Want to Build Strong Relationships with Your Students? Think BIG!


Restorative Practices help schools create a web of support for their students by getting everyone on the same team. While it seems like that’d be an obvious starting point, sometimes the school environment ends up being a lot more oppositional than it should be. 


In the short term, this leads to higher rates of conflict and tension. In the long term, schools without strong core relationships will face higher rates of suspension, expulsion, and harm to students and faculty. Restorative Practices can provide the strategies that struggling communities need to thrive.

Getting on the Same Team

What holds all teams together? A common goal. Take basketball teams as an example. Each player has their strengths and weaknesses. Each player brings their baggage and emotional context to the games. But, as a team, they find a way to overcome those differences and work toward a common goal: scoring more points and winning the game. 


When working in an educational setting, the concept is the same: students, staff, and teachers need to be aligned in their goals for the community. But what are those goals?


A common misconception is that the main goal of teacher-student interactions is to keep students in their place and maintain order in the school environment. However, this puts teachers and students on opposing sides. It’s like two teams playing basketball against the other, each trying to win.  in a school using Restorative Practices, the goal isn’t about one team “beating” another, the goal is to get everyone on the same team. 


Ultimately, the common goal across the school for teacher-student interactions is to connect with students and build strong relationships to create a positive community climate. The goal is never to punish as this only causes further harm to the community and to individual students. Instead, those who have harmed the school community are given the opportunity to make up for that harm. Once they do, they’re welcomed back onto the team with open arms.

Building Strong Relationships with the Think BIG Framework

Of course, getting everyone on the same team is easier said than done. In his groundbreaking book, Conscious Classroom Management, Rick Smith outlines some core values that everyone in a school environment should foster both inside and outside of the classroom:

  • Proximity matters. Get within three feet of your students each day to build stronger bonds.
  • Use proactive instead of reactive strategies to prevent incidents before they occur.
  • Assume the best of your students and peers to build trust, respect, and kindness.


But, how can teachers put these values into practice? Simply start thinking BIG. The Think BIG method, which stands for Build, Identify, and Give, allows teachers and staff to navigate relationships with students in mutually beneficial ways. 


Let’s dig into the details of this strategy.


The Build phase is all about — you guessed it! — building solid relationships with students. This is when teachers and staff put in the effort to get everyone in their community on the same team. It can seem daunting to build a relationship with dozens of students when you only have so much time in a day, but when you use highly visible, proactive strategies, you can see big returns on relatively small investments.


Some easy ways to build relationships with students that are observable and impactful are:

  • Greet students at the front door when they enter the school in the morning.
  • Hold weekly office hours and invite students to come and chat with you.
  • Briefly catch up with students in the cafeteria during lunch.
  • Make friendly eye contact with students as they pass you in the hallway.


By integrating some or all of these practices, and any others you can think of, into your everyday school life, the entire community gets a lift, and kindness flourishes. 


This stage of Think BIG focuses on figuring out what to do when something in a relationship goes wrong. Perhaps conflict or tension has arisen and it’s unclear why. It’s important to get to the bottom of what’s going on, but it has to be done in a way that feels noncombative and safe for everyone involved.


When Identifying the root cause of an issue, the most important factor to remember is to set your judgments and assumptions aside. Rather than assuming that you understand a student’s motivations or using their past behavior against them, those using Restorative Practices seek to understand negative behavior instead of judging and punishing it. 


One of the easiest ways to do this in practice is to use Restorative Questions when working through an issue with a student. Instead of framing questions as attacks, try to ask open-ended questions that give the student the benefit of the doubt. For example, try asking “how did you feel when you acted that way?” or “what happened?” instead of “why are you being so rude and disrespectful today?”


The last element of Think BIG is to Give. The core idea behind Give is that every behavior is essentially an expression of an unmet need. And, once we understand those unmet needs, we can work to meet them. When everyone feels like their needs are heard and matter, conflict and tension decrease, and expressions of anger and defiance become less common.


There are four primary reasons  for disruptive classroom behavior:

  • Student desires power or control of the situation.
  • Student wants revenge for a perceived wrong or harm committed against them.
  • Student desires attention – simple as that.
  • Student wants to be left alone (self-isolation).


The most common reason for the above? The student simply desires attention. Often, this means that students will pursue that need by any means necessary, even doing what they can to receive negative attention. But, instead of ignoring a child or removing our attention from them when they are being disruptive, Give asks us to redirect the child. This could mean finding a way to give students positive attention, but at a “cost” that teaches them something. 


For example, if a student repeatedly barges into your classroom during office hours without knocking, it’s an indication that they want your attention. But, they’re not going about it respectfully. Instead of punishing the student or disinviting them from your office hours, give them a way to get the attention they want that reinforces boundaries and respect. Perhaps they have to knock and ask if they can talk to you before entering. Not only does this give the student the attention they crave, but it teaches them to seek attention in positive and respectful ways. 


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Developing strong relationships with students can seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. With a foundation of respect, kindness, compromise, and forgiveness, everyone in the school community can build and maintain strong connections that fuel their emotional wellbeing.


What are some of your favorite ways to build relationships with students? Let us know in the comments!