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.


Building Positive Classroom Relationships to Engage Students: Video Introduction

Every school year presents a new opportunity for teachers to establish positive relationships with each student on their rosters.  Supportive relationships between teachers and students promote both visible and psychological engagement (Quin, 2017).  When teacher-student relationships are positive, they favorably affect academic achievement (Hattie, 2015).

Teachers want a positive, engaging classroom where students feel valued and successful, but how do we create that?  The following video resources may help you do so.

videovingThe first video, Caring and Control Create a Safe, Positive Classroom, may be found in part 1 of the IRIS Classroom Management Module.  In the video, veteran teacher, Lori Sinclair, invites instructional coach, Jim Knight, into her third-grade classroom to observe and advise her on classroom management.

The video highlights three practices meant to improve teacher-student relationships and increase student engagement:  holding daily classroom meetings, working with students to develop class rules, and increasing the ratio of positive to negative interactions with students. When implemented with fidelity, engaging with students through morning meetings (Lori’s daily check-in with her students) improves teacher-student relationships (Baroody, Rimm-Kaufman, Larsen, & Curby, 2014).  Lori’s practice of co-creating behavioral expectations and explicitly teaching them, along with classroom rules and routines, for an extended period at the beginning of the year enhances overall class climate (Epstein, Atkins, Cullinan, Kutash, & Weaver, 2008).  Finally, Lori’s highly positive ratio of interaction (at least five positive to each negative interaction with students) is a “feasible and impactful intervention strategy that holds promise for … [teachers] who are struggling or have a particularly difficult class” (Cook et al., 2017, p. 74).  This powerful strategy has been effective even when used in isolation of other strategies and by less confident teachers.

Another resource for creating a positive, engaging classroom is from the video series Classrooms in Focus.  In this video, Classrooms in Focus – Student Engagement, Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS, 2017) highlights the classroom of Clarence Minor.  Of particular note is how Clarence arranges his classroom to promote strong teacher-student and peer relationships and to facilitate group work. Throughout the video, Clarence circulates around the perimeter of the room, providing quiet feedback to students as they work on their white boards. For instruction, he moves to the center of the room where all students can easily see and hear him.  Proximity is one factor used to increase positive teacher-student interchanges (Lampi, Fenty, & Beaunae, 2005).

Another strategy he uses is the “lifting up” motion for students to show support for their peers. This encouraged the responding student to continue, even in his uncertainty. Strong peer support and relationships can improve student engagement, and supportive peers can even reduce the negative effects of poor teacher-student interactions and vice versa (Vollett, Kindermann, & Skinner, 2017).

These videos also provide rich examples of other practices known to influence student achievement as illustrated in Table 1.

Table 1

Best Practices Observed in Videos

Strategy/Practice Examples from the Videos Evidence/Research
  • Lori uses a video to reflect on her classroom practices with Jim Knight.
*Effect size of .88 (Hattie, 2015)
Formative Assessment
  • Lori
    • Asks her students to rate themselves on how well they understand suffixes
    • Uses exit slips
  • Clarence uses white boards to assess each student as he or she completes the morning message.
*Effect size of .68 (Hattie, 2015)
  • Lori says:
    • “Mina is showing me a ready learning position.”
    • “Zella just added one of our Skittles words!”
    • “Yes, that’s one of the rules, right?”
  • Clarence says:
    • “That’s a nice conversation on math over at Fibonacci.”
    • “This is so organized, but you want to make sure you’re keeping up with things” while recommending a student add labels to her work.
*Effect size of .68 (Hattie, 2015)
  • Clarence and his class use hand gestures to “draw” a parallelogram in the air.
  • Clarence and his class repeat chants to remember the process for long division.
The use of movement for the purpose of teaching math improves learning (Beaudoin & Johnston, 2011).

The patterns and rhythms of chants make them easier to remember and recall (Ciecierski & Bintz, 2012).

Cooperative/Small-Group Work
  • Clarence teaches and uses student discourse routines in small groups.


Discourse provides exposure to new perspectives and use of language; allows students to reorganize their thinking and speaking (Gillies, 2007).

*An effect size is a quantitative measure of the strength of an intervention. Hattie (2015) considers effect sizes less than .2 as small, .4 as average, and greater than .6 as large.

These practices demonstrate ways in which teachers can improve their practice before, during, and after instruction. While planning, teachers make decisions to include multi-sensory and cooperative/small-group activities. During and after instruction, teachers provide feedback to students and give formative assessments to determine the effectiveness of their instruction.  Finally, micro-teaching is a powerful tool that allows teachers to reflect upon their practice after instruction. In this instance, micro-teaching occurs when Lori plans a lesson, makes a video of the lesson, and shares it with Jim Knight, an instructional coach. Jim Knight provides feedback, which Lori uses to improve her instructional practice. Videos enable teachers to see things they may have missed while teaching; in other words, videos give teachers “a second pair of eyes” to question and clarify.

Building strong classroom relationships sets the stage for a successful school year, and makes it easier for most students to connect with both teachers and peers. Teachers can cultivate and strengthen these relationships using the techniques outlined above. Positive relationships throughout the classroom lead to strong student engagement and better academic results.

Additional Resources

For more information on evidence-based practices for teachers, the IRIS Resource Locator provides a wealth of resources. The center is housed at both Vanderbilt University in Tennessee and Claremont Graduate University in California. Funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), the center focuses on developing teaching resources for professional developers. The website is easy to navigate and organized by topic and resource type (modules, case studies, videos, etc.).


Alexandria City Public Schools. (Producer).  (2017). Classrooms in focus – student engagement. Available from

Baroody, A. E., Rimm-Kaufman, S. E., Larsen, R. A., & Curby, T. W. (2014). The link between responsive classroom training and student-teacher relationship quality in the fifth grade: A study of fidelity of implementation.  School Psychology Review, 43(1), 69-85.

Beaudoin, C. R., & Johnston, P. (2011). The impact of purposeful movement in algebra instruction. Education, 132(1), 82-96.

Ciecierski, L., & Bintz, W. P. (2012). Using chants and cadences to promote literacy across the curriculum. Middle School Journal, 44(2), 22-29.

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.

Epstein, M., Atkins, M., Cullinan, D., Kutash, K., & Weaver, R. (2008). Reducing behavior problems in the elementary school classroom: A practice guide (NCEE #2008-012).  Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences. Retrieved from

Gillies, R. M. (2007).  Strategies to promote student discourse. In R. M. Gillies (Ed.),  Cooperative learning: Integrating theory and practice (pp. 91-120). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications Ltd.  doi:10.4135/9781483329598.n4

Hattie, J. (2015). The applicability of visible learning to higher education.  Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 1(1), 79-91. doi:10.1037/stl0000021

Lampi, A. R., Fenty, N. S., & Beaunae, C. (2005). Making the three Ps easier: Praise, proximity, and precorrection. Beyond Behavior 15(1), 8-12.

Quin, D. (2017).  Longitudinal and contextual associations between teacher-student relationships and student engagement: A systematic review. Review of Educational Research, 87(2), 345-387.  doi:10.2102/0034654316669434

The IRIS Center. (2012). Classroom management (Part 1): Learning the components of a comprehensive behavior management plan. Retrieved from

Vollet, J. W., Kindermann, T. A., & Skinner, E. A. (2017). In peer matters, teachers matter: Peer group influences on students’ engagement depend on teacher involvement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 109(5), 635-652.


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Think back to your days as a student and visualize your favorite class or teacher.  What did the teacher do in that class?  What did the students do?  In all likelihood, you did not sit quietly for the entire class period while the teacher talked.  You probably focused more of your effort on creating new products or sharing ideas with your peers than on sitting still.  Unfortunately, for many students, including those with disabilities, the effort needed to sit quietly for long periods of time overrides any effort to learn.  Yet, active engagement is the strongest predictor of academic achievement (Dotterer & Lowe, 2011). [Read more…]

Giving Students the Tools to Grow: Lifelong Learners and Productive Members of a Global Society

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I’m Determined Tools: Web Apps Now Available!

I’m Determined, a state directed project funded by the Virginia Department of Education, focuses on providing direct instruction, models, and opportunities for students to learn and practice skills associated with self-determined behavior. Many students have used the One Pager, Good Day Plan, and Goal Setting tools to support self-determined behaviors such as choice-making, self-awareness, and self-advocacy (Wehmeyer & Field, 2007). The IMD3 app has a dashboard that allows teachers to keep track of individual student progress on all three tools. [Read more…]

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The purpose of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is “… to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living …” (IDEA, 2004, §601(d)(1)(A)). In order to prepare students for these future endeavors, IDEA requires the development of an Individualized Education Program (IEP) defined as a written statement for each child with a disability that is developed, reviewed, and revised in a meeting in accordance with 34 CFR 300.320 through 300.324, and that must include:

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Teacher Practices That Support Positive Academic and Behavioral Outcomes for Students

Teacher practices that increase students’ engagement in instruction are critical to improving their academic and behavioral performance (Harbour, Evanovich, Sweigart, & Hughes, 2015). Modeling, increasing opportunities to respond (OTR), and providing feedback are three simple, yet powerful, practices that teachers can incorporate into existing instructional routines (Harbour et al., 2015).  When applied consistently and effectively, these three techniques have been shown to strengthen teacher-student relationships, increase student participation in learning activities, and nurture student self-confidence and motivation to attempt and succeed at academic tasks (Harbour et al., 2015). [Read more…]

Laying the Foundation for Teaching and Learning

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Cue Cards: Hints to Help Your Students Succeed

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