Accelerate Learning by Making Connections: Build Trust Through Relationships, Community, and Connection

Explore four ways to accelerate learning through classroom connections: connecting teacher to student, student to student, teacher to family, and student to learning.

Grades K-12 15 min Resource by:

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many students have been learning in hybrid or remote environments for a year or more. Even for those who have been able to attend face-to-face classes, interactions have often been limited due to physical distancing and mask-wearing restrictions. Following these types of disruptions, we need to be aware that students often need help transitioning back to in-person classes.

It’s also important to be aware that students may have experienced significant trauma during this past year. For some, school is their safe place, and being forced to learn at home for extended periods of time may have exposed them to unstable or unsafe environments. Students may have lost access to the regular and nutritious meals that they had been receiving at school. Family members may have lost jobs due to pandemic layoffs, causing financial instability. The separation from friends and social interaction has also been difficult, and some students may have experienced bouts of loneliness and depression. Still others have tragically lost loved ones as a result of the coronavirus.

With all this in mind, we should assume that students will return to us shaped by these experiences, and they will likely need our support and guidance to make this a successful transition back to in-person learning. Hanover Research recently published a brief, Preparing for Post-COVID-19 Student Re-Engagement. Based on their research, there are three key trauma-informed strategies that teachers can use to help students successfully reenter school: develop relationships, focus on social and emotional learning (SEL), and establish routines. These components work together to help students feel safe, seen, and empowered.

Rebuilding classroom relationships and community is arguably the most important first step in not only reacclimating students to school but also in empowering them to accelerate their learning. There are four key connections to consider.

 

The first way to accelerate the learning in your classroom is to make sure that your students feel welcome, accepted, and valued. To do this, you will want to connect individually with each student. This personal connection can lead to respect and trust, which are critical in establishing a positive learning environment. In their research published by the American Psychological Association, Sara Rimm-Kaufman and Lia Sandilos confirm, “Teachers who foster positive relationships with their students create classroom environments more conducive to learning and meet students’ developmental, emotional and academic needs.” They go on to point out that positive teacher–student relationships result in less classroom conflict, more student independence, better social skills, and improved academic performance. In addition, when students trust their teachers, they are much more likely to ask for help, which can lead to more timely intervention and academic assistance.

Here are a few ways that you can begin to establish and nurture positive relationships with your students.

  1. Greet students by name. A name is an integral part of a person’s identity. Greeting students by name honors them as individuals and sends the message, “I see you.” One way to do this is to stand by your classroom door and greet each student as they enter the classroom. If you are utilizing videoconferencing software, you can greet students by name as they enter the virtual meeting. You can also call them by name during class discussions and use their name in one-on-one conversations before, during, or after class. In any of these contexts, it’s important to pronounce names correctly. Rather than repeatedly asking students to pronounce their names in front of their peers, you might have them use Flipgrid (Tips) to record a more private introduction of themselves, including the proper pronunciation of their name.
  2. Show interest in your students’ lives. A great way to show you care (and to get to know your students better) is to express interest in their lives. Ask them about extracurricular activities, personal interests, and how they are feeling. Then, follow up by mentioning personal information in conversations to show that you were really listening. Showing interest shows you care.
  3. Send a letter home. This is a great strategy to use at several points during a school year. Sending a letter to students and families before the year starts shows that you are excited to meet them, and it is a great opportunity to introduce yourself. Sending a note at any time throughout the school year that celebrates a student’s success is a great way to build their confidence and pride, and it extends the celebration beyond the classroom and into the student’s home. By taking the time to send a note, you are telling the student that you care and that you value them.
  4. Ask students to tell you about themselves. One way to get to know each student more personally is to structure an activity where they each tell you about themselves. You might have them write you a letter or fill out a digital survey. This can be done through a video platform (like Flipgrid); on paper; or through a digital learning management system (LMS), email, or a Google or Microsoft Form. No matter how you do this, you are signaling to your students that you want to know them better, and that you value their voices. Consider asking them to tell you about themselves personally, as well as how they learn best, and any support that they feel they need to be successful in your class.
  5. Praise student successes. Brain science tells us that when we authentically praise someone, their brain releases dopamine. Praise is authentic when it is specific and focuses on actions that result in success. When we regularly praise our students for authentic success, they will develop positive motivation to repeat that behavior in order to receive more praise. This cycle of praise can help to establish and reinforce positive interactions and relationships between you and your students.
  6. Monitor student actions and interactions. As you get to know your students personally, you will have a better idea of what is normal behavior for them. This will allow you to more quickly identify behavior that might be out of character and a potential warning sign that something is not right. Doing a quick check-in with students who seem out of sorts not only shows that you care about them but also helps to identify and address a student need before it becomes a more significant concern.
  7. Conduct regular check-ins. Although limited class time may prevent you from having extended conversations with each student, you can utilize technology to conduct regular temperature checks. Consider starting each day with a quick digital survey that asks students how they are doing, or you can use a collaborative document to have students mark a scale to show how they are feeling. These might include student names, but they can also be anonymous. Anonymous submissions can sometimes promote more honest responses while still giving you an overall sense of how the class is doing. Some teachers create a digital process (using a form or messaging system) that allows students to reach out privately and ask for help when they need it. This respects their privacy and gives them a safe way to reach out.
  8. Create small-group learning opportunities. Learning can be personalized more easily when we are working with smaller groups of students. Blended learning strategies, like station rotation and playlist models, can free us up to work with small groups of students, or even individuals. In these environments, we can more closely monitor student responses, respond to their questions, and check in with them personally.

While connecting personally with each student is an important starting point, you will also want to develop a sense of classroom community, where students feel connected with each other. This is especially important following a period of isolation or separation from classmates. If students do not feel safe or accepted by their peers, they will often struggle to learn and take risks. Creating a positive, supportive classroom environment can lead to improved psychological safety, emotional well-being, academic collaboration, and enhanced learning. These conditions are essential to accelerate learning.

It can be very beneficial for you to be seen as a part of the classroom community, as well, and not just the authority figure. As a result, consider taking part in community-building activities with your students. This will help you get to know your students better individually, and it will further enhance a feeling of community and trust in your classroom.

Here are a few strategies for building a positive classroom community.

  1. Hold regular class meetings. In elementary school classrooms, this often happens during a “morning meeting.” This is a great way to establish routines that connect students with one another, give them each a voice, and prioritize social and emotional learning. Similarly, homeroom or advisory blocks are effective ways to connect regularly with a consistent group of students. This continuity provides a stable home base, where students can connect more closely with a teacher and common group of peers. Even in a class that meets for only one term, you can schedule a once-per-week opportunity at the opening of class to get input from students and allow for a check-in time. However you choose to set them up, these meeting times provide great opportunities for mixers and team building.
  2. Facilitate classroom mixers. Think of classroom mixers as structured activities that allow students to get to know each other better. These can be integrated into class meetings, used to start a school day or class period, or woven into lessons. For instance, if students are learning the basics of public speaking, they can interview a classmate and then write a speech introducing their partner back to the class. This lets them make a personal connection with a classmate while also allowing the entire class (including you) to get to know each other better. Here are a few mixer activities and templates that you might use in your classroom:
  3. Collaboratively establish classroom rules and routines. When students have a voice in establishing classroom rules and routines, they are not only more apt to conform to those expectations, but they also feel respected in the process and take more ownership in the final decisions. This collaborative process helps to establish the feeling of a “community classroom,” where everyone has a voice. Because each student has helped create them, the rules and routines align with their own values and understanding of what a classroom should look and feel like. Oftentimes, it leads to a collaborative enforcement of class rules, with students self-correcting and redirecting one another. When cocreating these guidelines, it’s important that every student has a voice in the process. You can facilitate this process by creating a collaborative classroom anchor chart. You can go around the room and have every student verbalize an idea to add to a T-Chart or Y-Chart. You could have students share ideas in small groups, come to a consensus, and then share their group contribution with the entire class. Digital forms and word-cloud generators can be great tools for collecting ideas from every student before reviewing them anonymously as a class. However you choose to facilitate this process, the collaborative nature of it can give students a sense that this is “our classroom,” which can in turn lead to a greater sense of community and ownership.
  4. Give students a voice. This is an extension of the previous point. In addition to collaboratively establishing classroom rules and routines, it can be very empowering to give students a voice in other aspects of the classroom experience. This might include allowing students to decorate the learning space in a way that represents them personally and collectively. When students see themselves and their peers on the walls of their learning space, they often feel more a part of the community. You might also involve students in choosing a book to be read as a class or music to be played during work time or before class begins, or maybe it’s a decision about how to celebrate a class accomplishment. While some decisions will be guided by learning outcomes and school policy, there are many choices that are flexible and can be made collaboratively with students. This shared decision-making can again lead to an enhanced feeling of community and ownership while also providing opportunities to learn about each other’s likes and interests.
  5. Design collaborative, academic work. Collaboration is a key future-ready skill, and it’s also a great way to design academic work that allows students to get to know each other better. However, we must be careful not to assume that students intuitively know how to work well together. It’s important to intentionally teach collaboration and group skills and to set up each group experience for success. When students feel safe and supported in small-group environments, they can gain from group members’ insights, get to know each other better, and learn to trust one another by working toward a shared goal.
  6. Promote gratitude and positivity. Each classroom has a climate and culture. By intentionally promoting a climate that values supportiveness, gratitude, and positivity, you can create an environment that helps students feel safe, secure, and willing to take risks. This sense of communal trust can help students feel more confident expressing themselves, which can help them get to know each other more personally. A positive environment can be accomplished through both direct and indirect methods. Indirectly, your modeling matters. Students will often watch and mimic your behaviors. They follow your lead and example. You can also build in activities that directly ask each student to share something for which they are grateful. This sets a positive tone and continues the process of everyone getting to know each other better. Additionally, you can have students collaboratively define terms like supportiveness and describe how it should look and feel in your classroom. Once again, a T-Chart or Y-Chart can be an effective tool for facilitating this conversation.
  7. Work toward a shared goal. Having a common purpose is a great way to bring a group of people together. It provides an authentic reason to work together as well as positive, collaborative motivation for achieving a desirable end result. These shared goals can be woven into academic lessons or small-group activities. They can also involve classroom goal setting, school-wide contests, community service, or project-based learning outcomes.

Your learning community does not end at your classroom door. Families are also an integral part of the learning environment and can serve as valuable partners in the learning process. As you connect with students and create a classroom community, strive to find ways to integrate families into this community. The following are five key considerations for connecting with families. To explore these ideas in more detail, review the AVID Open Access article, Connect Positively With Families.

  1. Reach out early. Connecting with families early in the school year (or even before the year begins) can help you establish this important learning partnership. Consider sending a letter, email, or message through your school’s digital communication system. Include class goals and calendars. You might even consider creating a video introducing yourself. Videos can help put a face and voice to your message and create a personal, human connection between you and your families.
  2. Develop your classroom communication system. Families won’t reach out if they don’t know how to contact you. Therefore, be sure to create a clear and simple communication system. This system should include a way for families to know what is happening in your classroom as well as a way for them to contact you with questions or concerns. Consider using your learning management system, student information system, a class website, or email. Of course, once you’ve determined your preferred system, be sure to clearly communicate the process with your families.
  3. Sustain family connections throughout the school year. While it is important to establish a communication system, it must be utilized regularly for it to be effective. Consider scheduling regular contact opportunities. It can be helpful to create a specific schedule so that you are sure to connect with every family on a regular basis. Use your plan to send both whole-class and individual messages to all students throughout the term or year. When you send these messages, remind parents regularly of digital portals for finding classroom information.
  4. Empower families. Make sure that your communication system is a two-way street. It’s essential that you communicate important classroom information with families, and it’s equally important to hear from them, especially when their child is struggling or when there is something important you might not be aware of that is happening in the home. If possible, find ways to include families in your classroom, perhaps through performances, with book fairs, as guest speakers, or as classroom volunteers. This gives them additional ownership in the education of their child.
  5. Communicate with care. Be especially careful with written communication since it can easily be taken out of context. Make efforts to keep your messages positive and celebrate the good whenever possible, as this will help establish trust. This trust will be beneficial in case you need to discuss a more difficult classroom situation later in the year. Try to respond to messages within 24 hours, even if it’s just to say that you have received the communication and will respond in the near future. Of course, be sure to reread your messages before hitting “send,” always remain professional, assume positive intent, and listen openly to family concerns.

Connections in the classroom go beyond the people involved. They extend to the learning itself. For students to feel ownership in learning and to be motivated to learn, you will want to find ways to make sure that they are connected to the learning in some way. We’ve all heard the statements, “When will I ever use this?” “This is boring,” or even, “What does this have to do with me?” These comments and questions are clear signals that students lack connection to their learning. It’s important that we find ways to personalize content and connect students with the learning itself. When students are connected to their learning and feel a sense of ownership and purpose, they will be much more motivated and driven to succeed. This connection plays an important role in accelerating learning.

  1. Offer voice and choice. When students have a voice in their learning, they are much more apt to own it. While some choices might be nonnegotiable, others are flexible. Because each student learns differently, consider which choices you can hand off to your students. Can your students select how they will learn new content? For instance, can they choose between reading an article or viewing a video? Can they choose to work alone or in a group? Can they choose their own topic? Can they choose how to show what they have learned? If the answer is yes to any of these questions, you’ve likely found an opportunity to offer your students voice and choice in the learning process.
  2. Co-construct rubrics. This overlaps a bit with voice and choice, but it goes further. When we allow students to help describe what a quality final product looks like, they gain a much deeper sense of ownership and understanding in the process. The rubric becomes more than just words and numbers. It becomes a shared mission, and students have much more clarity of purpose.
  3. Build on strengths and interests. When students can choose a topic of personal interest, their motivation often shifts from getting a grade to wanting to learn. Similarly, when students can lean on their personal strengths, they will feel more empowered and better set up for success.
  4. Engage in project-based learning. Project-based learning leverages the previous three items on this list and integrates them into a meaningful, authentic learning experience. To learn more about project-based learning, explore the AVID Open Access collection, Inspire Students With Project-Based Learning.
  5. Integrate inquiry learning. When students ask the questions, they are much more interested in finding the answers. This approach puts students in the driver’s seat. Because the questions are theirs, they will have a more authentic connection to the learning process, and they will likely be more motivated to find the answers. To learn more about the inquiry process, explore the AVID Open Access collection, Engage Students Through Inquiry Learning.
  6. Connect culturally. The previous items on this list can be used to facilitate personal and cultural connections to classroom learning. As Linda Darling-Hammond points out in this article, “Children actively construct knowledge by connecting what they know to what they are learning within their cultural contexts. Creating those connections is key to learning.” Learn more in the AVID Open Access article, Create a Culturally Relevant Classroom.

As we strive to accelerate the learning in our classroom, it is important to remember that our students are much more apt to thrive when they feel connected not only to the content but also to their teacher and each other.

An AVID Connection

Learn more about AVID’s Four Stages of Relational Capacity model, which is grounded in the work of Bruce Tuckman, whose Developmental Sequence in Small Groups research produced a valuable model describing group development.

  • Safe Shaping: building environment
  • Controlled Chaos: managing and addressing conflict
  • Scope and Sovereignty: creating a shared vision
  • Group Actualization: self-directing, self-advocating, and self-monitoring

References

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