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Seven most effective ways for building relationships with students through social learning

Building relationships with students is the key to learning engagement. To create positive relationships, start with these social learning strategies.
Product Updates December 2022-01

Every educator wants a classroom, whether in person or online, that is brimming with engaged learners and progress. While the curriculum and learning standards are of course important, you can’t simply put all of your focus on academics. To develop a productive classroom full of learning opportunities, you need to focus on building relationships with students. Through social learning, you and your students can create positive bonds and establish a trusting environment. This is the type of classroom where students want to learn with you and with each other.

What is social learning theory?

It’s essential to make social and emotional learning (SEL) curriculum a priority, teaching your students social skills and how to manage their emotions. When you do this, learners feel happier in school and have more success academically.

To understand how to teach SEL, we can look at social learning theory. The basis of social learning theory is that you can learn by observing others, rather than solely needing to experience a situation yourself. The psychologist Albert Bandura created social learning theory. He wrote that observing other people helps us understand new behaviors. “On later occasions, this coded information serves as a guide for action.”

For example, let’s say you’ve never played basketball before. By watching a team play basketball, you can figure out that you need to dribble, pass the ball and throw it in the hoop. In K-12, social learning theory examples can emerge in a few ways. First, students can observe the behaviors of their teachers and other educators around the school. Learners can also pick up positive behaviors by watching each other. Additionally, students can even learn observationally through reading about characters or watching a film.

Bandura believed that social interactions are the direct way for learning through observation. When learners see an action rewarded, then they are more likely to behave the same way themselves. One of the best ways to do this is by building strong relationships with your learners.

Why is it important to build relationships with learners?

Gallup found that while 74% of surveyed fifth-graders are engaged in school, only one-third of 10th through 12th graders are. When you make an effort to build relationships with your learners, they’ll have more motivation to learn. This includes creating a trusting environment, where learners feel safe enough to be themselves and face challenges in learning. 

In fact, according to Education Week, an analysis of 46 studies found that positive classroom relationships between educators and learners resulted in school improvements. This included “higher student academic engagement, attendance, grades, fewer disruptive behaviors and suspensions, and lower school dropout rates.” 

Learners need to believe that educators at their school understand them and care about them. According to Greater Good in Education, learners told researchers that “good teachers listen to and take a personal interest in students’ lives. They show respect, value the individuality of each student, and are kind and polite. 

It’s also imperative to build relationships with purpose, valuing the unique needs and assets of every learner. The Education Trust explains, “Importantly, these relationship-building actions must be done with an equity lens, one that supports positive racial, cultural, and ethnic identity development.”

Through effective social learning strategies, you can establish relationships that deepen the learning in your classroom for each student.

What strategies help you build positive classroom relationships?

1. Start with daily greetings

As a middle school teacher, I stood outside of my classroom door every day, smiled and greeted each learner. There were days that I was tired and wanted to sit at my desk, but I made it a point to stand at the door every day because it started off each class session on an upbeat note. 

One year, I told each student “Good morning” or “Good afternoon.” The “good afternoon” greeting was more formal than thirteen year olds were used to, but it made each of them smile, and most of them happily repeated it back to me each day. Some even ran up to the door with a “Good afternoon, Ms. Bixler!” before I had the chance to greet them first. Social learning in practice!

A daily greeting shows children or teens in our classroom how to act in a social situation. More than that, we don’t always know when our learners are dealing with difficult personal situations. Sometimes a smile and a greeting has a deeper impact than we realize. 

Try personalizing the greeting for your learners, greet them based on who they are individually or create a list of greetings that your learners can choose from and use. 

2. Learn about hobbies and cultural backgrounds

How do you build authentic relationships with learners? Make an effort to get to know them. Take time to talk to them about their personal interests, their culture and what they do outside of school. While some days you need every minute for academic topics, it’s important to take a couple minutes every so often to chat with your learners. You teach because you care about kids — be sure then to show them that you care about who they are as individuals.

One way to monitor results is by using the “Two-by-Ten” strategy with a learner who has behavior difficulties. For ten days in a row, the goal is to have a conversation with the learner for two minutes. For example, when researching this strategy, educator Raymond Wlodkowski found an 85% improvement in a learner’s behavior.

Another way to get to know your learners is by asking them to fill out an interview form. You can share a Google Form with questions at the beginning of the school year or semester. Then to deepen the relationship building, send them positive feedback about their responses. 

You can let learners interview you, too, after you’ve asked them questions and sent feedback. For example, on Fridays, you can set aside a few minutes for class members to ask you a question. Or learners can write down questions on slips of paper, and then you can pull out a question once a day. 

How do you promote positive relationships between learners? Ask peers to interview each other and add responses to a shared Google Doc or Sheet. They could even add responses to a Google Drawing to boost creativity. 

If you have Hāpara Teacher Dashboard, you can easily share any Google file with your class for interview sessions. Or if you’d like to share a video with an interview example, you can use Hāpara Highlights to quickly share a video link.

3. Give positive feedback

When you give positive feedback, it releases dopamine in a learner’s brain, which helps reinforce information.

To make the feedback most effective and strengthen your relationship with learners, make sure the feedback is clear and timely. Consider giving feedback as learners work individually or collaborate in groups. 

Aside from sharing positive feedback during class time, you can also call home. When I was a teacher, I used our school message system to send home automated positive feedback. In fact, I didn’t use it for negative feedback at all. My learners, and their families, were often shocked that I had sent a positive message. They were used to calls about missing homework, tardiness or behavior issues. The encouraging calls made a distinct difference in my classroom culture. My learners felt that I cared because I had recognized their progress or good decision-making.

Highlights also makes it easy for you to make an impact with positive feedback. It allows you to send real-time feedback to a learner or group of learners. When you see learners making good choices, you can send them a quick message in Highlights and even include emojis. The message pops up instantly on a learner’s screen so they can see your feedback in the moment. 

Teacher Dashboard also streamlines the process of giving feedback. It allows you to quickly access learners’ Google files and leave individualized formative feedback in comments.

Consistent feedback helps learners repeat positive behaviors and make progress. You can also use this as momentum to teach learners how to give each other helpful feedback. 

Student getting feedback from Hāpara Teacher Dashboard

Hāpara simplifies providing consistent formative feedback.

4. Make time for laughter

Laughter spreads joy throughout your classroom and builds connections with your learners. Keep in mind, though, that it’s important to model appropriate humor that isn’t directed at someone else’s expense.

First and foremost, find moments to laugh at yourself. For example, my drawing skills in class were hilariously bad. Because I laughed at myself, my learners saw that I didn’t take myself too seriously. Not only were we able to share a light moment, but through social learning, I gave students an example of self-acceptance.

I also loved showing funny animal pictures or videos at unexpected moments when my learners needed a “brain break.” If you use Highlights, you can instantly share a video link with the class, which pops up on their screens.

5. Model social skills

Social and emotional learning for elementary students might begin with modeling social skills. When they observe you saying thank you and please, for example, they’re more likely to practice these skills themselves. It’s also helpful to teach them how to take turns and have constructive class discussions to build respectful relationships.

Additionally, point out when learners use appropriate social skills so that the class sees those positive actions rewarded. 

6. Teach listening skills

Another way to build strong relationships in the classroom is to teach listening skills through social learning. When you actively listen to your students, they feel accepted. They also discover how to actively listen to each other. 

The key to active listening is to repeat back what you heard. This tells the learner that you heard them and also helps them understand if they’re communicating their ideas clearly. It’s also important to physically show that you’re listening. Face the child or teen, make eye contact and don’t reach for your phone. 

7. Attend an extracurricular activity

Many of our learners are involved in activities outside of the classroom, and when you show authentic interest, it’s a great way to build relationships with your learners. Consider attending extracurricular activities, such as a play, a sporting event, a chess tournament or an art exhibit, for example. 

One semester, a group of learners were performing in a dance recital and invited me, so I decided to attend. They were thrilled to see their teacher in the audience, and they were incredibly engaged in class from that point forward. 

Attending an outside activity also teaches our learners that in a community, people show up for each other and support each other.

How do you strengthen relationships in your classroom? Relationships are key In order to motivate learners, keep them engaged and create a trusting environment. One of the best ways to build positive relationships across your classroom is through social learning. Try a combination of these strategies throughout the school year and see your classroom climate change for the better.

Explore how an educator uses Hāpara Highlights as a coaching tool for social and emotional learning in her classroom.

Developing a classroom culture of resilience with Hāpara Highlights mockup small

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