Friday, November 7, 2014

Connecting with Kids



            I work with students. Mostly juniors and seniors. Mostly students who have had problems learning in traditional high schools. Mostly students who have failed, in some way, academically. And mostly, I LOVE my job. Seriously, I wouldn’t trade where I work or the kids in my classes for anything. Recently, though, I’ve been wondering about connections. I see how effortlessly some teachers relate to students and observe others who struggle to find common ground. Some teachers have former students who visit periodically while others are as lonely as the Maytag repairman. So what is it that allows some teachers to connect so easily with kids while others have a difficult time doing so?
            Research states that students who connect with a caring adult (teacher/mentor) early on in their high school experience have a greater chance of matriculating with their cohort class. The reason most kids drop out of school, especially after freshman year (the riskiest year for at-risk students)? The students have no strong relationships with a caring adult.
            I teach the “dropouts.” Those students who have flailed in high school but never bad enough for intervention. Or if they did have an intervention, they grew frustrated and discouraged and quit. When asked, most students don’t have a high school teacher they connected with at their former school. They refer to their middle or elementary teachers as being someone to whom they responded, not anyone in high school.
            So what does it take to develop relationships with students? According to a study done by University of Minnesota researchers, students feel more connected to teachers and their school when the teacher shows empathy and is consistent. One of the researchers, Robert Blum, MD, PhD, stated that teachers who make students feel important, show empathy and consistency, allow students to manage themselves, and encourage them to make their own decisions will have a stronger relationship with students resulting in fewer discipline problems and more connected students.
            The research proves out what I see daily in my classroom. For readers who have never been a teacher, let me tell you, teaching involves much more than instruction. That is about two thirds of what I spend my time on. The rest is spent on kids, and developing that relationship and being a mentor and guide. I want students to feel safe in my room, to know I care, and to approach me, if needed, with things going on in their lives. But to do that, I need to have a relationship with them.
            So how can teachers develop this kind of relationship? I say every student is different. I’ve had some that never melted the iceberg which encased them. Others had Mt. Everest on their shoulder while others put up walls to keep from being hurt. In my years of working with students, all 24 of them, I’d say there’s an innate knowing of how to handle each student.
Yet despite how you approach them, all students want basically the same things. They want structure/boundaries. Even though it may not seem like it, I believe students feel safest when they know how far they can go. They like structure and the security it offers them. Students, at least my students, want to be treated like adults, shown respect and given responsibility for their own learning. This correlates to the study cited previously—allow students to manage themselves and make their own decisions.
I’d also agree with empathy and consistency. To build relationships with kids I think it’s important to be an active listener and to be fair/consistent with how you handle situations.
Another key to developing relationships with students is to not be stingy with the praise. Kids love to get feedback, especially positive feedback. Who doesn’t like to be told he/she has done something well? How much more for insecure teens who question their every move? Praise is important for all of us, including teens.
There are many more strategies to develop relationships with students. However you look at it, relationships are vital to seeing students be successful in the classroom. No matter what others may think, teachers know that making students feel they matter and are important, in verbal and nonverbal ways, are foundations to building strong relationships with students.
And that can make all the difference.

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