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Better Student Relationships
February 11, 2016 | Volume 11 | Issue 11
Table of Contents
Seven Classroom Structures That Support Student Relationships
Jonte' C. Taylor
How do we go beyond rapport and establish good teacher-student relationships? How can teachers build relationships on empathy, trust, expectation, support, and understanding with students? Although these questions have no easy answers, thoughtful classroom structure can increase the likelihood of effective teacher-student relationships.
Rethinking Classroom Structure
Proactive classroom structure goes beyond the design and layout of the classroom. In their seminal book, Educating Emotionally Disturbed Children, Haring and Phillips (1963) described the characteristics of the structured classroom. Although they wrote their book with students with serious behavioral disorders in mind, those principles can apply to any student, regardless of grade level or disability status. Coincidentally, and perhaps intentionally, each characteristic relates to what I consider the fundamental elements essential for positive teacher-student relationships. For each characteristic described below, I've noted the aspect of fostering positive relationships it relates to, in parentheses.
1. Co-construct reasonable, socially valid classroom rules with students in language that they understand clearly. (Shared Ownership)
When teachers co-construct classroom rules with students, students are more likely to feel ownership for them and less likely to view the rules as externally enforced. On the first day of school, as we were reviewing the classroom rules, I asked students to suggest rules while guiding them to also create rules that I required. Once completed, we had the rules I wanted as a teacher, but written in the language that students used to create them. This strategy allowed me to refer back to specific rules, conversations, and the process we used to create them when students broke a rule. Because the process of effective co-construction involves negotiating what the rules are and how they will create a better environment for learning, it enhances student ownership.
2. Explain natural and realistic consequences for following the rules, as well as for violating the rules. (Clarity)
For any relationship to grow, expectations and boundaries must be clear. On the first day of class, I informed the students what would happen if rules were not followed. I also told the students that if they did follow the rules what they could expect to receive. Over the course of the year, we reviewed the rules and consequences (good and bad) and each student had a copy of them for their desk. You should develop logical positive and negative consequences for students and communicate them clearly to students.
3. Establish academic expectations and give clear directions for completing every assignment. (Purpose)
Students, like the rest of us, want to know three things: what are we doing?, how do we do it?, and why is this important? As often as possible, I told my students what we were doing and why we were doing it. I also made sure they knew the procedures for completing class assignments, turning in homework, and working in groups, and prepared them for as many situations as possible. By being upfront and open with students about expectations, the purpose of each assignment is clear—to both you and your students.
4. Enforce consequences firmly, consistently, and predictably. Minimize inconsistency and surprises. (Honesty and Fairness)
Students are keenly aware and sensitive to fairness, especially when it comes from authority figures. Being firm but fair when applying consequences establishes the importance of the rule or process. Being consistent eliminates the perception of favoritism. Being predictable lowers ambiguity for students and establishes your fairness credentials. Because my students were part of the rule-making process, consistently reminded of the rules both visually and verbally, and aware of the specific consequences of rule infractions, students were not surprised when I enforced rules in class. I made sure all students received the same consequences (no inconsistency) every time (no unpredictability).
5. Accompany enforcement of consequences with explanations, questions, or conversations, as appropriate, to help students realize the relationship between their behavior and the consequences of their behavior. (Mutual Respect)
Disciplining a student may be unpleasant for everyone involved, but it does not have to kill a relationship. Use conversation to remind students that a consequence is happening for a specific behavior, and to identify the cause and effect of the behavior. Conversing with a student during negative situations helps by showing students you respect them enough to listen to them.
One of my students decided to be verbally aggressive with a peer who had done nothing to him. At the end of the day, I pulled John aside and talked to him (after his negative consequence) about that behavior choice and what prompted it. During our conversation, he informed me of some problems at home that I was not aware of. Giving John the opportunity to be heard, while also helping him develop strategies for making better behavior choices, allowed me to address poor behavior without forfeiting my connection to this student. After our talk, John still used verbal aggression with peers, but only in response to altercations, and never as a means to vent anger at school about home.
6. Help the child consider behavior alternatives and their possible consequences, while emphasizing self-control and independent functioning. (Mentoring for Independent Trust)
They may not "thank you," directly, but students appreciate positive guidance. No matter the age of students (I've worked with students from pre–K to adult), I use phrases such as: "Are you making a good behavioral choice?," "Keep in mind you have choices," "The behavioral choice is yours but remember what our consequences are," "You are choosing your behavior right now," and "Is this the choice you want to make?," to help students be intentional about their actions.
By emphasizing that behaviors are choices, you are telling your students that you trust them to make good decisions and to be responsible classroom citizens. To help students increase their independence, I used self-regulation strategies, cool- and calm-down techniques, and set up my class for students to function on their own. I posted my classroom procedures in multiple places and provided plenty of visual supports about how or when to do something. I also used behavior-specific praise for students exhibiting positive behaviors.
7. Become the child's ally, rather than the child's adversary. Emphasize the positive whenever possible, and convey that you expect students to succeed. (Collaboration and Support)
For some students, the intrinsic motivation to be successful in school is not there. For those students, I used language to help the students feel like we were tackling a challenge together, instead of feeling that I was the person giving them hard stuff to do. Lisa was a high school student who was academically behind by four grades and resistant to doing the necessary work to catch up. I ultimately persuaded her to engage with the challenge by presenting it as an "us vs. them" situation: The state was making us do these academic tasks, so we can help each other by struggling through them together.
In our relationships, we all want support during both the good and the bad times. Establish a positive perpetual cycle in your classroom, where students feel positively and expect positive things to happen. I was always careful to use positive verbal reinforcement and high expectations for all my students, particularly the most difficult ones. I used behavior-specific praise, not generic praise (i.e., "you're doing a good job" or "great work"), to build behavioral momentum and let students know that I believed they could succeed and improve.
Provide a Flexible Frame
Students appreciate and respond to structure. However, keep in mind that structure does not have to be rigid or stiff. There is plenty of room for fluidity, as with relationships. Bonds strengthen over time, and over shared experiences. If you can develop structure in your classroom, you will also develop strong positive relationships with your students.
Haring, N. G., & Phillips, E. L. (1963). Educating emotionally disturbed children. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Jonte' C. Taylor is an assistant professor in special education at Pennsylvania State University. Before becoming a professor, he spent 10 years developing relationships with students as a classroom special education teacher.
ASCD Express, Vol. 11, No. 11. Copyright 2016 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.
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