Building Positive Relationships With Students

Each new school year brings excitement and hope for a great year. It also brings much hustle and bustle for teachers as they dedicate significant time to planning for success. Before open house, teachers’ “to-do” lists seem ever-growing: develop or review classroom procedures and routines, organize physical structures, plan lessons, and more.  One of the most important items on that list is creating a plan for building relationships with the students.

A Strong Case for Building Relationships

By creating positive bonds with students, teachers create learning-supportive environments, where students can engage in meaningful ways both academically and socially (Hamre & Pianta, 2001). Nurturing relationships impact students’ academic performance, their motivation, self-esteem, and social outcomes (Dika & Singh, 2002; Orth, Robins, & Widaman, 2012; Wentzel, 2003).

Indeed, positive relationships with teachers have been found to affect students’ academic performance across age levels and socio-economic statuses (Midgley, Feldlaufer, & Eccles, 1989; Murray & Malmgren, 2005).  In one study, students significantly improved their grade point average after just five months of an intervention targeting improved quality of teacher-student relationship (Murray & Malmgren, 2005). Improving relationships with teachers also improved student competencies in math skills (Midgley et al., 1989).

Students who have had positive relationships with their teachers learn to develop better relationships with peers and have improved self-esteem and self-concept (Hamre & Pianta, 2001). Strong relationships can reduce dropout rates by nearly half for high school students and significantly impact peer acceptance of students (Dika & Singh, 2002; Hughes, Cavell, & Willson, 2001). Further, the impact of these relationships carries into future educational and even occupational experiences (Dika & Singh, 2002; Orth et al., 2012).

Strategies for Building Relationships

Building relationships takes time, but more important, it takes active planning. Positive teacher-student relationships are characterized by closeness, warmth, and positivity (Hamre & Pianta, 2001). Teachers can build such relationships by effectively utilizing student surveys, providing behavior-specific positive feedback, and using the two-by-ten strategy (McKibben, 2014). The best part about these strategies is that for minimal amount of the precious resource of time, teachers can make meaningful strides in their relationships with students.

Student Surveys

Student surveys allow teachers to quickly get to know their students and serve as a meaningful tool for future use. Surveys provide valuable insights into student preferences and give students a voice. In addition, surveys are easy to obtain, administer, score, and interpret.

In this example of a brief One Pager survey from The I’m Determined Project, students self-report their strengths, interests, preferences, and needs (Virginia Department Of Education, 2017). Another type of student survey is a reinforcement survey, which gives choices for student preferences and reinforcers. Teachers can use the information gleaned to have discussions with students and consider their needs when planning lessons and activities. Surveys can serve as a morning work option for students during the beginning of the school year or as part of open house activities.

Behavior-Specific Feedback

            In building relationships with students, teachers are strongly encouraged to use the 5:1 ratio of positive interactions to corrections (Cook et al., 2017). In a previous Link Lines article, Teacher Practices That Support Positive Academic and Behavioral Outcomes for Students Gould (2015) highlighted feedback as one of the effective teacher practices.

To be effective, positive acknowledgment must be immediate, specific, sincere, varied, and student-referenced (Gould, 2015). For example, “Steven, great job being in your seat and starting your morning work right as the bell rang. You showed us how to be responsible.”  Acknowledgment should focus on effort and not compare a student to others.

The 5:1 ratio may appear daunting, but teachers can achieve it, not only through verbal statements, but also through gestures such as a thumbs-up sign or a simple head nod. Teachers should find self-management strategies to ensure ongoing provision of positive feedback to the whole class as well as to individual students.  A simple visual of 5:1 posted in the classroom, in lesson plans, or displayed on the teacher’s desk may be a helpful prompt for teachers to increase the number of positive interactions.


For students who require additional support, McKibben (2014) recommends using a two-by-ten strategy as a way to form a foundation for a sustainable positive relationship and to create an ally (McKibben, 2014). This strategy entails the teacher spending two uninterrupted minutes per day, for 10 consecutive days, talking with a selected student about nonacademic and nonbehavioral matters.  During these brief conversations, the teacher can identify personal connections while discussing the student’s interests.

Whether you are a new teacher or a returning teacher, using quick and simple strategies like two-by-ten, providing positive feedback, and completing student surveys (and using them for lesson planning) can help build positive relationships with your students. Purposeful planning for opportunities to build positive relationships with students is a vital aspect of laying a strong foundation for a secure and positive classroom environment.  Students try harder when they perceive a caring and supportive relationship with their teachers (Wentzel, 2003).  This school year we can help students try their best by building strong relationships. 

Additional Resources

The following resource provides more information on how to effectively use praise in the classroom with examples of praise statements and self-monitoring ideas for teachers.


Cook, C. R., Grady, E. A., Long, A.C., Renshaw, T., Codding, R. S., Fiat, A., & Larson, M. (2017). Evaluating the impact of increasing general education teachers’ ratio of positive-to-negative interactions on students’ classroom behavior. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 19(2), 67-77.

Dika, S. L., & Singh, K. (2002). Applications of social capital in educational literature: A critical synthesis. Review of Educational Research, 72(1), 31-60.

Gable, R. A. (1991). Forced-choice reinforcement survey. From Cartwright, C. A., & Cartwright, P. (1970). Determining the motivational systems of individual children. Teaching Exceptional Children, 2(3), 143-149.

Gould, E. (2015). Teacher practices that support positive academic and behavioral outcomes for students. The College of William and Mary T/TAC Link Lines. Retrieved from

Hamre, B. K., & Pianta, R. C. (2001). Early teacher-child relationships and the trajectory of children’s school outcomes through eighth grade. Child Development, 72(2), 625-638.

Hughes, J. N., Cavell, T. A., & Willson, V. (2001). Further support for the developmental significance of the quality of the teacher-student relationship. Journal of School Psychology, 39(4), 289-301.

McKibben, S. (2014). The two-minute relationship builder. Education Update56(7). Retrieved from

Midgley, C., Feldlaufer, H., & Eccles, J. S. (1989). Student/teacher relations and attitudes toward mathematics before and after the transition to junior high school. Child  Development, 60, 981-992.

Murray, C., & Malmgren, K. (2005). Implementing a teacher-student relationship program in a high-poverty urban school: Effects on social, emotional, and academic adjustment and lessons learned. Journal of School Psychology, 43(2), 137-152.

Orth, U., Robins, R. W., & Widaman, K. F. (2012). Life-span development of self-esteem and its effects on important life outcomes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,102(6), 1271-1288.

Virginia Department of Education. (2017). One pager. I’m Determined Project. Retrieved from

Wentzel, K. R. (2003). Sociometric status and adjustment in middle school: A longitudinal study. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 23(1), 5-28.


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