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Do You Feel Like You Can’t Reach Some Students?

MTI: Professional Development Courses

February 15, 2020

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Turning Points: Making Connections with Hard-to-Reach Students

Teachers can have a powerful impact on their students’ lives, but with some hard-to-reach students, it can be difficult to tell if we are making an impact at all. Sometimes we fail to connect with students because they lack the social skills to build healthy relationships or they carry trauma that makes it difficult for them to trust adults. Other times, despite best intentions, we spend less time interacting with our most challenging or unmotivated students. The good news is that it is never too late to change a relationship with a student. It all comes down to relational turning points.

What are Relational Turning Points?

All relationships are built on communication, and communication can be complicated. Therefore, while we build a relationship with a student (through repeated communication), the relationship itself remains in flux (Baxter 1998). This means that even a single meaningful communication event — a “relational turning point” — can alter that relationship. So even if our connection with a student is weak, we have a great potential to improve that relationship through small, but memorable interactions.

I find it heartening to learn that in one study, 65% of students could recall a specific turning point in their relationship with a teacher — a single moment where they felt a lasting change in their connection. The most positive turning points the students recalled included personal interactions such as a genuine conversation around a common interest or an offer of support. (The most negative involved mocking or humiliating behavior.) Studies show that these positive relationship changes also had an impact on students’ overall well-being; they reported increased cognitive learning, affective learning, and motivation. What I take from this study is this: it’s never too late to try with a student (and it is never okay to give up) because the better the student’s relationships are with his or her teachers, the better they can do.

Create a Turning Point: Three Ways to Connect with Students

Here are three ideas to consider if you would like to build more connections with students.

1. Relationships depend on positive communication; if your goal is to connect with a student who seems out of reach, you must find time to talk to them. One teacher recommends finding ways to connect for at least 2 minutes a day for 10 days to start. If that feels daunting, start by greeting more students at the door where it is easier to give a personalized welcome.

2. If you have a student who is reluctant to talk, James Sturtevant, author of You’ve Gotta Connect, suggests starting with “a handwritten note, folded over, and taped to the top or side of their desk. Keep it simple, brief, and understated, and make sure it reflects how you really feel. I’m glad you’re a member of this class, Reese.” For some students, your encouragement may be the only positive thing they hear that day. Even if it isn’t, unexpected kindness can create a turning point.

3. We must be willing to meet students more than halfway. For students who are slow to connect, it is up to us to keep trying with “gentle focused nudging” as Sturtevant calls it. Even though we can’t be solely responsible for the student-teacher relationship, we are responsible for giving every student a new opportunity to connect with us every day.

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