharing our stories helps students make sense of their own experiences and could make a world of difference for a student struggling with a similar situation.
  • Are We Cultivating Joy? – Laughter is a universal language. Create opportunities to have fun with students. Experiencing positive emotions together helps to strengthen relationships and builds a buffer for the tough times.

This work is extremely complicated and there is not a “one size fits all” approach to reaching difficult students.  However, revisiting these strategies when you are struggling with a child can make all the difference.

With Trust,

Bob & Jennifer