Advice for building strong student relationships


Strong relationships are key to preventing poor behaviour. Karen Sullivan offers some basic tips on how to build such connections with your students.

There is a wealth of evidence to support the fact that one of the key causes of stress in teachers is disruptive behaviour by students.

There is plenty of research into the best ways to curtail problem behaviours, from zero-tolerance and peer-group strategies to reward systems. There is, however, one thing that stands out among all of the research, and that is the importance of “relationships” – both meaningful relationships with teachers and positive relationships with peers.

Let’s look at the teacher-student relationship. Stoughton (2006) showed that teachers need to understand why students practise disruptive behaviour before assessing which management strategies to apply, and Lee & Powell (2006) suggest that teachers have to abandon their authoritative identity and maintain a strong relationship with their students.

This relationship doesn’t just have an impact on behaviour, either. Several studies (including Rawnsley, 1997) found that leadership, friendliness and understanding behaviour on the part of teachers lead to higher performance, and if teachers are viewed as being helpful, friendly and cooperative, students scored higher on cognitive tests.

Demaray & Malecki (2002) found that an underlying reason for problematic behaviour is the lack of adequate, sustained relationships with caring and concerned adult mentors through the adolescent years. As students perceive less social support, they engage in increased problem behaviours.

Cothran, Kulinna & Garragy (2003) found that relationship, care and respect were three primary themes identified by students as important. Students report that when they perceived a teacher to be “uncaring”, they in turn did not care about management strategies or classroom rules. Students are more willing to engage in appropriate behaviours and even work harder and achieve more if there is a level of trust, respect and communication (and established relationship) between teacher and student.

The most important thing we can take from all this is that we need to assess every students’ needs and behavioural motivation on an individual level, and then work to establish a “caring” relationship that will encourage mutual trust.

How well do you know your students? The beginning of the school year marks the perfect opportunity to establish key relationships and find out a bit more about the kids you will be teaching – whether you are a form or subject teacher. A simple questionnaire, carefully worded and marked confidential, is a good starting point. For example, what’s the best thing that’s ever happened to you – and the worst? What do you worry about most? If you could change one thing in your life, what would it be? Who can you confide in, if you have a problem?

Set up individual meetings with students and talk through some of their responses. Make it clear that you operate an open-door policy and that what they say to you will be kept in confidence.

Make an attempt to meet regularly, and don’t expect instant results; children with behavioural problems may have deep-seated issues and are often the product of dysfunctional other relationships in their lives. It will take time to build trust and a certain level of commitment on your part to quell frustration. Be prepared for behaviour to become worse before it gets better and for set-backs, too. When adolescents form new, meaningful relationships they will regularly test the boundaries to ensure they are still there. This provides security for them to commit further on an emotional level – one reason why consistency in your approach and behaviour strategies is essential.

Giving away a little about yourself – your own personal experiences that may be relevant – is a good tactic, too. There is no reason to divulge confidential personal information, nor do you need to become “friends”. There should be a level of respect maintained, within which a healthy relationship can grow. 

These simple strategies will reap rewards in the long term.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email



Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Claim Free Subscription