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We know that when we have strong, positive relationships with students they learn more, classroom management is easier, and our work is more rewarding. Fortunately, forming relationships with many students is an easy and even natural process. When we can, we even focus on forming relationships before making our first attempts to teach.


However, it is not always easy to draw students into our orbit. Some students may have experiences that make them wary of adult relationships. Other students may be reluctant to engage with us because they have an unfavorable history with the subject we teach and do not want to be vulnerable to failure or embarrassment. Still others may not feel “chemistry” with us and are hesitant to respond to more universal approaches to forming a relationship.


Obviously, we need to be thoughtful and sensitive in our approach. We never want to force a relationship. Still, there are steps we can take to assure students that we notice and value them and would welcome a relationship. Here are five actions that can open the door and create an invitation:


First, we can create a connection by asking for a favor. This advice may seem counterintuitive. We might think that doing a favor for someone should be a good way to draw them in, but in practice, doing a favor for someone can generate feelings of owing a debt or being manipulated. More than two hundred years ago, Ben Franklin observed the positive impact of asking for a favor as a way of overcoming relationship barriers and building connections. In fact, the practice is often called the Ben Franklin Effect. When we ask someone for a favor, we offer a type of compliment that communicates inherent value and respect for the other person.


A second approach is to offer a compliment that draws on the words and perceptions of other people. For example, we might say, “I’m not sure you know this, but I hear from other students/teachers how much they admire your leadership/skills/loyalty.” The effect can be to add weight to our compliment while communicating that we are paying attention to what we hear about the student. We can make the statement even more powerful when we share specific observations and comments from others about the actions of the student, such as how they handled a specific situation or solved a problem.


A third option is to share an observation or information related to the student by stating, “I noticed something I think is interesting and wonder if you are aware of it.” Then we might share a unique approach the student uses to respond to questions, solve problems, or relate to other students—or another positive behavior or characteristic. Our message to the student is that they have strengths and talents of which they may be unaware, but they are worthy of our noticing.


Fourth, we can show interest, draw out more information from, and build deeper understanding of our students by inviting them to share more about something that interests them. For example, a student may make an observation or offer a comment that appears to have more behind it or reflects a strong feeling. We can follow up by saying, “Please tell me a little more about…” Our invitation for students to tell us more opens the door for them to share information beyond their “headlines.” Their response also may reveal information and feelings that can position us to be more helpful and understanding in response to their interests and needs.


Fifth, we can communicate our interest and respect by asking for a student’s perspective on an issue or topic of interest. For example, we might say, “Can I get your opinion on something?” Then we can follow up with a reference to or explanation of the topic or issue about which we would like to learn more. Our question conveys our interest in what the student has to offer and communicates respect for the student’s knowledge, experience, or judgment.


We do not always experience immediate connections with every student. Sometimes we need to work at building a relationship. The best place to start is by making certain that students know that we notice them and by expressing interest in what is important to them. Often, these initial steps will be all that is required to jump-start a relationship that will be rewarding to the student and us.


Inspiration for the strategies shared in this article come from
Murphy, B. (2022, November 26). 12 magic phrases to make people like you more (and end awkward small talk for good). Inc. https://www.inc.com/bill-murphy-jr/12-magic-phrases-that-will-make-people-like-you-more-and-end-awkward-small-talk-for-good.html

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