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Given the challenges of where and how K-12 students are learning, it is more important than ever to meet students where they are to foster a positive relationship. An experienced Director of Student Services offers three strategies to consider to cultivate positive relationships with your students.

As we begin to normalize a pandemic’s experience, I continually wonder what life will be like once we return to some sense of normalcy. What will be the big takeaways that we learn from this world-wide pandemic? What will we carry forward that will increase our impact on K-12 student engagement? Specifically, how do we connect with students and establish trusting relationships to support the return to in-person learning? I have discovered three strategies as the foundation for cultivating positive K-12 student relationships.

How to begin to cultivate positive student relationships

Be flexible

Differentiation and flexibility will be critical. Students and staff are tired, and this fatigue will be consistent and pervasive as we begin to transition back to in-person instruction. Transitioning back to in-person instruction will take effort and an adjustment to the cognitive demand. Specifically, students will not be accustomed to the consistent and regular attention needed for in-person instruction. Teachers will need to enter from a mindfulness space and regularly reflect on how they can allow flexibility in assignments, tests, and quizzes.  

Focus on well-being

By incorporating Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) into our assignments, we can ensure students balance mental health with academic achievement. I posit that both are possible in any given subject. For example, can we teach Math competencies and still focus on such corresponding skills such as work toward goals, attention control, manage personal stress, seek help when needed? Expressly, can we incorporate mindfulness techniques and help students identify when they become emotionally flooded or overstressed? Now is a time to help infuse universal skills that help a student holistically. Never has there been more of a time to ask, “How are you doing”? To gain a keen sense of awareness around those most vulnerable who need extra support.  

Break down silos 

Teams are effective when they can collaborate. Collaboration requires meaningful and timely communication.  If silos exist, none of this can happen. Communication has been vital during this unprecedented time and deciphering those disengaged, and those in need of support has been the ultimate hurdle. Launching broad universal support has been a significant win. I have discussed with many educators their successes with virtual events for parent and student engagements. In addition, counselors have commented on effective ways they have engaged students through flipped classrooms, giving lessons before they meet to have deeper and more meaningful learning.  

Final Thoughts

With the launch of vaccination initiatives, it appears that we may have somewhat of a “normal” 2021-2022 school year. We would do this time an injustice if we did not reflect and move forward as better educators. How are we flexible to the transition back to a new normal? Are we supporting ALL students being keenly aware of racial equity and equitable supports?  How do we put well-being at the forefront and infuse SEL or other mental health initiatives within our core subjects? Can we put the care team as primary and breakdown the silos of communication that often limit our ability to provide wrap-around support fully? We have learned much throughout this challenging time, and we are and will be better educators because of this experience.  

Matthew Liberatore

Dr. Matt Liberatore, LCPC is the director of professional learning and student services for Township High School District 214, past president of the Illinois School Counselor Association, and senior advisor to Intellispark.