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Teacher-Student Relationships That Are Enough

Relationships are critical to the process of creating safety. 




Experiencing safety is foundational to the trust needed for strong relationships.




Teacher-student relationships that are enough are built and maintained through pedagogical actions that are routinely practiced with all students. Caring pedagogical actions...   

  • Communicate curiosity about the individuality of each student

  • Attempt to adapt teaching based on awareness of who students are

  • Maintain present-moment awareness of students’ emotional states

  • Communicate belief in students’ capacity to reach high expectations

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Relationships Supercharge Rigorous Instructional Practices

Research also shows that relationship-building is a pathway for improving the academic outcomes for which you are held accountable. Greater school connectedness and belonging are associated with higher levels of academic engagement and achievement and a lower likelihood of grade repetition. The pivotal role of strong teacher-student relationships in all aspects of school success is supported by research showing that it is an integral aspect of rigorous classroom pedagogy. Weak or negative teacher-student relationships reduce or even negate the effectiveness of rigorous instructional practices.



Investing in building relationships with students who exhibit challenging behaviors is a high-value investment because, as research shows, students are more likely to engage in self-regulation when they feel connected to their educators.

the challenge is that the interpersonal experiences of students with histories of rejecting, harmful, or neglectful relationships make it difficult for them to:


Accept relationship building as genuine


Express their appreciation of relationship building

Reciprocate in healthy ways


However, when asked, these students report that they do value their teachers’ caring actions, particularly attentiveness and active listening. The problem is that without a consistent history of experiences with supportive adults, they often distrust and test their teachers’ efforts to form relationships. This tendency to distrust and test is a coping response that may be maladaptive at school but adaptive in the other less supportive and sometimes harmful contexts that they navigate. 


Your investment in students is building their resilience, which is the capacity to cope with and withstand stress or adversity while maintaining functional health across many life domains, and it is critical for reducing the intergenerational transmission of disadvantage. Too often discussions of resilience evoke an individualized stress resistance perspective that focuses on individual resources such as internal psychological and emotional attributes. These attributes include self-esteem, executive functioning, adaptive coping, and internal locus of control, all of which are believed to make people resistant to adversity. Discussions of resilience rarely acknowledge the extensive body of research that shows that personal psychological and emotional resilience factors are made stronger or weaker over time based on one’s interpersonal supports, and that interpersonal supports facilitate the development of resilience during and after exposure to traumatic stressors. It is these resilience-building relational supports that are the focus of this chapter.

It will take time and the consistent presence of caring adults like yourself for such students to trust that you or any other educator will not fail them like many adults have done in the past.

Relationships Build Resilince


Although trauma may have changed your students so that their initial reaction is to reject your relationship building actions, they are still capable of learning to trust and desperately desire to do so.    

Relationship coaches take advantage of dysregulated behavioral interactions to provide supportive feedback to students on how their actions can be relationally damaging and teach alternative responses for building and maintaining healthy relationships. This is essentially applying the strategy of using instructional discipline to teacher-student relationships. Being a relationship coach means holding yourself accountable to developmental teacher-student relationships. Although both students and teachers have responsibilities for building and maintaining the relationship, the educator has greater power, emotional maturity, insight, and foresight into relationship building.


As the relationship coach, you are the mature partner in the relationship who assumes primary responsibility for building and maintaining positive relationships. This means that when students engage in ways that damage the relationship, you are responsible for showing the student how to restore the relationship and providing them with tangible opportunities for restoration. This is in contrast to the passive approach that places the initial steps toward repairing the relationship on the student. In the passive approach, the educator’s position will wait to take active steps to reengage with the student until the student engages in restorative actions and shows that they care.  

Be A Relationship Coach


Restorative Practices Require A Foundation Of Strong Relationships Between Staff, Teachers, and Students
Invest In Building Relational Trust

Lack of attention to teacher-student relationships may be one reason why many school restorative practice efforts have been ineffective. Many administrators incorrectly believe that by implementing restorative practices, they have met the challenge of facilitating school connectedness and belonging. However, restorative justice is based on the assumption that there is a relationship to be restored or repaired. However, some students violate school rules because they do not have a positive relationship with their peers, educators, and/or the whole school, as an institution. In these cases, asking the student to engage in restorative practices may further alienate them. Asking a student to take actions to restore a nonexistent or negative relationship signals the educator’s lack of awareness and/or recognition that the student is lacking school belonging and connectedness.

The task, then, is to think about how to implement restorative justice in ways that also build relationships. Respect and understanding are the foundation of any relationship. The same can be said of your relationships with your students. There are five key components of building relationships that will strengthen the effectiveness of restorative practices:

1. understanding – taking time to check your biases and see things from your students’ view

2. respect – giving thought and due regard to your student’s statements, wishes, and needs

3. responsibility – acknowledging and claiming your role in your student-teacher relationship

4. relationship-building – taking the time to form and foster your student-teacher relationships

5. relationship-repairing – acknowledging and righting the wrongs with dignity and compassion


One way to start building these five key components with your students is by utilizing a respect agreement: a document made with students and by students that holds everyone accountable to the same set of principles. This activity not only brings mutual understanding to how everyone wants to be treated, but it also begins to build the sense of community that is crucial and restorative for practices to be effective. Teachers, take note of how you address students. Does your classroom language demonstrate respect for students?

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             Source: Oakland Unified School District Restorative Justice Implementation Guide


Restorative approaches can also be proactive when they are used to build the strong relationships between students, teachers, and staff. A RAND corporation study shows that social skills and empathy can be improved when restorative approaches are consistently utilized among middle school students. The development of these skills then play a role in reducing conflict and development of negative interpersonal behaviors. Although the task to implement restorative practices may initially seem daunting, students treat each other with respect in a way that makes for better social development and safer environments within schools when such practices are implemented well.


Restorative practices allow students to be held accountable for their actions as well as repair the damage done to any affected relationships. When contrasted to practices relying heavily on suspensions which more often harm Black and Hispanic students, the accountability of restorative practices allows the students in question to hear of their action’s impact from those affected directly but then be given specific ways to repair any harm done. The approach is not anti-discipline – it is promoting acceptance, reducing shame, and avoids ostracism. It acknowledges the students’ challenges with accountability and achievement.


Learn more about restorative justice from We Are Teachers and the Oakland Unified School District Restorative Justice Implementation Guide

Relationships & Restorative Justice
What Students Say


At the heart of trauma responsive teacher-student relationships are...

The prospect of being asked to develop strong relationships with students who will regularly push you away and act out in ways that test your patience and personal definition of disrespect is daunting. However, it can be made less daunting by relying on research that emphasizes understanding the student’s perspective. This research details the relationship building actions that are received well by traumatized students:


Students coping with trauma need educators to be the leader of interactions. They need educators to intuit their need for connections, initiate conversation, and invite students to connect with them.

Authenticity is everything to youth, and these students need educators who actively listen to what they are saying, show an understanding attitude towards their difficulties, and validate their distress.

Students exhibiting off-task and disruptive behaviors need educators who are attuned enough to who students are to observe overt and covert cues of distress, and respond in ways that are responsive to students’ needs.

Students who are predisposed to mistrusting adults need educators who approach them with individualized relationship building actions. This means approaching each student as an individual not based on labels, asking about things that are meaningful for students, and making a commitment to sustaining the relationship over time.

Pedagogical Care



We are asking you to develop teacher-student relationships that are undergirded by an ethic of pedagogical care. Pedagogical care is demonstrating care for students through the everyday interactions that you have with students, such as how you engage with them during whole class and individual instruction, while providing behavioral and academic corrections, and during informal interactions such as while walking in the hallway.


          1. Increase your awareness of students’ developmental needs

          2. Assess and determine best ways to meet students’ needs at school

          3. Take the necessary action(s) that target students' needs

          4. Self-reflect in relation to target needs

It is critical for trauma responsive educators to understand that building caring pedagogical relationships with students is dramatically different from building friendships. A few of the relationships that you build with students may become enduring emotional friendships, but all of your teacher-student relationships can be pedagogically caring. This makes them no less emotionally supportive for what your students need from you. This is in contrast, to attempting to develop close emotional relationships with all students, becoming exhausted from that unsustainable demand, and then withdrawing from all but a couple of the relationships that clicked. This relational withdrawal is harmful for you and your students.


The harm that is caused by relational withdrawal was noted by one educator as she discussed the sudden loss of safety that students experience when educators who have poured themselves into their students leave in the middle of the school year or don’t return in the fall because of burnout. She stated that students feel betrayed and experience “emotional panic” at the loss of the relational support from someone who convinced them that it would be safe to feel and express their vulnerabilities. In response to this loss of safety, students become emotionally dysregulated, escalate their acting-out behaviors, are punitively sanctioned by the school, and ultimately increase the height of their trust barrier with the next educator who attempts to develop a caring relationship with them.


Consistency of presence is necessary for a caring

relationship to also be safe.

4 Stages Of Relationship Building






We use University of Minnesota’s Department of Educational Psychology’s Establish, Maintain, and Restore framework to organize high value relationship building action steps, and have extended their framework by adding the pre-establish stage. By assessing whether you are in the pre-establish, establish, maintain, or restore stage with each student, you will be able to identify the appropriate relationship building actions.


1. During the pre-establish stage you and the student have had a pattern of conflictual interactions that have laid a foundation of negative emotions or mistrust. During this stage you must monitor and break old patterns of interactions. The goal is to identify the interactions between you and the student that created and maintain negative interaction patterns, name for yourself and the student the need to establish a positive pattern, and then take action. It is also important to acknowledge that the repair and establishment of a positive relationship will take time, and the student may reject initial attempts to improve the relationship.  



STRATEGY: Two-By-Ten to Build New Relationships or Break Old Patterns of Interactions

If the relationship involves a history of conflictual or negative emotional interactions, or you are trying to establish relationships with students who are not immediately receptive to your relationship building actions, use two-by-ten to set the foundation for the relationship. Select a student with whom you will spend two minutes a day, for ten consecutive school days in order to build trust. The consistency of the interaction matters more than the length of time spent with the student. The student’s feelings of relational safety will increase with each consecutive interaction. These brief but caring interactions should focus on showing the students that you see them as an individual, that you value getting to know the student’s interests and strengths, and that you see something positive in them and are able to affirm it.


2. During the establish stage you and the student do not yet have a history of interactions that have laid a foundation of trust. During the establish stage you are engaging in pedagogical relationship building actions with all of the students in your classroom. The goal is establishing a good enough relationship with each student. This enables students to feel safe, connected, and respected. These feelings aid students in their efforts to engage their self-regulation skills.


STRATEGY: Learn About Students’ Interests... and Let them Learn About Yours

A critical aspect of building relationships with anyone is getting a holistic understanding of who they are beyond the formal roles in the current context. Only by knowing who your students are, as people, will you be able to fully engage them in learning. For your students, this means asking classroom questions that invite them to share about their home lives, their interests, and their likes and dislikes. When it comes to school experiences, it means going beyond academics and genuinely inquiring about their perspectives on whether school is going well for them; the aspects of school where they experience joy and engagement, as well as the aspects where they experience anxiety, avoidance, and self-doubt.


3. During the maintain stage you are building on the good enough relationships that you have established by intentionally striving for a 5-to-1 ratio of positive praise to behavioral corrections or critique. As the developers of the EMR framework note, established relationships often diminish over time because there is a tendency to ignore or miss opportunities to reinforce good behavior and unintentionally pay more attention to negative behavior than positive behavior.


STRATEGY: Positive Feedback 5:1

Research shows that positive affirmations are effective when given in a ratio of 5 positive comments to 1 negative or corrective comment. Positive affirmations can be given for many reasons, including following directions, displaying engagement in instruction, on-task behavior, correct answers, or work accuracy or completion. Praise should be tailored to the specific student, taking into account factors like their age and skill level. For example, an educator may respond to a 4th grade student by saying, “Brittany, I noticed you had your eyes focused in your book for the entire independent reading period. Excellent work!” Giving non-contingent affirmations such as a smile and nod at random intervals can also help increase the ratio of positive to negative, especially for students who need frequent corrective redirections. Providing positive affirmations increases students’ self-esteem, positive relationships with others, and feelings of connection to the school community, and thus supports the mitigation of harm done by experiencing high levels of traumatic stress. 


Positive feedback also applies to communication with students’ family members. Through ongoing interactions with school personnel, families share in the school experience alongside students, and the reputations that students develop at school, whether positive or negative, influence students at school and at home. Students and their families can become frustrated with repeated messages home that highlight student misbehavior but lack any substantive suggestions for support. When parents or guardians perceive that their child is not being cared for by adults in the school, an adversarial relationship can develop that pits adults against one another as opposed to collaborating for the student’s benefit.


4. During the restore stage you are taking care to continually repair relational harm to established relationships. The goals is not avoiding all negative teacher-student interactions because they can be productive learning experiences, but to use them as opportunities to strengthen the student’s trust (safety, connectedness, and respect) by engaging in intentional actions of relationship repair and teaching the student how to do the same.


STRATEGY: Deliver an Empathy Statement

Empathy statements are short phrases that help create trust and mutual understanding by using your words to communicate care, and that you are interested in understanding and responding to their experiences and perceptions. Oftentimes delivering an empathy statement takes imagination because it can be difficult to see another’s perspective, especially when it is a stressful situation. Delivering statements that communicate empathy is not necessarily about agreeing with the student’s perspective;, it is about validating their right to have feelings and perspectives that may be different from yours. Displays of empathy help to build trust by communicating to students that they are understood and cared for. One empathetic statement from a caring adult can go a long way in enriching a student’s feelings of school belonging.



Differences between educators and students in status characteristics, such as race, ethnicity, socioeconomic background, and immigration history, are often associated with differences in life experiences that can create moments of cultural incongruence. Such differences can lead to moments of misunderstanding or unintended slights between the educator and student. No educator is exempt from the need to get comfortable with having uncomfortable conversations to uncover and bridge points of disconnection. For example, you may have race, ethnicity and class background in common with a given student, but there may be other differences, such as gender identification, sexual orientation, and more. 


Because of the ways that relationship building challenges are magnified when there are teacher-student identity and status differences like race, ethnicity, sexuality, socioeconomic status, gender identity, and immigration history, it is important to pay special attention to building relationships with students whom we may initially view as different from ourselves. The truth is, as research confirms, that even among those who strongly endorse principles of racial equality, often non-conscious feelings of superiority, discomfort, anxiety, and/or fear negatively affect one’s ability to build authentic relationships with members of marginalized groups. In the classroom, the responsibility for bridging cultural barriers lies with the educator. Educators hold the power to broaden or limit the opportunities that students have to bring their whole selves to school. 


STRATEGY: Self-Reflect to Prevent Implicit Biases from Determining Relationships with Students

Building relationships that surpass our implicit biases is about much more than good intentions; it is about following up on those intentions with deliberate, good action, and checking in with students to ensure that they are experiencing the relationship as strong and positive.


What you believe about students and the value of their life and cultural experiences will be evident in how you set-up your classroom and in your interactions with students. Your beliefs about students family backgrounds will be especially evident in your interactions with students who are struggling to experience success in your classroom. 


What are your beliefs about why some students struggle academically or exhibit behaviors that you experience as challenging? Do you believe that your students want to experience behavioral and academic success at school, or do you believe they are coming to school for the purpose of causing classroom disruptions? If you believe that they want to experience success, then you must look for the things about their life and cultural experiences outside and inside of school that are creating barriers to school success.

Monitor Your Biases


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