Have no doubt about this: you must have a relationship with a child in order to get them to do anything, from paying attention to mastering their multiplication facts. Praising elementary students is a key component of building a strong relationships.
Think about it: who do you want to learn from – somebody who shows interest in your progress, or somebody who treats you as just another data point? You know the answer… and you know that your students will find much greater success if they believe that their teacher cares deeply about them.
And not only cares, but interacts at a level that they can feel in their bones is genuine.
Why do elementary children learn?
At some point in their lives – hopefully – your students will decide to learn things because they want to know more. But in elementary school, most of your students will learn things because they want to please their favorite teacher (that’s you!).
Building relationships will dramatically increase your ability to exercise effective classroom management, and from that will grow your ability to engage with and instruct children to their highest potential.
So how do we build teacher-student relationships? The same way we build all relationships: we talk, and we listen. Of course, we talk and listen with intention so that we move the process along as quickly as possible.
How interested are you in princesses? Do you find lizard facts to be fascinating? How about other people's pets – do you love to hear details about their antics? Well, I don't know about you, but I can generally do without princess, lizard, or pet knowledge. However, I am very interested in my students, which means that what's important to them becomes important to me.
When I was a student-teacher, my mentor teacher felt that a personal relationship was so critical with her students that she kept a checklist of all their names. She literally checked off each kid to ensure that she had a one-on-one, personal conversation with every one of them every single week. She did this the first few weeks of school to ensure that nobody was left out. After that, it became habitual.
I have always remembered her level of dedication. I think of how I would have felt showing up at school and having a trusted adult – an authority figure, no less – take the time every few days to talk to me about whatever was important to me. How would that make you feel?
Well, I don't know about you, but even as an adult, that sort of attention makes me feel great! Think of how it makes a child feel.
So, yes, take notes if you need to, but learn and remember what your children are interested in. Learn the names of their siblings and their pets. Remember when they mention that they go to their grandma’s house on Saturday so you can ask about it on Monday. And on and on… great teacher-student relationships are built upon these small details.
You don't have to have in-depth discussions about anything; a meaningful discussion with a student can literally take thirty seconds. There are all kinds of times during the day when you can find thirty seconds:
- Before the bell rings out on the blacktop in the morning
- During transitions between subjects
- In the lunch line
A quick remark about a student's choice of shoes or her new hat is easy to make. Asking if their family finally made the decision about where to spend Christmas takes ten seconds. You just have to show that you notice and that you remember what's important to them.
There's no pandering involved; we’re not begging them to pay attention to us. We are simply treating them as individuals who are worthy of our time and thoughts.
Making time for one-on-ones
Personal connections between teachers and students are critical for successful learning… but every teacher also knows that one-on-one time is extremely difficult to come by, especially if you have a large class or students rotate through your room throughout the day.
Here’s the key: Personalized one-on-one time doesn’t mean spending huge chunks of time with each child; it simply means going out of your way for a few seconds or a minute to have a conversation that maintains a connection.
Here are ideas on how to find that time and give every student in your classroom the attention he or she deserves.
Independent work time is perfect for scooting around the classroom and sitting with a student for 30 seconds while you ask them questions about the work they are doing:
“What’s going well for you on this assignment?”
“What have you found to be a challenge as you are working?”
Questions such as these will work no matter which content area your students are working on.
Reading assessments are another great opportunity. These happen a few times a year and before you start the assessment you simply need to connect with the student one-on-one about something personal. This just takes a few moments.
Silent reading time is also ideal because you can have the student read to you briefly to do a fluency check. This is easily followed by asking a few questions about the text.
Transition time is great for asking a few personal questions, even something as simple as what they had for dinner the night before, or how their new dog is doing.
If you’re still having difficulty making the time for those connections, you can have a “lunch bunch” once a week where a few students can eat lunch in your classroom (of course, this needs to rotate). You can keep working on correcting papers, etc. while they chat away and you interject once in a while.
It’s so important value our students as human beings and not just students in our classrooms.
How to praise students
Recently, I heard from a Special Education teacher who was striving to make a real impact on her students. Here’s what she asked:
“So many of my students don't even believe in themselves. They don't even try. I can teach the kids phonics and decoding and help improve their reading, but what I really want to instill in them is self-confidence. That's what will take them far in life. If you have any ideas about motivating students to believe in themselves, please share.”
Let me share with you what I told her. It all comes down to the fine art of praising children.
Teacher recognition: the technique
The first approach is your personal, teacher-to-student way of building up their self-esteem. It includes congratulating them on their smarts, but in a very genuine way. Those little people just want to be appreciated.
Correct complimenting is important, because they need to be appreciated for the right things – this is school, after all, and your approach should lead to increased learning.
It's easy to tell a student, “You're so smart,” but that's too general. It means a lot more if your expressions are tied to a specific example. The wise teacher avoids empty, generalized, feel-good compliments such as:
“Wow, you got done quickly!”
“That’s a beautiful picture you drew.”
These make the recipient feel good, but not for the right reasons. Keep compliments specific and focus them on children’s thinking:
“That’s an interesting math strategy. Why did you decide that was the best way?”
Plus, it's much more effective to show kids you think they're smart by expressing surprise at the answer they got, or inferring that they found a solution that even you didn't think of:
“Wow! Look at the picture you drew! Tell me about the colors you chose.”
“I can’t believe you diagrammed your answer that way. Impressive! What made you think of it?”
You understand what I mean: we are going for those kinds of reactions that tell kids that you are genuinely surprised and impressed by what they've accomplished. That seems so much more “real” than standard phrases.
Think of how you would like people to react to some accomplishment that you have done (with surprise and admiration), and understand that little children want exactly the same thing.
Peer recognition: The biggest motivator in school
The second approach really adds the “sauce” to instilling self-esteem. And that is building up a child in front of his classmates. This cannot be done in a structured way, by calling a child to the front of the room and giving a little speech on how great he is. That's just embarrassing to him.
Again, it must be done as if it's part of your normal flow of teaching. This is accomplished by saying things such as:
“Hey, everyone. Listen to what Matthew just came up with. It's an amazing answer. Matthew, could you explain it to the group?”
“When I was checking all of your papers from yesterday, I was really impressed with the punctuation that Maria used. Here, I'll put her paper under the document camera so you can all see it.”
This doesn't even have to be in front of an entire classroom; any opportunity you can take to build up Matthew or Maria in front of even one other child will do amazing things for their self-esteem.
Matthew will be thinking:
“Wow, my teacher is so impressed that she wants all these other kids to see what I'm doing so they can learn from me. Maybe I am pretty smart…”
Wouldn't you have loved to have felt that way when you were in elementary school? I would have! Complimenting is a fine art and a key skill for any teacher who wants to build a strong student/teacher relationship with a class – the kind of relationship in which the kids want to display the correct behavior just because you ask them, not because they have to.