Virginia Commonwealth University
August 24, 2012
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Lanett W. Brailey, M.A.

As you enter a school building and walk along the hallways, what sounds do you hear? What words, spoken by the teacher, draw you into the classroom? Does the language build positive relationships? Do you hear students taking chances, and working cooperatively? Does the conversation and word choice create a positive learning environment?

This article addresses three questions: Why is building relationships with students important? Why does word choice make a difference? And lastly, what are some strategies you can use at both the elementary and secondary level to reflect on your practice and strengthen your relationships with students?

Why is building relationships with students important?

Building positive relationships with students

Positive relationships between students and teachers can determine student success or failure.

As a person, you have a need to make connections (Brown, 2010). You might connect with other people who share the same values, talents, skills and interests; you might “reach out” and connect with others by phone and social media; you might participate in learning communities or professional associations. In the educational setting, teachers and students often connect to each other through sports and extracurricular activities. The relationships that develop in these situations can be powerful, but what about the classroom? Although some teachers may not think there is time in the classroom to spend on building positive relationships, Brown has suggested that you need to have both, relationships and instruction. Relationships between students and teachers can determine student success or failure.

Research indicates there is a connection between student achievement and positive relationships. Marzano (2011) notes that “Positive relationships between teachers and students are among the most commonly cited variables associated with effective instruction” (p.82). Often, good instructors use creative strategies to reach students. For example, when you use cooperative groups for discussion, provide assistance, and give genuine feedback, you increase students’ engagement with the instruction. A strong relationship develops as you interact with students through a sense of mutual respect and cooperation. Students are willing to take risks; instruction takes off and reaches a higher level. One specific skill that you can work on to improve your relationships with your students is your choice of words.

Why does word choice make a difference?

The language that you use in the classroom can have an impact on your students’ sense of identity, connectedness, and belonging, as well as on academic achievement (Johnston, 2004; Slade, 2011). Your choice of words can make a difference in how students see themselves. When you use statements that refer to students as “rising authors” or “mathematicians” or “problem solvers,” for example, you have an impact on the students’ self-perception.

Consider the following statements: “Can you lower your voices to discussion mode; when you are loud like that, it interferes with the other discussion groups,” as opposed to, “Those in that group get back to work or you’ll be staying in during recess.” With the latter phrasing, how might students identify themselves? Can you see how the use of language provides information about the teacher and how she/he views the student and their relationship? In the first example, the teacher and the students are working in cooperation; the teacher sees the students as having control and expects that students can and will change their noise level. In the second example, the teacher sees herself as the task master, and students must labor to complete the task.

Your choice of words helps students understand how they work and play, influences your relationships with them, and affects the quality of classroom instruction. Your choice of words should encourage the student to extend, dig deeper and make connections. Consider asking questions such as “How did you figure that out?” and “What problems did you come across today?” Within your classroom, your choice of words will help students become problem solvers and risk-takers.

What are some strategies that you can use to develop positive relationships?

In addition to word choice, research has provided many ways that you can develop positive relationships within your classroom. Denton (2007) offers the following principles to guide you in using positive language: (a) be direct; (b) convey faith in students’ abilities and intentions; (c) focus on actions, not abstractions; (d) keep it brief; and (e) know when to be silent. Moreover, it is critical that you let students know that you promote a sense of community and a safe learning environment. Brown (2010) provides seven strategies for you to establish and maintain positive relationships:

  1. Be the CEO of your classroom.
  2. Embrace your students’ individuality.
  3. Create a community within your class.
  4. Let your students get to know a part of you.
  5. Learn all of your students’ names within 48 hours.
  6. Examine and improve nonverbal communication.
  7. Treat all students with dignity and respect at all times.

My most important point is this: it is imperative that you take the time to develop and build positive relationships with your students. The words you use can determine how students see themselves: as problem-solvers, risk takers, and lifelong learners!


Brown, T. (2010). The power of positive relationships. Middle Ground: The Magazine of Middle Level Education, 14(1), 8-10.

Denton, P. (2007). The power of our words: Teacher language that helps children learn. Turner Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.

Johnston, P.H. (2004). Choice words: How our language affects children’s learning. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Marzano, R. (2011). Relating to students: It’s what you do that counts. Educational Leadership, 68(6), 82-83.

Slade, S. (2011, November 23). Relationships matter.[Web log message]. Retrieved from matter_b_1110001.html?view=print



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