Use these interactive strategies to build strong relationships with middle and high school students without sacrificing teaching time
Twenty-five years ago, as a new teacher, I struggled to connect with students. Relationship-building wasn’t covered in my teacher credential classes, and with everything I was expected to cover in my curriculum, I was worried that “getting to know” my students would sacrifice valuable time.
Over the years, I’ve found that engaging relational activities can foster strong connections and make space for metacognition without encroaching on teaching time. Here are a few of the approaches I’ve used:
1. Attendance Check-in
We all have to take attendance, meaning we have a set time to connect individually with students. Instead of having them respond with “Here” when they’ve heard their name, I ask students to respond to a prompt, in order to use this time more intentionally.
Some days, we use the RULER Mood Meter, and students identify the color they’re feeling. Other days, they share their “hype songs” (songs that get their energy up) or thematic music recommendations (e.g., study music, calming songs, angry or sad music). Together, we make a Spotify playlist for the class, which becomes a shared piece of our community.
No matter the prompts you choose, this approach invites every student to have a voice, share a piece of themselves with peers, and build a culture of connectedness without encroaching on instruction.
2. Pause for Reflection
Despite, or maybe because of, the extensive curriculum I need to cover, I’ve learned the value of slowing down and making time for reflection. It’s easy to barrel ahead with subject matter, but I’ve discovered that students absorb the material better and are more meaningfully engaged when we stop to think about our learning.
I often employ quick formative assessments such as a thumbs-up/-down or fist-to-five to gauge how students feel about a concept we’ve been studying, especially when their attention is fading. “OK, let’s pause for a moment,” I say, “thinking about the idea of symbolism in Their Eyes Were Watching God, who thinks they can explain the meaning of one symbol in the book? Thumbs-up if you have one, and thumbs-down if you don’t. OK, hands down. Now, raise your hand if you’d like to share one.”
This may sound simple, but the pause gives students space to think about the question and formulate their answer. It helps me determine how well the class is understanding the concept, and without fail, more students are willing to give in-depth answers than when I don’t use this method.
A variation is the standing Likert scale, which I use when class energy feels low. I post numbers along the front wall of my room, but you can do this without the visual. “Let’s reflect for a second,” I say. “How are you feeling about the character Victor Frankenstein at this point in the novel? How sympathetic do you feel toward him? Now, get up and stand along the front wall next to the number that shows your level of sympathy, one being ‘Not sympathetic at all,’ five being ‘Extremely sympathetic,’ two to four meaning somewhere in between.” Once students have chosen their number, I have them discuss their feelings with those standing nearby before sharing their reasoning with the larger group.
This activity gets students moving and talking. I walk up and down the line, listening to conversations and chiming in when appropriate. I get a read on how well students understand the subject matter, and they are able to use their voices to engage with the material.
3. Capture Closing Thoughts
The last few minutes of class can be a valuable opportunity to reinforce the day’s lesson and the class’s sense of connection. But so often, conversations run over, the bell rings, and we’re interrupted mid-thought.
Because of this, I ask a student to remind us when there are five minutes left in class. Students know that before they pack up, we will have a closing activity. Sometimes that looks like a written exit ticket, but when we don’t have time for writing, other quick activities offer pause.
One Word Whip Arounds, for example, ask students to share just one word in response to a prompt (how they’re feeling about an essay, or the thesis they created that day, or the theme of a poem discussed in class). We stand in a circle and share our words (I’ve found that students are more focused if they’re standing up rather than shoving notebooks in their backpacks). Time permitting, students can also reflect on peers’ answers, noting common themes.
Another approach is the One Minute Accolade. Students think about something they appreciated from class: something they learned, something that went particularly well, someone they want to thank, something they’re grateful for. When they come up with something, they raise their hand. Once a good number of students have their hands raised, I set a timer for one minute. They take turns sharing their accolades until the timer rings, ending class on a positive note.
4. The Joy of Connection
Students learn better when they feel connected to teachers, classmates, and the school at large. Emotions, both ours as teachers and those of our students, are at the heart of this connection. The above strategies center emotional responses to learning and make space for relationship-building; they’re a starting point, and if you’re eager for more, you might enjoy CASEL’s SEL Three Signature Practices Playbook, where I have discovered useful opening and closing activities that foster engagement and connection.
Building connections with students is critical, and it is equally important to foster supportive relationships with colleagues. Listening to challenges, sharing strategies, and brainstorming better approaches combats the teaching silo and transfers to the learning space, meaning that we have greater power to make our classrooms joyful places where students, and we ourselves, look forward to learning.
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