Classroom Management Strategies: Build Relationships

You’ve heard it before and I’m going to say it again: success with classroom management can essentially be boiled down to your relationship with your students. If you have a good relationship, so they say, you’ll succeed in the classroom. If you’re not able to build a solid relationship with the students, then you’ll have trouble. I have a hard time unpacking this well respected tenet. Are you trying to tell me that if my kids like me I’ll have an easy time in the classroom? Or worse, are you saying that if I’m struggling it must mean that I don’t connect well with kids?

I’ve always gotten along quite well with my student in a one on one setting. Even in my darkest years, I think (the majority of) my student liked me as a person. I was a lifeguard, a babysitter, and a tutor before I became a teacher. I have always had strong relationships with kids, but behavior in my classroom was still in shambles. The “be nice to them and they’ll be nice to you” strategy was not pulling through for me. So what was I missing?

If you’ve been working with children for any number of years I think you’ll agree that there seems to be a spectrum of relationships between adults and children. I find that they tend to range from too close to too distant with a million other factors in between. Perhaps there is more to the advice. Perhaps a “good” relationship, one that translates to good behavior from the student, is a little more complex than it first appears. Let’s try to break it down.

Adults Do Not Expect Children to Meet Their Needs

This first one is probably the point I’m the most passionate about. You, as the adult, meet your own needs or you find another adult who can help you. Adults should never look to children to have their needs met. You don’t need children to cheer you up or encourage you. You don’t need a child to weigh in on a difficult decision you’re facing. And most importantly, you do not need children to validate you.

We’ve already discussed that in order to build the foundation for a positive classroom environment, you need to show up healthy. You are already a whole person, but your students are not. I think this one is a bit tough because many of us come into the field of education looking for something. Attention, perhaps? Our own little kingdom, or (dare I say) control? The chance to be the “coolest” person in the room? It’s not about you. It’s about the kids and making sure they get the best of what you have to offer everyday, so please leave your own insecurities and emotional baggage at the door.

Adults Set and Enforce Boundaries

As the adult in the relationship, part of your role is to define the limits of your relationship with students. The student will not yet be mature enough to know where to draw the line or what to do when someone crosses it. When you’re interacting with students you’re also teaching them what is acceptable. You’ll have to strike your own balance between lenience and strictness.

I’ll open myself up for criticism on this one by sharing with you my own personal limits and boundaries when it comes to interacting with students. You can, of course, determine your own. I don’t allow students to connect with me on any of my personal online accounts, but I do have a teacher Instagram where I’m friends with them. When they privately message me, I respond in daylight hours and in a way that I would be comfortable having published in the newspaper. I talk to my students about pop culture, but I remove myself from the conversation if I feel the topic is too closely related to drugs, alcohol, sex, or other adult topics. I don’t, however, scold my students for discussing these things with one another in private settings. I occasionally let a “bad word” slide in class, but I casually make it known that I didn’t wholeheartedly approve. My goal is to be friendly and approachable, but to clearly define what kind of friend I am. I’m not a peer, but I am a trustworthy and safe adult.

Adults Can Differentiate a Child from Their Behavior

A big part of your relationship with your students will come from their perception of how you perceive them. Despite knowing that our students are immature and often volatile, everyone is happiest when we don’t point that fact out. Our students want to know that we see their value and their importance. They are more than their behavior, and even with the worst kids its critical to let them see that you know that.

Find ways to interact with your students in settings that don’t require you to be the disciplinarian. Sit with them at lunch or let them join you in your room during a period off. Attend sporting events after school. I know this takes energy, but a little investment will go a long way in building a quality relationship with your students.

Adults Accomodate the Needs of the Child

Once you’ve mastered all the basics, the final stage of creating a healthy relationship with your students is to simply find ways to meet their needs. It’s not nearly as difficult as it sounds either, because their needs are relatively simple. Kids just want to have fun with and to feel accepted the adults they admire.

As you get to know your students, the relationship will progress like any other relationship. You’ll discover common interests and perhaps even be swayed to try new things that you can do together. Maybe you’ll start a new series on Netflix that your second period loves to discuss. Or you’ll play Fortnite. Or you’ll create a Tiktok account. This is the part that veteran teachers always refer to when they say their students “keep them young.”

Bonding is give and take. Your students will notice your interests too. They’ll show that they care by bringing you your favorite candy or drawing a picture of you wearing your favorite color. Do the same for them. From the nicknames they pick in Kahoot to the profile pictures they select, they’re constantly giving you clues about themselves. Small references show that you care and notice.

Benefits of A Strong Relationship

Not only is building relationships with your students enjoyable for everyone involved, it should eventually pay dividends in classroom management success. Your strong connection with students will make disappointing you something they strive to avoid. Your clear with expectations and fairness in determining consequences means students will feel shame when reprimanded. They will know it wasn’t personal.

Over time, your reputation will grow. This group will tell their younger siblings how much they love your class and the next group will come up with a soft spot preprepared in their hearts for you. Students will be willing to work hard for you because they trust you to determine what’s important for them. Gradually, you’ll gain confidence too. Bad days will still come, but the foundation you have in your relationship with your students will prop you up and make coming back and doing it again the next day easier. You can do this!

Laney Lee
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Published by Laney Lee

I'm an American expat in Abu Dhabi seeking new ways to support teachers. I currently teach grade 7 science, run a Teacher Pay Teachers store, and am writing a book on classroom management.

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