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The Relationship-Building Tool COVID-19 Cannot Take Away

The bell is about to ring. You’re standing in the doorway offering each student a high-five. You enter your classroom and crouch down at a student’s desk for a quick individual check-in. You offer an encouraging smile and a quick side-hug.

As you start class, your alarm goes off. You wake up, panicked. It was another one of those dreams. One where you remember all the magical moments of relationship building you once had with students. Keep reading to learn the top-notch relationship-building tools COVID-19 cannot take away.

In 2019 your “go-to” strategies for relationship building included touch (high-fives), close proximity, and facial expressions (smiles). Unfortunately, for many, your “go-to” strategies for relationship building are off the table (for now). These options are limited in most schools now to maximize safety.

Now, maybe you stand secluded at the front of your classroom with a mask covering your smile. Or you are miles away from your students, talking to a computer screen often covered with little black squares.

Instead of complaining about the impossibilities, focus your efforts on what is still possible. The good news is there is a whole world of possibilities when you know the power WORDS play in building strong relationships.

This month’s newsletter is a deep dive into how your words impact your relationship with students, and thus their learning. Get ready to learn:

  1. What to say
  2. What to avoid saying
  3. What matters, beyond the words

The Research

Let’s start with two critical goals of fostering healthy teacher-student relationships.

These two goals are building trust and warmth.

Trust means a student can count on you. Students value a teacher who is honest, consistent, and fair (Peter, & Dalbert, 2010). Students who feel their teacher is unfair experience greater levels of distress (Peter, Dalbert, Kloeckner, & Radant, 2013).

Warmth means a student believes you care about them. Students with a warm and caring teacher are more engaged and perform better academically. They also exhibit better psychosocial behavior (Hughes & Cao, 2018).

With these two goals in mind, let’s explore three ways your language can improve your relationship with students.

  1. What to Say

You likely already know that positive feedback from the teacher enhances teacher-student relationships (Floress, Beschta, Meyer, & Reinke, 2017).

What’s new is that some forms of positive feedback have 10x the impact of other forms. Lean in to learn how to amplify your efforts when giving positive feedback.

Level 1: General Praise

The often-heard phrase “Good job!” can be categorized as positive feedback. Its impact (effect size) is positive, albeit a meager effect size of 0.14 (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). An effect size is one way to measure the impact on student learning. An effect size of 0.50 is equivalent to approximately one year of growth in one year of time. Hence, an effect size of 0.14 is far from impressive, or impactful.

Level 2: Specific Praise

The impact (effect size) jumps to an impressive 0.74 when it becomes more specific. That is a year and a half of gains in one year of time. It might sound like, “Good job! I notice how you took your time to give your best effort on your writing.”

Level 3: Specific Praise + Attribution

To get 10x the impact, add WHY that will be beneficial to the student in the future. This is called feedback with attribution. You are acknowledging the attribute at play and how it will serve the student beyond the present moment. Feedback with attribution has an astounding effect size of 1.42 (Dweck, 2013).

For example, “Good job! I notice how you took your time to give your best effort to your writing. Doing your best work will be extremely helpful when you get into college or your career.”

  1. What to Avoid Saying

It is well-known that harsh criticism, belittling, sarcasm, etc. negatively impacts relationships. Teachers with positive student relationships avoid these patterns.

Here is a NEW insight about what to avoid that will make your life as a teacher much easier. But first a little experiment:

Imagine an elephant. The elephant is not purple. The elephant is not holding an umbrella with its trunk.

What picture came to mind for you? Did you picture a purple elephant holding an umbrella? Most likely, yes!

This is an example of how using negations can inaccurately encode information in the brain.

A negation relates an expression to another expression with the opposite meaning. You tell your students not to do something, and they think about doing it. You remind students not to double space their paper, and they submit a double-spaced essay. Negations activate associations in the brain that lead people astray from the desired message.

Multiple research studies have shown how the use of negations draws attention to the opposite of the intended message. Research participants were told to look at a symbol that was “not north”. They looked north (Mayo, Schul, & Burnstein, 2004). In another study, participants were told “the figure is not red.” Not surprisingly, they looked at the red figure (Orenes, Beltrán, & Santamaría, 2014).

Negations are heard in classrooms across the world. “This is not hard. Now is not the time for talking. You do not need a common denominator when multiplying fractions.” Other variations include: “Don’t lean back in your chair; Stop talking; etc.”

Avoiding negations provides greater clarity to your students. This contributes to the trust needed for strong, positive teacher-student relationships.

  1. What Matters, Beyond the Words

In the absence of physical connection, we can lean into the power of speech. As discussed above, the specific words you say can make an impact on the relationship. Also, the sound of a comforting voice can strengthen a bond.

Oxytocin is frequently mentioned when discussing the neurobiology of relationships. Nicknamed the “cuddle hormone”, oxytocin supports human connection and feelings of safety (Domes, Heinrichs, Michel, Berger, & Herpertz, 2007).

Research (Seltzer, Ziegler, & Pollak, 2010). has revealed that oxytocin levels can rise simply by hearing the voice of a caring adult. In one study, children were intentionally exposed to a stressor. As anticipated, their cortisol levels increased. From there, the children received one of three randomly chosen interventions.

One-third of the children were comforted by their mother with interpersonal contact (physical touch). Another third were only allowed to interact with their mothers via a phone call. The final third had no contact with their mother.

Two surprising results from this study:

  1. The cortisol levels for the first two groups (personal contact and phone contact) both decreased to similar levels. Meaning, the sound of the voice was equally effective in reducing the stress hormone cortisol. That means your voice alone can help reduce student stress during a tumultuous time like this.
  2. These same two groups experienced an increase in oxytocin lasting an hour after the initial stressor. That means a healthy bond can be formed even from a distance.

How does this relate to you as an educator? The sound of your voice – through a mask or a screen – may strengthen your bond with students. The key is to use your voice to communicate warmth and authentic caring. Keep reading for ideas to check the “warmth” temperature of your voice.

Practical Application

The high-fives, hugs, and flashy smiles will soon return. In the meantime, it is time to supercharge the tools we can safely use now. These practical tools will amplify your use of words to strengthen relationships: 

What to Say 

It might seem impractical to offer specific feedback with attribution to every student’s response. Make a conscious effort to at least make it a daily habit. Here are a few suggestions:

  • At the end of every class, close with a positive comment that includes attribution.

“Good work today, class. You were very focused. That level of focus will help you as you start reading more challenging books in 3rd grade.

  • In your written feedback on student work, add attribution to any positive comment.

“Strong introduction – this type of opening will also help you be a powerful speaker and activist for things you care about.”

  • In your digital communication to students (via email, REMIND, FlipGrid, etc.) include positive feedback with attribution.

“Great job today, everyone. Thanks for all the great questions. Those are the types of questions that will help you become an informed citizen in our society.”

What to Avoid Saying

It is easy to react quickly to a situation by telling students what NOT to do. When students are leaning back in their chair, a reactive, “Don’t lean back in your chair!” comes naturally. The challenge is to pause long enough for YOU to determine the positive behavior response. Then communicate that to your students. Here is a simple 3 step process to keep your words aligned with your goals:

  1. Breathe – this gives you a moment to pause and avoid a quick reactionary statement.
  2. Create a mental image of the positive version of what you’d like to see.
  3. Speak to that image (rather than what NOT to do)
  4. Instead of saying, “Stop talking” say, “Listen up, folks.”

Instead of saying “Stop kicking the student in front of you” say, “Please keep your feet under your own chair.”

Instead of saying, “Don’t change your screen name on Zoom” say, “Please use your real name on Zoom.” 

How to Say it

Make an audio recording of yourself teaching. Your smartphone has an app that can do that. Or listen back to your Zoom recordings. Here are a few reflection questions to guide your thinking:

  • Do I sound warm?
  • Would a student feel safe to approach me with a personal or academic concern solely based on my voice?
  • Does my tone sound the same as when I’m talking to my own kids, spouse, or loved ones?

The words you say, and how you say them have a BIG impact on your relationships. Embrace the options still available to teachers and make them work for your current circumstance. Sending you all a virtual high-five! You’ve got this.


Domes, G., Heinrichs, M., Michel, A., Berger, C., & Herpertz, S. C. (2007). Oxytocin improves “mind-reading” in humans. Biological psychiatry61(6), 731-733.

Dweck, C. S. (2013). Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development. Psychology press.

Floress, M. T., Beschta, S. L., Meyer, K. L., & Reinke, W. M. (2017). Praise research trends and future directions: Characteristics and teacher training. Behavioral Disorders43(1), 227-243.

Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of educational research77(1), 81-112.

Hughes, J. N., & Cao, Q. (2018). Trajectories of teacher-student warmth and conflict at the transition to middle school: Effects on academic engagement and achievement. Journal of school psychology67, 148-162.

Mayo, R., Schul, Y., & Burnstein, E. (2004). “I am not guilty” vs “I am innocent”: Successful negation may depend on the schema used for its encoding. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology40(4), 433-449.

Orenes, I., Beltrán, D., & Santamaría, C. (2014). How negation is understood: Evidence from the visual world paradigm. Journal of memory and language74, 36-45.

Peter, F., & Dalbert, C. (2010). Do my teachers treat me justly? Implications of students’ justice experience for class climate experience. Contemporary Educational Psychology35(4), 297-305.

Peter, F., Dalbert, C., Kloeckner, N., & Radant, M. (2013). Personal belief in a just world, experience of teacher justice, and school distress in different class contexts. European Journal of Psychology of Education28(4), 1221-1235.

Seltzer, L. J., Ziegler, T. E., & Pollak, S. D. (2010). Social vocalizations can release oxytocin in humans. Proceedings. Biological sciences277(1694), 2661–2666.

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