We know about the power of relationships. We’ve heard (and believe!) the old adage, “Kids don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” So how do we build and cultivate those all-important relationships…with some of our toughest kids? You know the ones—students who come to us prickly and defensive—with their quills up. These are the students who most need solid relationships with teachers, yet they’re also the ones who often resist our attempts at connection. They have learned that relationships are dangerous. They’ve touched that hot stove before and are worried about getting hurt if they open themselves up to emotional connection.

So what do we do? How do we connect with kids who push us away? There are clearly no magic solutions. (If there were, we’d know them already.) There are some ideas worth trying however—tried and true strategies that can help us begin to make connections with our most challenging students.


Go for Quantity (Not Quality) of Interaction

One of our first steps in building meaningful relationships is to connect with student–a lot. Find tons of small moments to interact with students, and don’t worry about making these moments all highly impactful. In fact, high quality interactions may be almost impossible at first—as students hold us at arm’s length and resist real connection. Go for quantity. Give students a quick smile whenever you have a chance. Offer quick comments and questions about mundane (and therefor safe) things. “Can you believe how warm it is outside?” “Good morning—it’s good to see you today.” “What did you think about the assembly yesterday?”

As these small positive moments begin to pile up, students will gradually begin to trust us and let their guard down, opening them up for deeper and more meaningful connections.


Use Students’ Names Positively—A Lot

The way we use students’ names in these small moments is important. Some kids are so used to being in trouble at school—and having their name used in that context—that when someone says their name, they move into fight, flight, or freeze. I had such a student one year in fifth grade. Alec was so accustomed to hearing his name called in frustration (“Alec—keep your hands to yourself!” “Get over here, Alec!” “Alec, how many times do I have to tell you to…?”) that his name had become a negative emotional trigger. I remember calling to him one day early in the year—to ask him a question about his writing: “Alec, come here for a sec,” I invited. He exploded, “I wasn’t doin’ nothin’! Why are you always pickin’ on me! I hate this school!” He threw his writing notebook on the floor and stormed out of the room.

Isn’t this heartbreaking? Can you imagine how awful it would be to hear your name and automatically feel a sense of shame or dread?

Students like Alec need to hear their names used in positive contexts—a lot. As you’re racking up lots of small moments of positive interactions, use their names in friendly and inviting ways. “Alec, is that a new shirt?” “Alec, what do you think about the Red Sox? What’s going on with them this year?” “Did you have fun playing basketball at recess, Alec?”


Rethink Praise

We praise with the best of intentions. The common logic goes that the more we praise kids, the better they’ll feel, and the better they feel, the harder they’ll want to work, but this isn’t always the case. In fact, there’s a good bit of research the shows that praise can actually undermine intrinsic motivation and self-confidence. Even worse, certain kinds of praise make our love for children conditional. This may lead to slightly better behavior in the moment, but it often leads to resentment, shame, and guilt in the long run.

In fact, traditional praise emphasizes conditional approval. It sends the message that we like kids more when they’re doing what we want. This can make meaningful relationships almost impossible to form–since the kids who most need our unconditional love will get the least amount of it.

So instead of using phrases that indicate personal approval such as, “I love the way you…” and “I appreciate…” and “Thank you for…” let’s connect positive feedback with how it helps others or supports a positive environment. Let’s also be especially vigilant about eliminating overtly manipulative praise—the kind that praise the good behavior of some to manipulate the behavior of others. I know many of us were explicitly taught to use this kind of praise in our teacher-prep programs, but it is passive-aggressive and tends to pit students against each other. If Markus (in the chart below) needs redirecting, speak firmly and clearly with Markus.

Instead of… Try…
I love the way you cleaned up so well after that last activity! It looks like you got everything cleaned up!
I love how hard you three are working on that science project! You three are really working as a team and getting a lot done!
Haley! Great job with your writing today. I’m so proud of you! Haley! You stayed focused for the whole writing period today. What’s something that helped you to be so productive?
I like the way Josephine is so quiet! Markus, it’s time to listen.

(To learn more about how to improve student learning and behavior through the way we talk, check out What We Say and How We Say It Matter.)


Avoid Character Judgments

In Ruth Charney’s groundbreaking book, Teaching Children to Care, she encourages us, when addressing challenging behaviors, to stress the deed, not the doer. This is important for our work with all children, but especially with students who struggle with regulation and relationships—the ones who need the most support with behavior. We need to help guide their behavior and should never label them according to their struggles. How many times does a child have to be labeled a bully before they accept this as their identity?

Instead of… Try…
Don’t be a bully! Pushing is not okay in our school.
You forgot your homework again? What’s the matter with you? You’re having a hard time bringing in homework. Let’s talk later and see if we can figure out a plan.
John–you’re not helping your group clean up. Don’t be so lazy. John—help your group clean up. It’s important to do your fair share.


Use the Language of the Rules Instead of Personal Expectations

When we frame rule-following behavior through our own personal expectations (“I expect all students to…” or “In my class, I want students to…” or “I’m looking for children to…”), it feels personal for us when kids break the rules. We can slide into the mindset that they’re somehow being personally disrespectful of us when they run in the hall or talk out of turn. This can lead us into power-struggles and conflict when what students really need is coaching and support. Instead, let’s use the language of class norms or school rules. This enables us to address behavior mistakes without us taking it personally and without students feeling as though relationships are at stake when they struggle.

Instead of… Try…
In my class, I expect students to be on time every day. One way to show responsibility (Rule #3!) is to be on time.
I want to see children walking in a straight line and being quiet in the hall. When we walk quietly and orderly in the hall, we follow our rule about respecting other learners.
I’m so disappointed in how you behaved yesterday when I was out for a meeting. You really had a hard time being respectful of our guest teacher.
I expect you to put in your absolute best effort on this next research project. What’s one way you can show great effort on this next research project?


Don’t Outsource Problem-Solving Conferences

One of the most common mistakes we might make with children who struggle with regulation and relationship is to try and have other people in the school help them when they’re struggling. John melts down in class, and we send him to the counselor’s office in the hopes that the counselor can help him figure out what’s wrong and get him back on track. The problem with this is twofold. First off, the counselor wasn’t there when he melted down, so how can they possibly get a clear picture of what happened? Secondly, if the session does go well and John gains some new positive strategies, he may now see the counselor as the one who has his back in school. The next time he gets frustrated or overwhelmed, he may try and get to the counselor’s office, since that’s the person who he trusts to help him. That’s the wrong person building the relationship with John!

Instead, the adult who is with the child when the child is struggling should be the one to help him with a problem-solving conference. Teachers need to make time to have these meetings so that we can build strong relationships with the students who most need them. Invite a student in for lunch to chat. Or, carve out a few minutes during independent academic work time. (You might have three writing conferences and a social conference during writing workshop, for example.) Some counselors and administrators may offer to take your class for 10 minutes so you can have a chat with a student. Be creative and figure out a way to make time for these chats. That way you get to be your most challenging students’ ally and champion!


Conclusion: Hugging Porcupines Can Hurt–Do It Anyway

It is important to acknowledge that sometimes we actually shy away from trying to build relationships with our most prickly students because we’re worried about getting hurt. When we make overtures and a student lashes out, it can be incredibly painful. We’ve probably all had students who have hurt our feelings, and it may make it hard for us to keep extending our care and love.

But this is exactly what our most challenging students need. They need us to show the absolute best example of what mature grown-up behavior can look like. They need us to model kindness amidst turmoil and patience in the heart of chaos. How else will our most vulnerable students ever have a chance to exhibit patience, kindness, and unconditional love themselves if they don’t have examples to look up to?

So, let’s all get out there and hug our porcupines!


Note: This article is adapted from a presentation I have given to teachers. As a part of that presentation, I created a LiveBinder of resources to support teachers’ on-going learning and implementation. If you’d like access to the bank of resources, click here!

Another Note: If you’re looking for a book (or two!) about supporting students who have experienced trauma, I highly recommend the work of Kristen Souers and Pete Hall. Check out Fostering Resilient Learners and/or Relationship, Responsibility, and Regulation.

1 Comment
  1. Thank you for sharing this! It is always important to think about what we are saying and how we are saying it to our students. Our words impact our learners every moment of every day…being mindful is crucial to their social emotional well being, as well as their growth as individuals and life long learners.