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Beyond the Buzzwords: Relationship Building 101

By Lindsey Johnson

Recently I was asked what I believed to be the number one issue facing my students. Without hesitation, I responded with one word – trauma. Even before remote learning, social distancing, and pandemics, trauma was impacting many of our students daily. Adding the fear and uncertainty that was brought by 2020 only increased the level trauma many were already experiencing or introduced new trauma to others who may not have been previously affected.

Like it or not, trauma or not, we are still expected to teach. Our students are expected to learn. Truthfully, the burden is even greater for many teachers this school year. In addition to your typical grade level curriculum and learning, you also need to fill in any gaps that have been created due to missed instruction. Easy peasy, right?

Building relationships has always been at the core of my teaching. When asked by colleagues how I was able to successfully teach fifteen boys in an emotional/behavioral disabilities (EBD) classroom my answer always lied in my relationships – and still does today in our 2020 trauma filled classrooms.

Don’t Break Your Promises

If you say it, mean it. This goes beyond the proverbial “empty threat” consequences that we are so often warned about in our early teaching careers. As a small, non-reading second grader struggling with abandonment issues looked up at me, his mouth opened to unleash a string of profanity. And it continued. For three weeks. It was getting to the point where profanity no longer held any sort of connotation within the four walls of our room because no one seemed to see the point in not using whatever words they felt like at any time.

I had tried too many different tricks and strategies with this one. I made the phone calls, I took away the rewards, we had the restorative circles. He repeatedly told people it wasn’t that he didn’t want to be in my classroom. He liked me and my class. He just wasn’t going to do any work and if I put the work in front of him, he would continue to curse at me until I walked away.

In a moment of desperation, I leveled with him. I told him, “Look, you don’t have to do any work. I understand that you don’t want to. But you HAVE to STOP cursing at me. It’s setting a bad example for the little kids, and I need you to stop.” He side eyed me, clearly intrigued. “And I don’t have to work? As long as I stop cursing?” Yep, simple as that.

As I passed out the centers work for that day I slid the paper in front of him, making careful eye contact. I watched as he brushed the paper aside and it fluttered to the ground. He narrowed his eyes at me and I nodded an acknowledgement that he had followed through on our agreement. Though his work was on the floor, and he remained mildly annoyed, there was in fact no profanity.

Because he had followed through on his end of the agreement, I was resolute to follow through in mine. As the morning progressed, he continued to watch for any sign that I was going to crack and tell him to get on task. I never did. He sat in his chair, defiant, but quiet.

As I rotated my groups to their last center of the morning I watched in disbelief as he slunk out of his chair, picked up his paper, and wordlessly sat in the chair right next to me. He stayed quiet but picked up a pencil and put his name on his paper. He never spoke or participated in the group lesson, but every answer was on his paper, and his paper was turned in with the others. This pattern continued for a few days, as he waited to be sure I was still upholding our deal each day. But without fail, he participated in the last reading group of the day. Gradually, his trust in me grew and he didn’t need to wait to begin participating. He learned to read that year. He even scored proficient on his standardized tests in third and fourth grade. But more importantly, he learned how to trust. He knows not every adult will abandon him.


One of the simplest ways to build a meaningful relationship with your students is to find a way to connect with them. This might look like downloading Among Us on your phone and learning the ins and outs of the game to talk about. It might mean hopping on the swings while supervising recess. It may mean coloring during preferred activity time. It might just mean not going away, like everyone else has done.

In an EBD classroom the door is revolving. Students come and go quickly, sometimes with little notice. They may attend one school on Tuesday and after an IEP meeting show up in your classroom across town on Wednesday. They come to your door often confused, frustrated, and scared. As their teacher, it was my job to relieve those fears and frustrations and help them find their footing.

The first few days were never about academics. They couldn’t be. A child in the throes of instability is not going to be able to learn at the level you want. They may complete assignments you give them, but it will be due to muscle memory and survival instincts. They may also throw things, scream and cry, or run away from you – also due to muscle memory and survival instincts. You will not be able to teach them anything of significance until they connect with you, and trust you.

One school year upon meeting one of the toughest nuts I’ve ever had to crack, I was challenged. He wasn’t officially in my class, but daily he was sent away from his teacher for one small reason or another. In school suspension was not a daily option, so the intervention became joining my classroom. He came to my room, often sad and quiet, refusing to communicate. He would complete about 50% of the work he was given, accurately and independently, but did not want to make friends with anyone.

As I watched him day after day, repeating the same patterns, I decided I’d had enough. I marched into my administrator’s office, where he was already sitting at 8:45. I asked her to schedule an IEP meeting to make the placement formal and requested that he not start the day in his other classroom until that time. Plans were made in front of him, so he knew I wanted him. He belonged with me. We walked out of her office on that December day when our staff was playing Elf and Seek. He tapped my forearm and quietly said, “Miss, there’s an elf over there.” I sent him to retrieve it, and when he jogged back to me, the wall had seemingly come down as the smallest of smiles pulled at the corners of his mouth. Our relationship surely had bumps and pit stops, but day in and day out he knew I had his back. He knew that I was going to show up for him, each and every day, even if he made a mistake. He found ways to accept and respect my rules and boundaries and thrive in the classroom. He pushed himself and worked hard to make it back to a general education classroom. He still shows signs of that hardened shell now and again as he is rounding out 5th grade, but he also knows how to breathe through it, and trust the process.

Students are Humans, too

As adults we have days where we are tired, anxious, frustrated, upset, or when we are just not feeling ourselves. We, again, as adults, have learned how to cope, how to ask for grace, how to ask for forgiveness, and how to excuse ourselves when necessary. We are also freely GIVEN grace by others. We get permission to have a bad day and understanding when we just can’t pull it together. Sometimes we forget that our students are just smaller humans who haven’t figured out all the intricacies and nuances to having a bad day, being overwhelmed, and communicating abnormal feelings.

When I think of this, of the humanness of my students, I am reminded of one particular Monday morning. Four of my boys came off the bus, excited. They were proud of themselves, talking a mile a minute, sharing the story of how their football team won an important game in four overtimes. The game wasn’t over until after eleven… and then they had an hour drive home. But they were all at school, on time, in uniform. They worked and followed directions all morning. They had lunch and came back to the classroom with their eyes barely open. But they didn’t complain. Not once.

One of them asked for a break and fell asleep. One fell asleep on top of his social studies packet. One fell asleep during his computer lesson. The last one saw the others sleeping and asked if he could sleep, too. I said yes.

I could have woken them up, pushed them into instruction they weren’t ready to receive, and had a difficult end of the day with all four of them. But I chose to let them sleep for a few reasons. They felt safe enough to sleep. I don’t take this for granted. These boys have been through the educational wringer. They have bounced from school to school, from classroom to classroom, trying to find a place where they belonged. Trying to find a teacher and a team that didn’t give up on them. I worked tirelessly to be that teacher for them. And when they felt safe enough to sleep through the afternoon, I knew we had gotten to that place.

I let them sleep because they clearly needed to sleep. I know how I feel after I don’t get enough sleep. On those days, I apologize for not being at my best. I don’t produce the same quality of work that I normally do. I might even take a sick day and rest. Why should these boys not be given the same grace?

I let them sleep because forcing them to stay awake and complete assignments would likely have resulted in breakdowns, shut downs, calls for support, and potential behavior referrals. I would have not made progress in my lessons. I would have needed to reteach anyway. Which is the better way to need to reteach? After struggling all afternoon, putting my entire class through upheaval and crisis, or gaining small group intervention time with my students who were ready to learn and starting fresh the next day?

While relationships are sometimes difficult to form, they are also just the beginning. For our students who are in crisis for one reason or another, those that struggle just to make it through the day, forming and maintaining relationships is your chance to make real, meaningful learning a part of the narrative. These students are capable. They want to learn. Mostly, they want to make you happy. Building a safe, secure place from them to land will ensure that they will continue to take the risk of falling – whether it be academic, social, or emotional learning.

Lindsey Johnson is an ESE Teacher at Wilkinson Elementary School in Sarasota, FL. Lindsey is one half of @2teachersinresource on Instagram and can also be found on @lindseyyj26 on Twitter.