Relationship Building with the Diverse Learner

By Mary Matthews, Special Education Program Specialist

Teachers: you’ve made it. You’ve survived those critical first weeks of the school year. At this point, you have approximately one hundred items on your to-do list, you feel like your classroom needs to be cleaned up again, you have lessons to plan for that evaluation coming up, and most importantly, you have a roster of students whom you are finally getting to know beyond their names.

Even if you are brand new to your school, there’s likely a name or two on that roster that you heard spoken by others in your building before the year even began. Now, that student is in your class and the school year is in full swing.

That student. The stories, the preconceptions, the reputation have all likely been building up. You may have entered the year creating a vision in your mind about how this year would unfold with that particular student in your classroom each day. You may be struggling to connect with that student, or that student has exhibited some disruptive behaviors. You may even be concerned that that student is going to “be this way” all year long.

Then you see this video.

Wait…how did that happen? How did six different adults tell a completely unique story about the same person? They created a vision in their minds of the person they thought he was, based on the story they heard.

Here’s the question: how do we change what we see? It’s a challenge for sure. Even one photographer noted as he viewed the various portraits, “That’s really strange…these don’t look like the portraits of the character I thought you were.”

So, how do we learn about the true character of our students, the one behind the stories? We start with the vision in our mind. We give the student a blank slate, and we work to build a foundation of trust and mutual respect through meaningful communication and intentional actions. We change our mindset and allow our students to tell their own story.

Here are a few small steps you can take toward building rapport and relationships with students:

  1. Greet each student by name. We’ve all seen the videos of teachers with an impressive memory for individualized student handshakes. While the practice can be simplified, the goal is crucial – acknowledge each student, by name, as they enter the shared classroom space. You can even have students request how they’d like to be greeted (such as handshake, high five, or just hello). Helping students feel seen from the moment they enter the room can begin to create the warm relationships that can impact students’ academic success
  2. Learn the 2 x 10 method. This method, outlined here, encourages teachers to form relationships with students (especially those who may exhibit challenging behavior) in order to learn about their interests and hobbies outside of school. Teachers pick one student, then spend 2 minutes each day for 10 consecutive days talking to the student about non-academic related topics. The goal is to establish an authentic connection with a student that creates a foundation for a long-term positive relationship both in and out of the classroom. Caring about students with consistency is key.
  3. Explore students’ strengths. Often, our students with unique needs or challenging behaviors get “labeled” as such. Take a few minutes to reach out to a student’s parent or family member, and set the purpose of the conversation as inquiring solely about that student’s strengths. By focusing on what students can do successfully, whether at home or at school, we can begin to shift mindsets to view all students as valuable, productive members of our classroom community. You can even conduct a student interview to ask them about what they think they do well – and then utilize these strengths across classroom opportunities. Finding out about students’ likes and dislikes, who or what motivates them, and what supports they need to succeed can be an enlightening pathway to a relationship. 

Research shows that it is crucial for teachers to leverage their relationships with students to promote students’ successful school adjustment. As teachers, we need to accept the challenge to move beyond the initial story we hear and take time to learn about our students from their own perspective – learn about their self-portrait. Building relationships with diverse learners will make our impact as teachers that much more powerful.


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