T2.1 Cultivate individual relationships
Highlander Institute Spotlight Series
Students of all ages and backgrounds benefit from caring relationships with adults at school. Strong relationships provide a foundation for student engagement, belonging, academic confidence, and learning. Even in challenging times, trusting relationships keep students connected to school, invested in learning, and able to persist through both personal and academic struggles.
According to the Search Institute, developmental relationships are “close connections through which young people discover who they are, gain abilities to shape their own lives, and learn how to interact with and contribute to the world around them” (p. 20). Thus, educators should try out relationship-building activities that support positive identity development. “Identity-safe” classrooms affirm students from all backgrounds by valuing their interests and linking their identities to success in school. Related activities promote authentic sharing, empower student voice, elevate intellectual traditions of families, and use this knowledge when teaching academic content.
- “Middle school students who reported high levels of developmental relationships with their teachers were 8 times more likely to stick with challenging tasks, enjoy working hard, and know it is okay to make mistakes when learning, when compared to students with low levels of student-teacher relationships” (Roehlkepartain et al., 2017, p.8).
- While strong relationships support a host of positive student outcomes, a survey of 25,400 6th-12th graders in a large district found that less than 33% of middle schoolers felt they had a strong relationship with their teachers. That number dropped to 16% by 12th grade. Students from low-income backgrounds report even fewer strong relationships with their teachers (The Education Trust and MRDC, March 2021, p. 3).
- In addition, a study focusing on an urban high school in the Midwest found that students of color showed a significant decrease in the perception of care from White teachers (Mabin, 2016). This finding suggests that teachers — particularly White teachers — must increase the level of attention they spend toward building relationships with students of color.
- Similarly, “African American and white students both benefit from strong school relationships; however, African Americans are not developing the types of school relationships to the same extent as white students that can enhance their educational expectations and increase their postsecondary participation” (Wimberly, 2002, p. 23).
- In a study of 84 elementary classrooms, in “identity-safe” classrooms, students had higher scores on standardized tests, wanted challenging work, felt a greater sense of belonging, and felt more positive about school compared to students from less identity-safe classrooms (Steele & Cohn-Vargas, 2015).
In short, strong relationships demand more than a surface knowledge of students. Relationships require ongoing expressions of care, meaningful life connections, the sharing of power, and the expansion of possibilities. Therefore, teachers who are successful in the Community Building domain dedicate time and space to discover student values, perspectives, goals, and aspirations.
- We know that “a person’s name is part of their cultural identity. Honoring all students’ names is a building block in creating a welcoming, inclusive classroom. This is about making sure every student knows they are important.” Explore the stories behind the names of your students with the My Fullest Name Activity.
- The 55 Ideas for Deepening One-to-One Relationships from the Search Institute build on insights from focus groups, interviews, and research on the elements of developmental relationships.
- The “How” of Building Deeper Relationships with Students explores strategies for developing empathetic listening skills, carving out time for small talk, being authentic and vulnerable, and tracking your efforts.
The Education Trust and MDRC. (March 2021). The importance of strong relationships: A strategy to solve unfinished learning. https://edtrust.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/The-Importance-of-Strong-Relationships-as-a-Strategy-to-Solve-Unfinished-Learning-March-2021.pdf
Mabin, T.B. Jr., (2016). Student-Teacher connection, race, and relationships to academic achievement. (Publication No. 1416) [Doctoral dissertation, Western Michigan University]. ScholarWorks at WMU. https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/dissertations/1416
Roehlkepartain, E. C., Pekel, K., Syvertsen, A. K., Sethi, J., Sullivan, T. K., & Scales, P. C. (2017).
Relationships first: Creating connections that help young people thrive. Minneapolis, MN: Search Institute. https://www.search-institute.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/2017-Relationships-First-final.pdf
Steele, D.M. & Cohn-Vargas, B. (2015, October 21). Creating an identity-safe classroom. Edutopia. https://www.edutopia.org/blog/creating-an-identity-safe-classroom-becki-cohn-vargas-dorothy-steele
Wimberly, G.L. (2002). School relationships foster success for African American students. ACT Policy Report. https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.504.2282&rep=rep1&type=pdf