Building Relationships

It is clear from a wide range of research on resiliency, physical health, and psychological functioning that a web of positive relationships protects human beings from harm and promotes health and well-being. The early research on resiliency, including the foundational work of Emmy Werner, shows us that relationships with caring adults outside the family make a crucial contribution to well-being for youth experiencing adverse events.

How can we promote relationships between staff and students and between students? Let us begin with some comments expressed by youth. In my anonymous online surveys, I ask students how many adults they feel a positive connection with and would ask for help if they needed it. I also ask students to describe the characteristics of the adults who they feel connected to at school. My colleague Chuck Saufler suggested that we analyze the text responses of the young people who said they only felt a connection to one or two adults at school. He reasoned that this subgroup of students were most likely to be strongly influenced by teachers’ actions in building connections with adults, as opposed to students who easily make connections with numerous adults.

After I took out words that added no meaning (like “teacher” and “student”) from the 500+ text responses in the Massachusetts survey, I created a word cloud summarizing the text comments. Larger words in this cloud were those used more frequently in student responses.


When we examine this word cloud and the actual student responses, we see that students at risk of disconnection from school choose to build connections with teachers who they see as consistently accepting, welcoming, and emotionally positive toward them and their peers.

Students benefit greatly from a consistent sense of welcome and calm in school settings. Many students come from homes in which they experience stress and even trauma. For these students especially, experiencing anger, disappointment, or even rejection from adults at school can make them feel unsafe or threatened. One of the many things that makes working as an educator so challenging is our need to show young people how pleased we are to be teaching them, even as we experience the frustrations of our lives and the often difficult conditions of teaching.

Greeting and welcoming all youth to school in our own individual and genuine ways is an important part of that process. “When we ask young people…how do you know a teacher or an adult in your school cares about you? The most frequent response was that the adult simply says hello and knows my name and greets me using my name.” (Bonnie Benard:

Youth have pointed out in my surveys that they feel more connected to adults who respond to questions or problems without becoming angry and without judging them. They tell me that they are more likely to build connections with adults who listen to them and who try to learn about their thoughts and their lives. Unconditional positive regard for all students, even if we disapprove of their behavior, is the foundation of relationship building. As a veteran educator, I know what a high bar I set in saying that. I know that we sometimes fall short of this ideal because we are human beings in a highly pressured profession. Demonstrating this regard consistently for all students may be one of the the most difficult actions we take as educators. Yet every year I work in this field I am more convinced of the importance of this element of working with youth.

Based on our acceptance and welcome of every student, we can do many other things to encourage youth to develop a web of positive connections. The following list is a brief summary of effective interventions that can be used to build relationships:

  • Advisor/advisee programs focused on relationship-building or other ways to build connection with peers and adults;
  • Interest-based activities, which allow youth and adults with similar interests to form connections;
  • Group involvement in meaningful service, which unifies those working together for good;
  • Identifying disconnected youth and using staff mentoring to help build connections;
  • Building awareness and connections between subgroups;
  • Activities to help youth understand and value diversity;
  • Peer mentoring teams who work to build peer connections for disconnected or mistreated youth.

One especially successful model for empowering youth to build peer connections through mentoring can be found in the work of Denise Koebcke.

Youth who struggle with peer connections may also benefit from social skills training. There are many effective approaches for this training. I recommend especially Myrna Shure’s I Can Problem Solve curricula. In addition, I recommend the recent body of research on Video Self Modeling, presented in quite usable form in Buggey’s book Seeing is Believing. In this research-based approach, adults videotape young people with social skills deficits in social situations while prompting and assisting them to use positive and appropriate social behavior. Then we edit that video to eliminate negative or awkward actions as well as deleting our prompting. The resulting edited video clips show the student their own positive actions in a social context, which they can then relatively easily imitate in their day-to-day lives at school and at home.

For most youth, a verbal variant of Video Self Modeling will be effective. When we consistently and  selectively point out kind and helpful actions and the actions that help youth learn, students are more likely to repeat those actions.

Read more about the foundations of effective intervention by clicking on the links below:

For more information about effective interventions, see Youth Voice Project: Student Insights into Bullying and Peer Mistreatment.

This site presents current research about reducing bullying AND reducing the harm that bullying can do.