by Letty Rising
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Throughout the history of education, there are initiatives, movements, and even sayings that come and go. Some of them stick and become interwoven within the fabric of education, and some fizzle out after a while. Examples of recent buzzword terms and concepts that have been all the rage are “grit,” “data-driven,” “mastery-based learning,” “personalized learning,” and so on.
In this article, I wanted to talk about a concept that has been getting wide recognition but also has been rarely explained in such a way that is concrete and actionable. This concept is “building relationships.” There have been many teachers taking to social media who make funny memes or short videos about how their administrator or school’s answer to every problem that arises is “build relationships with your students!”
It has become the pat answer to be thrown out during any student-related dilemma that arises. Your student is not motivated. Have you tried building a relationship? Your student threw a chair at you. Have you tried building a relationship? Your student has taken control of the class with negative behavior. Have you tried building a relationship?
This reminds me of the pattern that many adults fall into with children, but here it is being repeated with other adults. The notion of telling someone they need to do something without explaining what that “something” looks like. Parents and educators alike do this every time they ask their children to “clean up.” When you tell a child that it’s time to clean up, that doesn’t give a lot of information, particularly to the big picture thinker who has difficulty breaking down big picture concepts into smaller, tangible chunks.
Being this kind of child myself, when I had a child with similar struggles, I learned that I had to be more explicit because that was what I needed and didn’t get. So when I told my youngest daughter to clean her room, I then said “and that means, take your clothes on the floor and put them into the hamper. Then take your books on your bed and put them onto your bookshelf. Then, when you are finished, come get me and I’ll help you see the other things.”
As teachers, we have to break down the big picture activity into smaller pieces. If we don’t, we risk students being overwhelmed and shutting down, and unfortunately, their responsive behaviors (or rather, lack of responsive behaviors!) often become labeled as laziness or lack of motivation, when really it often comes down to lack of understanding.
So not only breaking down into smaller steps but chunking 2-3 steps at once, then chunking 2-3 more, until the task is done, will go a long way towards not only preventing overwhelm but helping the child to develop the mental pathways that will help them navigate the steps involved in “cleaning up,” next time.
While the above mentioned phenomenon can be a different article entirely on the topic of how to break down tasks to support executive functioning in students, it draws a nice parallel that leads me into our current topic, which is building relationships. If society is telling you that the answer to a harmonious classroom environment is to build relationships, but there aren’t any concrete examples on how to do that, it can be experienced as gaslighting, and resentment can arise every time someone throws out the term.
Why the resentment? First off, it isn’t a simple fix. In fact, when it comes to the notion of people relating with one another, there are rarely simple fixes. People are highly complex and varied, and change happens from conversation and dialogue, not from tossing out a trendy term or buzzword.
So what does it mean to “build a relationship?” This will be explored within the context of a Montessori elementary environment, highlighting points of opportunity throughout the day where the building of relationships can occur. By breaking this term down into a series of actionable strategies, you will have some real-world tools at your disposal to try!
The first moment of contact
Building a relationship happens the moment students walk through the door. Whether it be that you or your assistant teacher are able to greet each student by the door, or you acknowledge them from afar, meeting every child’s eyes with a welcoming smile is the best first thing you can do to start off strong. When greeting your students, think about who they are and what they like. If, during your observations, you’ve heard them talk about joining a new sports team, ask them about it!
“Jenna, how was that soccer game last night? Did it go well? Did you enjoy yourself?”
If the children can walk through the door and know within a few minutes that their teacher cares about them and is interested in knowing more about their lives, that makes a big impact on your relationship-building efforts.
Throughout the work cycle
One of the things that Montessorians get confused about is how to interact with children during the work cycle. We are taught to not interrupt children at work, and we are also taught to not intervene unless a child is engaging in disruptive behavior.
However, if we follow this to the letter, then the end result can be that children and teachers get looped into a cycle of negative attention, where the child begins to settle into a pattern of negative attention-seeking because they aren’t receiving attention any other way.
Teachers can engage with children during the work cycle, and engage positively! It is rare that you find a child concentrating or engaged in intensive collaborative work all day, every day. There are moments all throughout the work cycle where children are pausing, and such moments are perfect opportunities to engage.
When circulating throughout the classroom, take advantage of the moments that you see children seeking eye contact with you, or initiating interactions with you. If a child isn’t engaged in work or collaborating with partners at the moment, it might be the perfect time to initiate a positive interaction. Here are a few kinds of positive interactions that go over well:
- Asking curiosity questions. If you have a child who is painting a diorama, and they begin engaging with you, you can say something like “I wonder what life was like for the early humans before they had fire?”
- Pairing a “noticing” statement with a question. “I noticed that you spent a lot of time on that animal classification work this morning. It seemed like you were enjoying yourself…is that true? Would you like some ideas on research topics you could explore to learn even more?”
- Injecting lighthearted humor. Elementary children love humor, and if you can share a joke together or something funny, that will go a long way in fostering positive connections.
- Sitting near them for a while, and striking up a conversation. This can be easily done when children are doing non-thinking work, such as painting a poster or a part of a set for a play, or finger knitting. Children want and need spontaneous, organic interactions with others, and these non-planned moments add a lot of value to relationships.
- If not busy, invite them to help you with something, and engage in small talk/conversation. Remember that for it to be a true choice, they need to have the option of saying “no.” Many practical life activities offer great opportunities to talk and connect, such as food prep, gardening, folding laundry, etc.
Whenever your class gathers, whether it be for a morning meeting, a class meeting, or an afternoon gathering, these are perfect times for intentional, strategic relationship-building. Particularly if you have a class that has not developed a harmonious classroom culture, you will want to infuse these meetings with opportunities for children to share compliments and appreciations with each other.
Even in this setting, you are not forcing it, nor are you showing visible frustration if they aren’t volunteering words or actions showing positive goodwill. However, you are making space for this to happen, and modeling it by sharing your own compliments and appreciations aloud to the children.
Also, during the gathering is a great time to sing together! Singing brings about feelings of connection, solidarity, and trust. If you are not comfortable singing, putting on some music, and even playing familiar songs over and over again, lends itself to a shared experience that the children have with each other and with you.
Building relationships at lunchtime looks like sitting at a table with children at lunch, listening to their conversations, and participating in their conversations. Although you may guide the conversation if need be, resist the idea of dominating or even leading these conversations. You have plenty of opportunities to lead conversations when you present lessons. This is a time for conversation, sharing stories, asking questions, laughing, and so on.
Be sure that you take great care to not only sit at tables with children with whom you have an effortless rapport. Lunchtime is the perfect time to be strategic about sitting at tables with children who you might find to be difficult during class time. Those children may have heard you all morning long giving them reminders to stay on task, keep their hands to themselves, modulate their voices, show you their work, and etc. These children especially need different kinds of interactions with you.
And if lunchtime happens to be your break, and the only time you can get some quiet during the day, try to sit with them at lunch once a week, being sure to sit with everyone over the course of a month if you can.
Do you like to play games with children? Even if you don’t, you will want to learn to enjoy it, because there is no other way to increase a child’s interest in you than for you to jump into their world of fun and games.
You can lead fun games, but I encourage you to show them once and then let them take the lead, with you as a participant. You get the opportunity to be an equal community member in games, and the children can make, set, and enforce the rules.
And sometimes there are children at recess who just want to sit on the bench and talk. You aren’t initiating conversation on topics that you want to talk about. You are thinking about “What would this child like to talk about?” And starting there. Or, you let them lead the conversation, and you respond accordingly.
Reading aloud is a wonderful relationship-building activity, for a couple of reasons. First off, you are offering a shared experience with the class, and everyone is on the adventure or the journey together. Second, talking about the thoughts, the lives, and the experiences of the characters in books is a great way to safely talk about uncomfortable emotions or situations.
Exploring the difficulties of the characters not only helps the children develop empathy, but many children can also identify with their trials and tribulations. Asking questions such as “How do you think Wanda felt when she was teased by her classmates?” will allow them to indirectly share how they would feel (or even have felt!) if they were teased. Offering them this outlet will pave the way towards stronger bonds with your students.
Last moment of contact
Just as we want the children to start their day off strong, we also want them to leave us on a good note. Whether it be a classroom gathering where everyone sings or shares, or maybe you shake their hand on the way out, ask them what they are doing after school, and tell them you hope they have a good time…these final moments of school can be very impactful.
Outside of class
Your school community might have special events that happen outside of school, whether on-campus or off-campus, and these are wonderful opportunities to spend time with your students “just hanging out.” Again, this is another time where you aren’t asking anything of them or expecting anything of them…you are just being with them. And if you provide more “being” time with them, they will be more receptive to your suggestions during the “doing” time.
Additionally, with the electronic age, we are increasingly more connected. This means that there are additional opportunities to build relationships outside of class! Maybe during the time between the students leaving and you going home, you dedicate 15 minutes to sending 1-2 students a short email…making sure that you send one to everyone each month.
Or, you can also send a note to their parents, expressing appreciation for their child, or commenting on something you’ve observed or noticed. Simple things such as “I noticed that Miguel has been really excited about learning how to multiply with our Montessori materials…he and his good friend were making up problems all morning long!”
It’s one thing to say “build a relationship” with your students. However, it’s another thing entirely to put into place all of the strategies involved in doing the relationship-building actions. Infusing the day with positive statements, comments on things that you notice about them, curiosity questions, humor, and times to just “be,” will lead to closer connections with your students.
And while none of these are foolproof solutions to challenges you might face in the classroom, they are tools that you can use to minimize strife and maximize a well-functioning, harmonious environment.
Letty Rising has been involved in Montessori education for over 15 years. She holds a B.A. in Sociology, a California State Teaching Credential, and an AMI elementary diploma for ages 6-12 and an M.Ed from Loyola University in Maryland. She has held positions as a Homeschool Education Specialist, Montessori Elementary Teacher, School Director, Principal, Montessori Coordinator, and Consultant in several public and private Montessori school communities throughout the years. Letty currently supports schools around the world through professional development offerings, consulting, and mentoring.