7 ‘Back-Pocket Strategies’ to Overcome Relationship Barriers with Students

The student who won’t turn their camera on. The one who rolls their eyes during office hour. The student who avoids submitting any work whatsoever. The one who continues to play video games on another screen when attending a Zoom/Google Meets/ Microsoft Teams class.

When it comes to building strong, professional, caring relationships with students, sometimes barriers come up that we need to find away to work around. They might come from us: some of us might be uncomfortable with public speaking, being on video . . . with technology in general. Sometimes our personality doesn’t ‘click’ with our students. As Rita Pierson said, we might not like all of our students, but they can never know that. So how can we break down these barriers to establish these relationships? We need what I like to call ‘back-pocket strategies‘–you know, those strategies that you can pull quickly and easily out of your back pocket.


First of all, give yourself the gift of grace if there are barriers that you’re experiencing right now. Mental and physical wellbeing should come first. We are all experiencing a level of trauma–between the continued quarantine for COVID 19, the smoke in the western United States, and everything else that might impact our wellbeing–and we are all responding to it in different ways. There is no one ‘right’ way to respond, just as there is no one ‘right’ way to teach via distance learning. With so much going on in the world around us, keep the following 7 strategies in your back-pocket so that you can use them over and over again to build those professional, strong, caring relationships with students.

  1. Make a plan. It’s easy to get swept up in how much we have to teach when we review the overwhelming standards for each content area and grade level. Because of this, I strongly advocate for planning out when and how you will build connections. As Kevin Eikenberry says, if “relationships are important to you, you must make them a priority.” If we don’t plan for building relationships, when will it happen?
  2. Endorphin creation. Pronounce the student’s name correctly! When we call a person by name, it triggers endorphins in our brains. What a great way to acknowledge a student’s humanity and make them feel good at the same time! As you greet them, think the following to yourself so your greeting is warm: I’m so happy to see you! When you are communicating with students and families–whether it’s face to face, in a video conference, or via email, smile! Smiling impacts the tone that you use and helps to communicate invitation and warmth.
  3. Gratitude Mindset: Adopt a mindset of gratitude when it comes to working with the most difficult students. Find ways to thank them and to appreciate their unique talents. Thank them for coming to office hour. Thank them when they greet you.
  4. Find their interests! My oldest son absolutely loves mountain biking and he doesn’t know if his teachers know this. His passion for this sport is a gateway to engaging him in a professional relationship and in learning. If students are reluctant to share, or they are just absent, reach out to their parents and ask what the students are interested in. Get curious about their interests and you will build those connections! Another way to learn more about what interests students is to ask them to do a heartmap. Heartmaps were created by Georgia Heard and come in many forms–and can give you powerful information about students.
  1. Celebrate What’s Right With the World: DeWitt Jones did a TedTalk about his work as a National Geographic photographer. In this, he shared how in order to find that beautiful photograph, he adopted the mindset of celebrating what is right with the world. Through this, he was better able to see the positivity and beauty. What will happen when, with the student who might be exhibiting the most difficulties, we look for the student’s beauty and find the positive attributes the student has?
  1. Reset – everyday. As you begin your work day, take a moment to think about your more difficult student(s). Set your intention to be positively curious about them and to completely reset from the prior day. Think about how you have interacted with this student in the past. Is there something you can change? Is it possible to change the dynamic between you and the student? Dorie Clark suggests that even “the best of intentions – including an agreement with your colleague to turn over a new leaf – can quickly disintegrate if you fall back into your old patterns” (2014). 
  2. 2 x 10 strategy:  Raymond Wlodkowski created this brilliant strategy to help break down barriers. It takes a mere 2 minutes a day! For 10 days, ask the student(s) who you are trying to connect with about anything other than school and then share something (not related to school) with them for a total of 2 minutes. Hang in there–it might take 3 days of doing this, but it might take all 10 to jump-start that strong connection.

When we take the time to find the beauty between us, both our students and our souls thrive. I hope the 7 back-pocket strategies above help you to build those amazing relationships that help to catapult your students’ learning into the stratosphere!

At the end of each month, I’m going to do a “Side Note” post. Join me next week for a blog about the power of Bullet Journaling!

Notes for School Leaders

How can you, as a school leader, help teachers plan to connect with their students? Can you give them time to make these plans during a staff meeting? Maybe you might model the heartmap activity? Perhaps you could lead them through a mindful activity in the morning to help them reset for the day? Will you keep these strategies in your back-pocket for individual conversations? One time I showed the TedTalk: Celebrate What’s Right in the World to my staff right before school started. It was a great way to set the tone for the school year and talk together about how we might adopt that mindset. Send me an email and let me know what works for you!

If you like this post, please click “like” below, join my email list, follow, and share with your friends!

Success! You're on the list.