Guest blog: 5 reasons to make connections a priority this school year

By Rebecca Rolland

This month, we feature a guest blog by Rebecca Rolland, the author of “The Art of Talking with Children” (HarperOne). Rolland is an adjunct lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Education and is on faculty at Harvard Medical School. She is a nationally certified speech-language pathologist who has worked with early childhood populations through high school learners. Rolland has also written extensively about the importance of teacher-student relationships and provides teacher professional development.

As we gear up for a new school year, many of us are thinking about how to connect with new students and families. Building connection is especially powerful when it starts from the earliest days. When students feel seen and heard—and we feel we know our students better—it’s far easier to support them in learning tough material. They’re also better able to collaborate and empathize with their peers. This is key to promoting a whole classroom attitude of embracing mistakes and seeing learning as a journey.

But why is this discussion and connection so important, exactly? Here are five reasons to keep in mind. Hopefully they serve as motivation as you start checking in!

1) Students open up about their learning journey

When students feel more comfortable, they’re better able to describe how they’re learning—not just if they’ve gotten the right answers. Having this information is key to effective teaching. For example, through discussion, you can tell whether a student who got a math problem wrong is really off or just has made a slight error at the end. This allows you to target your instruction better in the moment. Over time, it gives you a better sense of how much each student is struggling and what kind of help each one needs.

2) Students support one another

Have you ever heard a student lean over to a classmate and whisper, “I didn’t get that?” You can certainly go over and help. But sometimes, having a student learn from a peer can be just as effective. When you have a classroom where students feel comfortable sharing, students are more likely to engage in this back-and-forth exchange. The “teaching” student can gain confidence and the ability to express themselves. The “learning” student can gain an understanding of the material and a feeling of support from a friend.

3) Students work on bigger goals

As a speech-language pathologist, I’ve seen many students who are so worried about being successful that they only set small goals for themselves. When it’s time to decide on a topic for a paper, they choose something they already know a lot about. When they plan a project, it’s often something they already know they can do—or maybe that they’ve even done in class in a prior year. Changing these dynamics isn’t easy. 

But when you build connections with students, you encourage them to dream bigger. They’re getting more comfortable with failure, since they know you’ll continue encouraging them. They’re more likely to want to challenge themselves when you foster what’s known as a “mastery approach” to learning. This approach, and an optimistic attitude, will do wonders in helping build their skills over time.

4) They speak up about problems

When kids are connected to you, they’re more likely to bring up a challenge they’re facing before it becomes a really big deal. Maybe they’re having a conflict with a classmate. Or maybe someone at home is sick. Or maybe they’re nervous about an upcoming trip. Whatever the issue is, kids with worries can often be distracted, making it hard to learn. If there’s a big problem, or if they’ve experienced trauma, they may need to see a counselor or get more support. 

By providing a space where kids feel connected, you’re able to gauge how “major” the problem is and what to do to support them best. They’ll feel less distracted, and they’re less likely to feel isolated and left to deal with their problems alone.

5) You enjoy your work more 

It’s not just students who benefit from deeper connection. We’re all human, and we all need to feel engaged with the people we’re around every day. When you’re more engaged, and when you feel more connected, it’s easier to feel motivated to teach. It’s also easier to be creative and plan more engaging activities—since you have a better sense of what makes your students tick.

See this article for ways of building vocabulary through fun and games.

All of these reasons can be helpful to keep in mind as you start making those critical connections to students early on. Think of them as mantras you can repeat when you’re wondering, “What’s the goal here?” or “Why does this matter so much?”

Of course, connecting is great year-round, but I’ve found it helpful to focus especially on making a strong start!