The Importance of Relational Teaching in SEL

The Importance of Relational Teaching in SEL

Written by: Bonnie Kulenkamp M.Ed

May 21, 2021

When asked to reflect on your favorite teachers during your school-career, you may be more inclined to remember teachers who spent time getting to know you than teachers who strictly taught content. Great educators understand the need to foster growth in their students academically as well as socially and emotionally. This current educational “trend” to push for social emotional learning encompasses what many teachers do innately or what they’ve seen modeled in their own experiences with their own favorite teachers. During this past year of virtual, hybrid, and in-person learning, the importance of relational teaching was tested through screens and in many virtual classrooms.

A barrier that I heard repeatedly from teachers instructing virtually was the difficulty in creating relationships and getting to know their students. Many teachers began the school year virtually and had never physically seen their students outside of the screen. Due to COVID, many traditional back-to-school events, such as Back-to-School Night or Ice Cream Social, were moved to a virtual platform or cancelled entirely. Teachers who previously knew their students and families may have had an additional advantage. These teachers were able to form a relational tie to their students before they were forced to teach online. As we finish this historical school year, some teachers may close the year without ever meeting some of their students in person.

No significant learning can occur without a significant relationhip. - Dr. James ComerThis year, like many families, my husband and I have never met our own children’s teachers outside of phone calls, texts, or zoom conferences. Our four children are currently in fifth grade, fourth grade, and kindergarten. Our family has spent time on virtual learning when their school closed as well as in-person learning when it reopened again. My husband and I have not seen their classrooms and we have attended any open houses or events at school outside of our laptop screens. We hear many stories from our children at the dinner table regarding what happened each school day or what they are working on, but outside of a few playdates we have never met most of the people in these stories.

The root of social emotional learning is relational teaching. A child cannot learn unless they feel safe. This emotional safety is created in classrooms from a teacher’s encouragement to take risks and make mistakes, space to test different methods and strategies to solve problems, and the promotion of safety for a student to feel they can be their authentic self. My first blog post touched on the 5 Components of Social Emotional Learning and two of the main components are relationship skills and social awareness. Great teachers know that their classroom must include time and space to foster these skills.

The benefits to relational teaching are numerous. Teachers who use relational teaching may see the pay-off in increased student engagement, increased attendance, increased parent participation and partnership, decreased behavior incidents and class disruptions, and more student risk-taking, problem-solving and authentic learning. A child that feels encouraged, safe, and welcome will learn more than a child who does not feel comfortable to make mistakes, unseen, unheard, and unknown by their teacher or classmates.

Relational teaching comes easier to some teachers than others. Some teachers may struggle with connecting with their students as they may see hundreds of students per day or week. It is important to note that the elements of relational teaching can be used by teachers regardless of situation.

It is also important to note that many teachers may feel a sense of failure if they cannot connect to hard-to-reach students. Many students may put up a wall when it comes to showing their true authentic selves to their teachers or other adults due to fear or previous experiences of being hurt. Even though these situations may make creating a relationship much harder, it is important for teachers to understand that the attempts are still worthwhile. An attempt towards relational teaching with hard to reach students is better than no attempt at all and may eventually lead to the student trusting another teacher in the future.

Below are some techniques to use with students to foster relationships within their classrooms. Although many experienced teachers may already understand these techniques, this may also serve as an important reminder on how to re-connect or strengthen these practices.

Think Beyond the Beginning of the Year Surveys

Many teachers begin the year with different types of surveys and “getting to know you” activities for their classes. These are excellent ways to begin to form understandings of your students. Many teachers may abandon these types of activities once the school year is in full swing and the “academic clock” has started. Teachers know (and are usually constantly reminded) there is a limited amount of instructional time each school day to push for rigorous learning. Teachers may fear that they are judged if their administrators see they are taking time out of the instructional block to do relational activities. These activities, although, are crucial to student buy-in and teacher understanding of the students they serve.

Strategies to incorporate: Teachers may try check-in and check-out activities to gauge their student’s thinking and allow students’ privacy to submit any information to the teacher anonymously. Community circles have been long-standing fixtures in early grade classrooms but are beneficial to older students as well.

Allowing time to administer open-ended questions allows teachers to better understand what and how students are thinking. Lunch bunches, attending or hosting after school enrichment and clubs, Pending your administration’s policies, family home visits are also great ways for teachers to see students in a new light and often within their comfort zone. This additionally allows a meeting to be more informal and casual and allows the student and family to see a teacher with more vulnerability.

Remember to Stay Authentic

There is nothing worse than someone being nice to you with ulterior motives, and students of all ages can see right through someone who is being “fake.” Students, and especially the hard-to-reach type, do not always automatically trust their teachers. A great way to break your students’ trust is to be inauthentic and someone that you are not. It is not enough to state that you care about a student or their goals, you must show it authentically. Do not say what you do not mean to your students. Teachers who show genuine authenticity to their students can see the benefits of increased trust and increased independence and problem solving.

Strategies to Incorporate: Doing relationship building activities at the beginning of the year instead of embedded throughout the school year is a sure fire way to show inauthenticity. When asking questions:

  • Do you look students in the eye? 
  • Do you pay attention or are you doing other tasks at the same time? 
  • Do you notice when your students are not ok even though they say they are? 
  • Do you follow through with what you say you are going to do or are your promises empty? 
  • Do you share your faults with your students as well as your strengths? 

These are all ways that teachers can show authenticity in the classroom.

As BRENE BROWN says, “Be Vulnerable”

You will find it is easier to connect with students if you share in your own vulnerability. Although teachers’ benefit from creating a strong structure and policies of conduct within the classroom, showing students their more vulnerable side can show benefits to student learning. Teachers who show that they also make mistakes and acknowledge their mistakes in front of their students create an environment of vulnerability and promote empathy.

Many students may not have heard of an adult admitting their mistakes or apologizing for their actions. Modeling vulnerability in front of students allows students to see their teacher as a person with natural flaws and in turn may show themselves or their peers with more kindness. A student who understands that mistakes are part of life and the learning process is building their own resilience when faced with future challenges. These students understand that challenge is expected for growth and struggle is a necessity.

Strategies to incorporate: Model how to apologize when mistakes are made (to students or other adults in your classroom). Review your feelings and emotions that occurred during the mistake and afterwards to normalize these feelings. Share in family photos, or your own childhood photos, for students to see and ask questions about your life. As teachers normalize making mistakes, allow students to reflect on mistakes they have made and their outcomes.

Don’t Just Hear but LISTEN to Students

To piggy-back off of authenticity and vulnerability is the act of active listening. Listening and paying attention are constant reminders that we as teachers give our students yet we are not always great models of this ourselves. Teachers and students are more distracted than ever before in our classrooms. From cell phones to smart watches, email notifications, ear pods, intercom interruptions, behaviors, bells, and alarms—our classrooms are constantly busy.

Strategies to incorporate: Let students speak without interruption. Ask students clarifying questions to ensure your understanding. Help students find the words needed to communicate their thoughts, concerns, and feelings. Allow space, such as community circles, anonymous commenting, or support, for students to share their concerns. After a student shares a concern, ensure that it is followed up on or revisited to check back in. Listen without any implicit bias that may be unknowingly clouding or driving your opinion of a situation or concern. Allow students choice and voice when completing projects or showing that they understand the content.

Understand Student Goals 

Once you begin creating relationships with your students you may begin to better understand their goals. As a child who grew up in the late 80s and early 90s, attending and graduating from college was an expectation that was given to myself and my peers each year. A teacher may believe that in order to be successful in life, each student in the classroom must be college bound by 12th grade graduation.

These beliefs are outdated, often biased, and sometimes limiting. Not every bright future begins with college and not every student has their eyes on this goal. In addition, brain research shows that at age 18 and 19, the frontal cortex (the key decision-making areas of the brain) is not yet fully formed until years later. This isn’t the best time in a student’s life to begin taking out loans if their future goals are unclear! Additionally, a child from adversity who struggles at home or school may not have many long-term goals. These students are concerned with their daily, if not hourly, immediate needs. Restating to a student that they must be college-ready when the student is struggling with basic needs does not always create connection.

Strategies to incorporate: Using the skills of active listening and checking in, create dialogue around what the student believes to be important. Be receptive of what the child’s current dreams and aspirations are. Discuss what it takes to achieve these specific goals. Connect students, when able, to members of the community that have pursued these goals. If a child struggles with long-term goals, discuss shorter term ones that they find meaningful. Although being a professional Youtuber might be less than realistic in our adult minds, listening to our students discuss this goal may help us realize what they find important and see into their interests and understand them more.

Believe in Second (and Third, and Fourth…) Chances 

When beginning to form relationships with your students you may find that some happen easier than others. As stated before, you may struggle with specific students who you cannot connect with authentically. For students you may struggle making a connection with, let them know that you will not hold their mistakes against them.

Let students know that after a rough day you will begin tomorrow with a clean slate. For students with behavioral issues, let them know if trust was broken but is still repairable and create a plan together to rebuild. Understand that students will develop at different paces academically, socially, and emotionally and that it is your privilege to watch them on this journey.

Strategies to incorporate: Use community circle time to address and own mistakes you may make as a teacher and ask for a “redo” on any lessons or situations with your students. Allow students opportunities to retake and redo assignments and assessments until the learning target is achieved. Again, give students options and choices when making assignments and assessments. Use techniques such as Restorative Justice to make plans for incidents that require apology and forgiveness.

Keep Expectations High 

There will be many students you meet that are not on grade level, struggle with content, and have disabilities or factors that are holding them back and behind in different ways. Once you understand where these students are coming from and the amount of adversities they face it is easy to lower your expectations for them. As stated before, a child or their family may not have the expectation that they are college bound. Regardless, allow the student to know that you are committed to helping them reach their goals.

As you get to know students you will better understand their specific areas of struggle and challenge. Through authentic conversation you will understand their goals, either immediate or long term, and know how to best support them during your short time with them. Through reflection on your own biases’ you can ensure that you are guiding them through productive struggle that does not leave them without appropriate support.

Strategies to incorporate: Let students know that you are prepared to push them but will offer support. Share office hours, video tutorials, or notes to assist students who may struggle more with the content. Allow students to know that they may fail the first time but you will be reteaching in order to ensure their understanding. Offer small group or study table support. Share with students your rubrics and grading criteria and make sure it is transparent what expectations are so that there are no invisible targets. Share exemplars and examples with discussion so that students know your expectations and allow scaffolding to ensure each child can achieve.

The importance of relational teaching in fostering students academic, social, and emotional growth are indeed numerous and embed best practices for instruction. During this age where many people are disconnected, it is important to ensure that students are getting practice and preparation for face to face interactions and relationships with others that will ensure they are successful in whatever path they choose to follow.



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  • Bonnie Kulenkamp has been educating students since 2003. She has served as an administrator and classroom teacher in both Indianapolis district and charter schools. Kulenkamp's passion is educating teachers and colleagues on trauma informed and neuroscience based classroom practices. Kulenkamp graduated from Ball State University with a bachelors in Elementary Education and from the University of Indianapolis with her masters in Curriculum and Instruction and Mild Interventions. Bonnie additionally holds a certification in Applied Educational Neuroscience from Butler University. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Urban Educational Studies at IU. Kulenkamp’s passion is to provide support and guidance to pre and in service teachers and equip them with trauma informed and brain based practices to address student needs. Kulenkamp resides with her husband, four children, dog, cat, and a coop full of chickens in Broad Ripple, Indiana.

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