No teaching can be considered complete without relationships. For elementary school kids, everything is a new skill, and many of these new skills come with incredibly high stakes and a great deal of pressure. Learning these skills is challenging and often frustrating, especially for kids who feel they’re falling behind. Middle schoolers can’t win either. If you’re not great at school, you’re dumb. If you’re good at it, you’re a nerd. The best way to transform these extremes is to build relationships, starting the minute a child walks into your classroom. When you know a child well, you help them develop the resilience to push through difficulties and become capable learners. Learn new ideas for building relationships into every lesson you teach in our free guide.

Relationships help us identify obstacles kids need to overcome.

Last year, I noticed that the grades of one of my students had suddenly plummeted. He wasn’t an academic rock star to begin with, but suddenly his highest class average was a 48. Luckily, I’d built a relationship with him. So I was able to talk with him one-on-one about what was going on. He no longer had Wi-Fi at home, so he wasn’t able to do a lot of his homework. The problem was painful for him to acknowledge, but he trusted me enough to share. We solved his problem by giving him printouts of his work so he could complete all of his assignments. The problem wasn’t intelligence or motivation, it was access.

Relationships can help us identify other obstacles, too, like learning differences or attention issues. Staying curious, rather than judgmental, helps us figure out what our kids need. Because when it comes to elementary-age kids, they all want to do well, they all want approval, and they all want to feel smart, even if they show it in unexpected ways. Elementary teachers and students are working toward the same goals, and building relationships helps remind kids that we’re on the same team.

Relationships also enable kids to take risks.

When I was a fourth grader, I learned early on the power of the teacher. I lined up with the wrong class as we were going in from recess. When I eventually found my actual class, I stared through the window of the locked door for thirty minutes. By the time the teacher finally let me in, she smirked and said, “I bet you’ll line up with the right class tomorrow.” Then she had the rest of the class applaud me for eventually finding the right classroom.

I spent the rest of that year terrified of making mistakes. Luckily for me, I was a good student who didn’t need to ask for help very often. If I’d been a kid who needed frequent redirection, or struggled with the content, or had a hard time staying in my seat, or needed a little extra time to grasp the material, I can’t imagine what my year would have been like. That teacher had one goal, and it was to make sure everybody was in their seats, working quietly. And that’s exactly what I did. I knew I’d be penalized for any mistake I made, so I never read ahead, worked ahead, or explored new topics.

Kids make mistakes when they’re learning. It takes courage for a struggling reader to attempt to read a paragraph out loud to the class. They have to have faith that their teacher is on their side. They need a teacher who will help them work through their challenges, or they won’t even be able to try. If you’re hungry for more practical ideas to build these kinds of relationships, get our guide here.

Relationships become even more important as kids move into middle school.

Some kids have struggles outside of school, which may create obstacles to learning. But in middle school in particular, they’re all struggling. Even kids with the most seemingly perfect lives are dealing with the physical and emotional changes that come with turning 11 or 12. Academics take a backseat when kids are struggling for social survival in middle school, and they’re entirely focused on making it through the day experiencing as little trauma as possible. The more you can show them that you value the social and emotional aspects of their lives as much as you value academics, the more they will be ready to learn with you.

Literacy is important in middle school, too.

Middle school requires more reading and higher-level analysis. But also, books have the potential to turn these terrifying pubescent critters into actual human beings. A lot has been written about books as mirrors and windows, or the ability of books to show us ourselves as well as the lives of people we might never be exposed to—or just overlook. Mirror and window books can help young readers develop self-awareness, a sense of community, and empathy. All of these things can make middle school just a little more bearable.

By developing relationships with our students as early in the school year as possible, we can provide the mirrors and windows they need. Rather than just handing all the black kids a book by Walter Dean Myers, we have to take the time to find out who has a parent who’s been deployed, or who’s struggling with the social milieu, or even just who’s really interested in astronomy or animals or whatever. Putting the right book in the right hands is a huge part of the art of teaching reading, and the way to find that out is by getting to know who your students are, as people and as learners.

Reading is a risk for older kids.

There is literally no way to avoid making mistakes when learning to read. But, building relationships and social-emotional learning can make it easier. If teachers take the time to get to know students and build a classroom community, the stakes for public humiliation become a little lower. Social-emotional skills come in handy, too. Kids can power through the challenge of more difficult material and more easily build skills sets when they’ve been explicitly taught how to push through their own frustration and assess their understanding, especially if that instruction begins on day one of the school year. A classroom in which empathy, patience, and compassion are modeled and encouraged becomes a safe place to take risks.

We all want to teach our kids to read in the most effective way possible. It would be nice if there were a silver bullet, but the truth is that for some kids, it can be a slow and challenging process. We can’t reduce our kids to a Lexile level and hope to see them succeed. We have to do the hard work of building relationships and developing resilience and empathy in the classroom with as much attention as we dedicate to providing effective instruction, educating both the heart and the mind. Luckily, there are tons of ways to do that, starting on the first day of the school year.

We’ve pulled together some totally practical and completely awesome ways to build relationships with your students, starting on day one of school.

Why Student-Teacher Relationships Must Come Before Literacy

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