Relationships - Winning Classroom Management
Updated: May 31
Relationships are important because attachment is key to healthy functioning. Attachment, in the psychological sense, is a deep, enduring emotional bond between people. For most students, their primary attachment figure is one or both parents. When those are unavailable or insecure, other caretakers can serve as attachment figures, such as grandparents, older siblings, or other relatives.
Attachment is crucial to healthy social-emotional regulation because it liberates children. Students with a healthy emotional attachment feel safe to explore the world. They have a safe haven to retreat to when they feel threatened, tired, ill, frustrated, or unhappy. They can take risks, from riding a bike for the first time to trying to decode a multisyllabic word, knowing they have someone they can turn to for soothing and restoration.
Learning is fundamentally a risky behavior. It asks students to stretch beyond themselves to a place of uncertainty, adding to their repertoire of knowledge while being exposed to the possibility of not knowing, doing it wrong, and all in front of their peers. Learning can be downright scary for students, but those with a secure attachment can weather the storm knowing that they have a safe harbor to retreat to when the going gets tough.
While teachers can’t directly influence the attachment relationship that students have with their parents or caretakers, they can themselves serve as attachment figures. When teachers develop strong, supportive relationships with students, they provide a safe haven in the classroom for students to retreat to when learning seems too dangerous.
For some students, the strong teacher-student relationship simply serves as an added layer of support, as they already have a secure base at home. For others, their teacher might be the only thing anchoring them in a frightening, chaotic world. Teachers can evaluate their relationships with their students by answering a few simple questions.
Do students instinctively move toward teachers (or away from them)?
Are students genuinely glad to see their teachers?
Do students readily share their work with their teachers?
Do students express affection for their teachers?
The more these questions can be answered affirmatively, the stronger the attachment students have with their teacher. The opposite is plain to those who know what to look for.
In insecure relationships, students move away from the teacher. They may demand attention and overly seek help. They may be possessive, dependent, and needy while resisting classroom routines. An insecure attachment might show up as aloofness or it might be closer to an unhealthy clinginess.
Students who have a robust, supportive relationship with their teacher develop a healthy personality and emotional well-being. This in turn translates into academic achievement and prosocial behavior. The root of all of this is a secure attachment, something within the scope of teachers’ influence.
Teachers who play to win the classroom management game do so from the foundation of strong teacher-student relationships. When students’ own emotional needs are met, they are better able to meet others’ needs. Students are in a position to learn positive social and emotional skills in healthy relationships with teachers that they can apply to social settings. Ultimately, students develop internal models of themselves based on their attachment type. When secure, they view themselves as worthy of love and view others as trustworthy and caring. When insecure, they view themselves as unworthy of love and believe that no one is going to look out for them. These internal models ultimately affect how they will approach classmates and teachers.
Good behavior begins with secure attachments. One of students’ most pressing needs, discussed in greater detail in chapter 4, is attention. They are constantly in need of being seen and validated by others. When strong teacher-student relationships exist, they have a variety of healthy avenues through which to meet their emotional needs. When students do not have a safe harbor from which to operate, the world can be a frightening place. Insecure attachment drives students to seek attention in unhealthy ways that can annoy others and push them even further away.
The fourth key for winning the classroom management game, discipline, is only made possible when strong, supportive relationships exist. There are no magic tricks that can keep kids’ behavior in check without a secure attachment. Behavior management without relationships will at best get compliance but more likely will result in behavioral chaos. Relationships aren’t simply a nice add-on to have; they are crucial for any successful classroom.
There are many ways to form strong, supporting relationships with students. The following strategies are three ways to get started on forming secure attachments with students.
Interact with the whole child. For many teachers, high-stakes testing is the ultimate evaluation of their success. This, in turn, can easily transform students from little humans into a performance band. Instead of seeing Juan and Carla for who they are, students are sometimes interacted with according to their level of proficiency (e.g., Juan is Tier 3 and struggles to meet grade level expectations; Carla is fine, she’s Tier 1 and doesn’t need any extra help). Children are more than their performance band. They have hobbies, interests, hopes, and dreams. If they like playing Roblox, learn the lingo to connect with them. If they are into K-Pop, learn to differentiate between BTS and Blackpink. When teachers can connect with children on a personal level, that places the relationship on a much deeper level than simply one revolving around core content.
Cultivate social interactions. While content will still be front and center in the classroom, that doesn’t mean there is no room for social conversations in the classroom. Instead of taking time away from learning, it actually creates more time because students with stronger relationships with teachers misbehave less and focus more. A simple way to get started is to meet students at the door each morning. Greet them by name and maybe even give them a handshake or fist bump. This sets the tone of each class day on a positive note. The teacher’s smiling face might be the first one they’ve seen all day. Another strategy is called 2 x 10. When teachers recognize their relationship with a particular student is weak, they can dedicate 2 minutes of uninterrupted social conversation for 10 straight school days to give the relationship a turbo boost. In this unstructured time, the student drives the conversation and the teacher is simply a passenger along for the ride.
Bring yourself into the classroom. Students emotionally connect with real humans, not cardboard cutouts. Rather than hiding their personalities and hobbies, many teachers have discovered that their students are fascinated with facts about them outside of the classroom. Students like to hear about their teacher’s children and pets, the sports they might play, or even what they did over the weekend. When teachers open up in a healthy way and share themselves with their students, it creates a sense of vulnerability that the students recognize and respond to. Instead of thinking less of them, students will appreciate and connect with a teacher they view as a real human rather than a fact-spewing automaton.
Find all the episodes in this web series (and the free eBook) here.
Bergin, C. (2018). Designing a prosocial classroom: Fostering collaboration in students from prek-12 with the curriculum you already use. W.W. Norton & Company.