Professional Learning

Educating the Whole Child: Building Teacher-Student Relationships That Last

6 Min Read
Wf926906 Hmh Middleschool 2019 19630

A couple of years ago, I received a text from one of my former students, Marilynn, informing me that the aunt who raised her had passed away. We hadn’t spoken in years, and I was touched that she chose to share the profoundly personal moment of losing a parent figure with me. Over the years, I have received similar texts and calls from former students inviting me to graduations, celebrating the birth of a new child, or sharing the news of receiving their first group of students as a new teacher! Students actively reaching out to reconnect time and time again has confirmed for me that the relationships I forged with my students were important and had a long-lasting impact on their lives.

Educators have the unique opportunity to positively impact the social well-being and academic success of their students in a holistic way that can foster a lasting influence in their lives well beyond their exit from our classrooms. This can be done by addressing students’ social and emotional needs in addition to their cognitive needs.

As you continue to develop your practice of building positive teacher-student relationships, consider these five steps from my practice and other master teachers across the country to reinforce your capacity to address the social, emotional, and academic needs of your students.

1. Be personable with your students.

As educators, it’s necessary to set healthy boundaries between our personal lives and our students; however, it's also important for students to see us as human! Try sharing information about yourself, your family, or even a pet to establish that human connection with your students. Students love to hear stories about your children or other important people in your life. They also like to know how you spend your time outside of school. My students knew that I loved playing tennis on the weekends—come Monday morning, they wanted to know if I “kicked some butt"!


Mrs. Wills, a teacher in Indiana, shared with her students her concern about her dad, who was having health issues. She wanted to show her students a personal side of herself as a caring daughter outside of her role as teacher. Sharing appropriate personal moments with your students fosters mutual respect and trust.

2. Get to know your students.

It’s important to cultivate your knowledge of your students on a personal level by learning what they do after school and how they spend their weekends. Your knowledge of their special interests or hobbies can be integrated into your instruction to make lessons more relatable. Find out whom your students live with and what responsibilities your students have at home. A clear view of students' family dynamics and lives outside of school provides a better understanding of their social interactions and the impact on their academic performance.

My former student Marilynn, whom I mentioned earlier, was being cared for by an elderly aunt who was doing her best to provide for Marilynn’s basic needs. Knowing this, I checked in with Marilynn in the mornings to see if she needed additional time or assistance with her homework. The more you know about students and their circumstances, the better you will be able to meet their individual needs.

3. Set stretch goals.

Setting high expectations for students creates behavioral and academic enthusiasm to achieve ambitious targets. It’s not necessary to be overly strict or insensitive to students' circumstances to set high achievement expectations in your classroom. On the contrary, having high expectations demonstrates that their success is an important priority for us while positioning them to achieve.

I taught a student who was diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome. In accordance with the law, I provided her with accommodations as outlined by her Individualized Education Plan (IEP). However, I also expected her to participate in classroom activities and complete her modified assignments. The student and her parents were unaccustomed to teachers challenging her due to her disability, and in the beginning, I was met with a lot of resistance. Within a month, her parents witnessed a dramatic improvement in their daughter’s academic performance, including completing rigorous tasks and engaging in positive social interactions with peers due to being held accountable and to high standards.

Setting high expectations demonstrates a vote of confidence in students' abilities, which encourages them to reach new heights and accomplish things they never believed they could! This is an important component of their social-emotional learning.

4. Make learning fun.

Students learn best when learning is made fun! With so much pressure to stay on track with the pacing calendar, we sometimes forget to empathize with our students and create an enjoyable learning experience for them. Lessons should be relatable to students—designed to pique their interest and get them motivated to learn. Consider how to structure the tasks so that students are engaged and relish completing their assignments!

Ms. Patterson, a teacher in Atlanta, connects with her students by creating fun songs that align with the content and motivate students to attend her classes. The students associate Ms. Patterson with fun, which creates a safe environment for relationship building. Don’t have Ms. Patterson’s creative chops? Search the internet and websites like Pinterest for great ideas.

5. Reach out to students in need.

Over the course of a year, students can face many challenges that negatively impact their ability to be at their best in school. Teachers have the responsibility of keeping an eye out for students who are struggling not only academically but also socially and emotionally—to lend them support through difficult times. Demonstrating to a student that you care and are engaged in their overall well-being can make a big impact inside and outside the classroom.

Mrs. Ortega, a teacher in Pennsylvania, has created a self-awareness board where students draw an emoji to express their current mood as a way to check in on her students. She follows up with students who are not having a good day and aims to help them work through whatever issues they have. Simply being intentional about getting to know your students is a great strategy to keep abreast of students’ social and emotional needs and solidifies you as part of their support system.

Supporting students’ social and emotional wellness is a catalyst for building strong teacher-student relationships that can ensure they are better adjusted, have more confidence, and perform better academically. Consider how you can incorporate these five tips into your practice to strengthen relationships with your students and have a lasting impact on their future.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


You can book a keynote with Venola Mason to bring her expertise about social-emotional learning and 21st-century learning to your school or district.

Learn how to integrate social and emotional learning across all subject areas with our SEL curriculum.

Get our free SEL guide full of research-backed information.

Related Reading