a collage photographs of educators interacting with students

For principals, building relationships with students is an important step towards improving student learning. In fact, a report for the Review of Educational Research showed that a positive school climate often depended on factors such as the strength of students’ relationships with school staff, and researchers found substantial evidence that positive school climates contribute to academic achievement and can improve outcomes for students

While discussions of relationship building with students often focus on the teacher and the student, the principal-student relationship is an equally important building block to student achievement. When students are known, noticed, appreciated, and challenged by principals, school leaders, and teachers they’re able to form deeper bonds to the school. And, in turn, these deeper connections to their principals and educators ultimately accelerate motivation and learning.

How principals and school leaders can strengthen relationships with students

When it comes to building relationships with students, principals are at a bit of a disadvantage. Unlike classroom teachers, they have neither a set time nor a set place to build relationships with a particular group of students. So, how can school leaders carve out the time to connect with students one-on-one? And how can they support classroom teachers in their own efforts to build relationships with students? 

Drawing on educational best practices and the expertise of educators in the TpT community, we’ve outlined some strategic ways that principals and school leaders can build impactful relationships with students, while juggling already over-full to-do lists. We’ll also shine some light on tactics for teachers that you can share with them.

Have students meet with the principal — when they’re not in trouble

Many students dread being called to speak with their principal because it feels like it can only mean one thing: certain doom and an uncomfortable phone call to parents or caregivers. However, you can help erase the stigma by making it a perk to connect with the principal — rather than a punishment. A principal in North Carolina, for instance, instituted a birthday program, where students receive a book from the principal for their birthdays. While a book for every child may not be feasible, school leaders could replicate this relationship-building activity with things as simple as meeting to play a game or share fun facts about each other.

Make positive phone calls home

Positive phone calls with students and their caregivers can help school administrators, who are often removed from day-to-day classroom life, not only get to know students better, but also incentivize good behavior. For example, an elementary school in Colorado focuses on a different value every month, like respect or perseverance. When a student excels at that value, they get to tell their family alongside their principal. Principal Kristin Golden told Chalkbeat, “The student gets a chance to speak with family about his or her accomplishments [. . .]. Parents are thrilled to be receiving a positive call from [the] school.” 

In addition, frequent communications with caregivers can also increase student engagement. For instance, Harvard education researchers discovered numerous benefits of educators phoning students’ homes. On average, their study found that it increased the odds that students completed their homework by 40 percent, decreased instances in which teachers had to redirect students’ attention to the task at hand by 25 percent, and increased class participation rates by 15 percent.

Learn with students during observations

Class observations can give principals valuable information about what’s working — or not working — for students and teachers. On top of that, it’s also a way to show an interest in students and gain some insight into what they’re learning. During observations, when appropriate, you could join your teachers in engaging students by sharing praise with them, encouraging cross-curricular connections, and more. For example, during a small group conversation, you can encourage students to make connections like considering the stress hormones they’re learning about in biology when analyzing a character’s emotions in ELA. Doing so can demonstrate to the student that you’re dialed in to what’s going on and make their overall learning more effective.

Carve out time while doing routine tasks

While time is often in short supply for school leaders, there are opportunities to connect with students while completing other routine tasks or activities. If you’re conducting a walk-through, for instance, you can catch students in the hallway and tell them something you may have noticed them doing in class earlier in the day or week. If you want to address specific things with students in these moments, you can have your teachers give you a list of students who are doing well — or who might need some positive encouragement — to look out for in the hallways. Overall, these three-second moments can add up over time and make a huge difference in your relationships.

Tactics your teachers may not have considered 

For teachers, strong student relationships not only create a positive class culture, but it also makes instructional strategies more effective. Research indicates that building relationships with students improves student achievement (Marzano, Pickering, and Hefelbower, 2010). Here are some avenues that your teachers might not have considered when building relationships with students:

  • Take not only students’ interests but their learning styles into account. It’s often recommended that teachers cultivate knowledge of their students on a personal level by learning what they do after school and how they spend their weekends. This knowledge of their special interests or hobbies can be integrated into your instruction to make lessons more relatable. You can take it one step further by digging into students’ “praise” languages and how they like to learn.
  • Leverage your good relationships with your colleagues. Teachers — and administrators, alike — can utilize the strong relationships they’ve cultivated with each other as a building block to connecting with students. Some students have a stronger relationship with other teachers or staff members and if they discover you have a similarly strong relationship, this can help build trust and rapport. You can also connect with colleagues for advice on how to build strong relationships with students they know well.
  • Take time every day to check in with students. TpT Teacher-Author Leigh from The Applicious Teacher recommends checking in with students every morning. “It allowed me to know when special events occurred or what was happening at home. The whole process only took about 10 minutes, but it helped me ‘know’ my students on a personal level and allowed me to show that I truly care about them as not only a student but as a person,” she said.

Further Reading List
Want to dive deeper into this topic? Here’s a curated reading list of the sources that we cited and referred to while writing this piece.

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