7 Powerful Actions You Can Take To Improve Relationships with Your Students

7 Powerful Actions You Can Take To Improve Relationships with Your Students

Reflect for a moment on one of your favorite teachers and think about why he/she was your favorite.  Was it the teacher’s:  Fun and engaging environment?  Kindness to you and others?  Belief in you and your achievement?  Calm nature? Care about your personal life?  Care that you learned every single day?  Or a combination of these items?  All of these items are important in building a positive learning culture.

High student achievement needs a positive learning culture.  Positive learning cultures encompass strong relationships built on trust and care among the teachers and students.  Positive relationships among teachers and students are a vital piece in a high-poverty school since poverty can stunt the growth of healthy relationships.  There are so many daily stressors all around these students and their families which can result in less positive communication, support, and time together.  Dr. Eric Jensen, author of Teaching With Poverty in Mind (2009), said, “Not getting the opportunity to form solid attachments initiates a stream of long-term physiological, psychological, and sociological consequences for children…no curriculum, instruction or assessment, however high-quality, will succeed in a hostile social climate.”

The Research about the Power of Teacher-Student Relationships

All kinds of relationships contribute to a positive learning culture:  student to student, caregivers/parents to their children, school staff to school staff, and teachers to students.  This article will focus on teacher relationships with their students, which by the way, will most likely improve the student to student relationships too.  John Hattie, author of Visible Learning: A Synthesis of over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement, found that the teacher-student relationship had a .72 effect size on student achievement (FYI – an effect size of .4 and above is highly significant for student achievement).  The research showed that the following teacher skills developed stronger relationships:  listening skills, empathy, mutual respect, caring and positive regard for the students.

Most students who do not wish to come to school or who dislike school is primarily because they dislike the teacher.  Cornelius-White’s research/claim (collected in Hattie’s work) was stated this way: “To improve teacher-student relationships and reap their benefits, teachers should learn to facilitate students’ development, see their perspective, and communicate it back to them so that they have valuable feedback to self-assess, feel safe, and learn to understand others and the content with the same interest and concern.”   There is even research to support the decrease of drop-out rates when there were positive bonds with teachers and students (Lee & Burkam, 2003).

Poor or weak student- teacher relationships can cause any of the following negative effects:  chronic elevated cortisol levels (stress hormone)(which can shrink or kill brain cells and hurt memory skills);  lower-level thinking rather than higher-level thinking; impaired social decisions;  and decrease in desire to learn (Sapolsky, 2005).

When we put forth effort to strengthen and build our relationships with students, there are benefits toward the teachers and the students such as the release of oxytocin.  Oxytocin, a hormone that also acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain, is directly linked to bonding and increasing trust.  Research says it’s the face to face interactions (not texting or Facebook) with humans and “tribal-like” connections around people that release oxytocin.  Hugging, shaking hands, and positive eye contact can actually release oxytocin quickly and the effects can linger for some time afterward.  Snuggling and playing with a pet can produce oxytocin as well (Reason to have a Class Pet that is furry and nice).  Oxytocin has so many benefits like:  staving off many psychological and physiological problems, breaking social barriers, inducing feelings of optimism, increasing self-esteem, overcoming fears, reducing pain, increasing generosity and building trust (Kosfeld, Heinriches, Zak, Fischbacher, and Fehr, 2005).

Last but not least we have two types of systems in our body:  closed-loop and open-loop.  The closed loop system such as the circulatory system is self-regulating and does not affect or impact other’s systems.  On the other hand, the open-loop system can best describe our limbic system or emotional centers of our brain and bodies and can be affected by external sources, like other people.  Research in intensive care units shows one person can actually lower a person’s blood pressure.  Scientists found that one person can transmit signals that can change hormone levels, sleep rhythms, immune systems, and even oxytocin levels of another person.  (Lewis, Amini, Lannon, 2000).  Bottom line, the open-loop system research shows how powerful one person can change another person’s physiology and emotions.

As you can see from these numerous research examples, we affect each other quite a bit – for the positive and the negative.  Read on to find out seven actions that you can take in your classrooms to make a difference in creating a positive learning culture with strong relationships built on trust and care.

Seven Power Actions to Build Positive Relationships with your Students

  1. Ask students to help you create the rules and expectations of the classroom so behaviors are managed proactively versus reactively. Students who lack positive, social attachments can show this need through acting out, acting anxious, seeking attention, creating power struggles, and other negative behaviors.  When students help you create these pieces, there is more buy-in.  I actually took the students through a process called the Six Thinking Hats which is a series of 6 different types of relevant questions that formulated the rules for our classroom (email LeAnn at lnickelsen@comcast.net if you want this lesson).  We came up with a beautiful list of rules that were posted and signed by every student.  I saw more ownership, and I could use the line:  “You helped create these rules,” when students were losing the “ownership” of these classroom rules.
  2. Set your expectations high for ALL students. High expectations and specific constructive feedback about assignments, efforts, attitudes, strategies, thinking, and skills portray that one cares.  In fact, one study (Coe, 2002) found that teacher expectations had an effect size of 1.03 on student achievement.  The 1968 famous research, Pygmalion Effect or self-fulfilling prophecy, showed that teacher expectations influence student performance.  In that research, the teachers communicated to students that they each had “unusual potential for academic growth.”
  3. Establish a joy-factor in the classroom. There is a wonderful feeling when you walk into a classroom that is filled with joyful teachers and students.  Time flies for one.  Secondly, students are actively engaged in relevant, meaningful assignments in small groups. Thirdly, you rarely see the teacher or students sitting for long periods of time.  Finally, they smile much!  They are actually enjoying the learning.  Kids want to return to these kinds of environments where the relationships are flourishing and positive.  Dr. Eric Jensen, author of Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind,  says  that every classroom needs to establish a “We are Family” mindset.  Families take on each other’s problems, help give ideas to solve some of the problems, hold each other accountable for goals that need to be completed, and encourage kindness among the members to keep the peace.  John Hattie’s research shows that group cohesion and peer influences have a strong .53 effect size on student achievement (Hattie, 2009).  Social bonding and trusting one another can decrease the negative side effects of chronic stress by priming the brain to release oxytocin, a neuropeptide that suppresses the cortisol stress hormone. (Kosfeld, Heinriches, Zak, Fischbacher, & Fehr, 2005; Leuner, Caponiti, & Gould, 2012).

    I love being in classrooms where students and teachers are laughing and learning at the same time.  Laughter is hard to fake and is highly contagious – it involves highly complex neural systems that are largely involuntary.  Research shows that laughter is the most direct communication possible between people (brain to brain; chemical to chemical).  Could we say, the amount of laughter, smiles, and joy we see in a classroom could be a way to measure the relationships in that classroom?  People who relish each other’s company laugh easily and often.  The relationships where there is little trust often have the least amount of laughter among them.

  4. Build trust among the students. Trust is the foundation of all strong relationships.  Trust is a big concept and when you break it down, you will find the following components:  being present, doing what you say you will do, being aware of others, keeping information confidential, not talking badly about anybody (if you do, you might be looked upon as possibly talking about that student behind his/her back), being open and real, listening without judging, showing empathy, and honoring the person and friendship process.  Trust takes time and is built with almost every big and small interaction with others.
  5. Care about each student. Differentiate by pulling a small group of students in order to respond to daily data.  A data-driven classroom shows that the teacher cares about each student attaining the learning goal.  When teachers confer with students one-on-one during guided reading, writing workshop, guided math, or after tests, it conveys that the teachers care about growing that one student with specific needs.  What if every teacher set a goal to confer with 2 students for 2 minutes every day?  That 4 minute investment will shock each teacher.  Can you imagine the growth that could occur in that classroom because of the specific feedback that was given to those 2 students about where they are with the standards and how they can better get to those standards?  It’s the teacher listening, sharing the data with the students, and giving feedback on how to achieve the goals.

    I was once told by one of my students after reteaching him a math concept in a small group of about 5 students:  “Mrs. Nickelsen, you are a much better teacher with a small group of students.”  I was not quite sure how to respond, except I chose to take it as a compliment.  He was right!  I think ALL teachers are better with smaller groups of students when targeted instruction occurs because errors were studied, analyzed and the next steps were determined to help students understand the learning goal.  That action shows care, concern and let’s-close-gaps attitude.

  6. Ask students to create a Learner Profile that will explain how they learn best, their interests, feelings and attitudes about the content areas. This Learning Profile is a file folder designed by each student that is full of surveys, interest inventories, attitudes about subjects, preferences for learning styles, multiple intelligences assessments, and other content that explains who that student is socially, emotionally, physically and academically.  In the book, Deeper Learning (2008) by Eric Jensen and LeAnn Nickelsen, there are several pages dedicated to how to create this file folder for each student.  This book has samples of reproducibles that you can use, website suggestions so students can do the inventories on-line, and examples.  We can use this information to help us meet their learning needs better but to also form stronger relationships.For example, the research called 2 x 10 (Two-by-Ten) shows that by listening to your most challenging students talk about their personal lives or about whatever that student wants to talk about for just 2 minutes every day, 10 days in a row (obviously you can skip weekends), then you can get to know that student well enough to make a huge difference in his/her behavior.  Raymond Wlodkowski found an 85-percent improvement in that one student’s behavior. In addition, he found that the behavior of all the other students in the classroom improved.  By the way, don’t take Raymond’s word on this – try it out soon with one of your most challenging students.  Remember, there is a reason for every misbehavior (even in adults).  Use the information from the Learning Profile to help you ask questions about that student’s personal life.
  7. Put on a growth mindset (see LeAnn Nickelsen’s article) and assume the best in all students.  Author of the book, Conscious Classroom Management, Rick Smith, said that we should glue to our brains the “invisible contract” when kids walk into our classrooms every day:

    “Whenever students walk into the classroom, assume they hold an invisible contract in their hands, which states, ‘Please teach me appropriate behavior in a safe and structured environment.’ The teacher also has a contract, which states, ‘I will do my best to teach you appropriate behavior in a safe and structured environment.’”

    Rick further explains in his article (2008), “The bottom line is that when students test us, they want us to pass the test. They are on our side rooting for us to come through with safety and structure. When students act out, they are really saying, ‘We don’t have the impulse control that you have. We are acting out so that you will provide us with safety and structure—be soft yet firm—so that we can learn the behavior we need to learn to be happy and successful.’”

    When you assume the best in your students, they lose their labels such as:  Nancy is the angry girl; Raoul just checks out all the time; Shane is the class clown; and Latoya is the aggravator. We see them a unique individual that has certain needs at certain times, and they are each worth our time to get to know and understand.  This mindset will help us own the thought that when students act out, they are really telling us they need and want a positive connection. When this mindset is in place, the “discipline moments” are seen as opportunities for teaching an essential piece that students want to learn.


Bottom line:  Your relationships with each student in your classrooms make a dramatic impact on their ability to learn well.  When students engage in positive teacher-student relationships, they:  adjust to school more easily, want to attend school, view school as a positive experience, exhibit fewer behavior difficulties, display more positive social skills, and demonstrate higher academic achievement (Buyse, Verschueren, Verachtert, and Van Damme, 2009).

My favorite saying that was printed in beautiful ink, framed and placed on my desk as a daily reminder of my power to build or break apart the relationships in my classroom is how I want to conclude this article.  It’s a powerful statement that I hope you don’t forget, but our moods influence how effectively people work – upbeat moods boost cooperation, fairness and achievement.

I have come to a frightening conclusion.  I am the decisive element in my classroom.  It is my personal approach that creates the climate.  It is my daily mood that makes the weather.  As a teacher, I possess tremendous power to make my student’s life miserable or joyous.  I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration.  I can humiliate or hurt, humor or heal.  In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated, and my student humanized or de-humanized. 

Adapted from Haim Ginott



Buyse, E., Verschueren, K., Verachtert, P., and Van Damme, J. (2009).  Predicting school adjustment in early elementary school:  Impact of teacher-child relationship quality and relational classroom climate.  Elementary School Journal, 110(2), 119-141.

Coe, R. (2002, September 12-14).  It’s the effect size, stupid:  What effect size is and why it is important.  Paper presented at the annual Conference of the British Educational Research Association. University of Exeter, England.

Cornelius-White, J. (2007).  Learner-centered teacher-student relationships are effective:  a meta-analysis.  Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 113-143.

Hattie, John. (2009).  Visible Learning:  A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement.  New York, NY:  Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.

Jensen, Eric. (2013).  Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind.  Alexandria, VA:  ASCD.

Jensen, Eric. (2009).  Teaching with Poverty in Mind.  Alexandria, VA:  ASCD.

Jensen, Eric and Nickelsen, LeAnn. (2008).  Deeper Learning:  7 Powerful Strategies for In-Depth and Longer-Lasting Learning.  Thousand Oaks, CA:  Corwin Press.

Kosfeld, M., Heinriches, M., Zak, P., Fischbacher, U., & Fehr, E. (2005).  Oxytocin increases trust in humans. Nature, 435(2), 673-676.

Lee, V. & Burkam, D. (2003).  Dropping out of high school:  The role of school organization and structure.  American Educational Research Journal, 40(2), 353-393.

Leuner, B., Caponiti, J.M., & Gould, E. (2012).  Oxytocin stimulates adult neurogenesis even under conditions of stress and elevated glucocorticoids.  Hippocampus, 22(4), 861-868.

Levenson, Robert and Ruef, Anna.  (1997).  Empathic Accuracy.  New York:  Guilford Press.

Lewis, Thomas, Amini, F., and Lannon, R.. (2000). A General Theory of Love.  New York:  Random House.

Provine, Robert. (2000).  Laughter:  A Scientific Investigation.  New York:  Viking Press.

Sapolsky, R. (2005). Sick of Poverty. Scientific American, 293(6), 92-99.

Smith, Rick and Mary Lambert.  (September 2008).  The Positive Classroom.  Educational Leadership. Volume 66; Number 1; Pages 16-21  

Wlodkowski, R. J. (1983). Motivational opportunities for successful teaching [Leader’s Guide]. Phoenix, AZ: Universal Dimensions.

Author: LeAnn Nickelsen, M.Ed. is the author of 11 books focused on teaching strategies: Deeper Learning (2008) and Bringing the Common Core to Life (2014) are the more recent books. LeAnn specializes in cognitive science in education by using the best tools to reach every student. LeAnn is passionate about schools becoming more empathy-centered. You can contact her: lnickelsen@comcast.net or visit her website: http://www.maximizelearninginc.com.


  1. Thank you LeAnn for these practical tips on building relationships. I encourage the pre-service teachers I am honored to work with during their internship to write positive notes to the students who “need their best teaching”, translated the students who are the most difficult for them to teach. We find that when they focus on finding positive things to celebrate in writing , their attitudes toward the students change for the better, and many times the students’ behaviors change for the better as well!

  2. Lee Ann, I loved your article because in my 28 years of teaching, I have found that this is a crucial factor in the learning environment. Me as a student in my high school years, was profoundly interested in those subjects where my teachers showed support and careness for me. Those subjects turned out to be the ones I studied the most and ended up studying a bachelor’s degree in Bacteriology because of the inspiring teacher I had in Biology. With your permission, I will translate this wonderful article to spanish so the teachers at my school have an inspiring thing to read in the begginnig of the school year! Thanks a lot!

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