Students spend a large portion of each day in schools, learning from their teachers and learning from their peers. This time is critical in their academic development, but more importantly, their social and emotional development. The experiences that the students have every day will impact their lives, and it is our job as educators to help make those experiences as meaningful and as positive as possible. Building positive relationships with students is critical to their success in school and in life.

Most of my years in the classroom were grades kindergarten through three, the early childhood years, the most critical years in brain development and social and emotional growth. This is where children learn about self-regulation, assertiveness and empathy. We must be conscious of the roles these traits play in our lives and in the lives of our students in order to build positive relationships.

A common theme in the work of neurologists and brain-based learning educators focuses on the states of the brain. Dr. Becky Bailey, an educator and founder of Conscious Discipline, offers a model of the three states: survival, emotional, and executive. When we are stressed or scared, we live in the survival part of our brains, the brain stem, where all of our decisions focus on whether or not we are safe. If we are acting in the emotional state of our brain, we are activating the limbic system and are concerned with love and how we are feeling. Emotional reactions are a result of the how we connect to what is happening. The most advanced state of the brain where learning occurs is the executive state. The desire to learn and ask how learning applies to oneself is found in the prefrontal lobes of the brain. Higher order thinking and problem solving develops in this state.

This information is valuable in understanding how children interact with each other and why it is important to focus on developing strategies for students to be able to function in these various states. Dr. Bailey’s model focuses on safety, connection and problem solving. When students are comfortable with their safety and emotions, then they can function in the learning part of their brain where engagement and learning will ultimately occur.

How do we then apply our knowledge of the states of the brain to relationship building in the classroom? First we must model what we are asking. Students need to be taught how to listen and express feelings so they can feel safe. They must be taught how to react to other’s actions and feelings so their decisions can have positive outcomes in their learning and interacting with others. By using role-play, media, and literature, we can provide examples of how to positively interact with others.

1. Safety
Children come to school with various experiences that trigger the fight or flight responses. They may use hurtful words with their peers and teachers, causing others to react negatively. They may feel like no one cares about them and they choose to display aggressive behavior. They may even isolate themselves and avoid interaction with others. To help children feel safe in schools, we must:

Welcome them. Administrators can be in the hallways, greeting the students by name. Teachers can stand at the door as they enter, offering a hug, high five, or a handshake and telling them, “I am so glad you are here today.”
Provide a safe place. When students arrive feeling angry or frustrated, it is important to have a place inside the classroom as well as somewhere else on campus where they can feel safe letting go. Some students need a moment to cry or be alone. Others may want to have a place where they can beat a pillow or throw a ball to release their anger. We must let children know that it is ok to feel angry, frustrated, sad, or upset. Having a place where they can release these emotions safely will free up their brain to focus on learning.
Favorite friend. Every student on your campus should feel a connection with an adult on your staff. Determine which children enter school daily in a negative emotional state that would benefit from a quick hello or conversation from a caring adult. Oftentimes this is the only person who has shown love or care to that child today. This connection will help alleviate the stress that traveled with the student to school so that he/she can be in the right state of mind for learning.

2. Connections
Getting to know your students. School days are packed full of learning activities, but nothing is as important as knowing your students. Pick a few students each day to ask specific questions about their interests and motivations. Engaging with students in brief conversations about their lives shows you care. You can also deepen those connections by sharing about yourself and the commonalities you may have.
2.Making choices. Students may take action without thinking of the repercussion of their decisions. They need to be taught how to make good choices. The daily interactions among students, including having a conversation, working on a project, playing on the playground, and eating lunch can lead to conflict, hurt feelings, and rejection. Teachers can role play with students in the classroom and use examples from literature to help students recognize how to make choices that will not have a negative or hurtful impact on others.

3. Recognizing feelings
There are times when we experience a range of emotions, but are unsure how to label those feelings. It is easy to recognize happiness, sadness and fear while it may be more difficult to identify feelings of frustration, anxiety, and confusion. Use a mirror with students so they can see what they look like when they express different feelings. Display a feelings board for young children to point to the face that shows how they feel. Introduce the correct vocabulary to explain what they are feeling. Give students sentence stems to help them express their feelings. In the book Better than carrots or sticks: Restorative practices for positive classroom management, the authors offer phrases that can be used to help students step out of their comfort zones to express their feelings:
1.I’m angry that…,I hate that…, I resent…
2.It hurts me when…, I felt sad when…, I feel disappointed that…
3.I was afraid that…, I feel scared when… (Smith, Fisher & Frey, p.101)

How to recognize how others are feeling and find ways to support them is a skill that is difficult for children and adults. Our natural desire is to take care of our own needs. Another important part of building connections with others is by showing empathy. Discussing character’s actions and reactions in stories can lead to a greater understanding of empathy. Teachers can lead with questions that help students look outside of themselves and live in the world of others to understand their feelings. Encourage students to teach each other how to show empathy.

Students can ask questions to help identify the emotional state of characters in stories or people around them. Then they can determine ways to help them improve their state of being by offering help, asking what they need or what they might be thinking. Students can learn to think of others first and how their own actions might affect the emotions of someone else. When students are able to start identifying others’ feelings then they are more inclined to bring positivity to situations so that others can feel better in the situations we experience in school and in life.

Taking the time to practice these situations will provide an opportunity for students to move into their executive part of the brain where problem solving and learning can occur.

5. Problem Solving and Learning

1. Using ‘I’ messages.
The first step at solving problems is recognizing that a problem exists. When students interact with each other, they need to know how to communicate their emotions and think in a way for the other person to see there is a problem and how others’ emotions play into it. An ‘I’ message puts the focus on they way you see things rather than blaming the other person for their actions. ‘I’ messages sound like this: I don’t like when you shove me in line. I don’t like when you take my toy without asking. I don’t like when you say you are my friend then change your mind. It hurts my feelings when you call me names. I feel sad when you pick another student instead of picking me.

2.Turn taking.
Learning how to take turns is a skill that is taught in preschool and kindergarten. Teachers model how to share and let others have the opportunity to play, interact, or talk. However many older students still struggle with turn taking. Students may takeover a conversation, not allowing for others to express their thoughts or opinions. Some students may feel intimidated to be open and honest in a conversation and allow the other person to monopolize the conversation. This type of turn taking is critical to developing higher order thinking skills. Help your students ask direct questions, provide phrases that allow others to offer opinions, challenge comments that may be hurtful, and make eye contact when speaking and listening.

3. Collaborative work.
When students are feeling safe and are emotionally ready for learning, great things can happen. Collaborative groups where students have specific responsibilities and are able to contribute to the work promote proper brain function. Students learn from each other and are engaged in the process. Kagan cooperative learning strategies include working with a partner, small group, or the entire class. Rally robin pairs students to give responses back and forth where as round robin provides opportunity for each member of a group to respond. Students an coach each other when problem solving by using rally coach. Timed pair share offers time for students to think before they speak.

Building resilient minds that can work out situations and fix errors without giving up involves a shift from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. Carol Dewek reminds us to work with our students to establish the understanding that is it ok to fail and that we can learn and grow from our mistakes. Great things happen in classrooms when the mindset is adjusted for flexibility in thinking and acceptance of imperfection.

Building relationships involves, trust, respect, listening and collaboration. It involves being in the right state of mind and understanding how you think and feel and interact with others. Feeling safe and emotionally ready are key to successful learning. By recognizing these needs early on, teachers can set up students for learning and build their confidence along the way.

KaganCooperative Learning
Conscious Discipline:
Mindset: Carol Dewek:
Better than Carrots or Sticks: Restorative Practices for Positive Classroom Management:


About the Author:

Alina McLennan Davis has earned three degrees:B.S.- early childhood,University of Central Florida, Masters- curriculum and instruction, National Louis

University and Ed.S.-educational leadership, Florida State University.
Alina has been a teacher in Orange County, Florida for 20 years. Her background includes teaching kindergarten through third grade students, students with disabilities and English language learners. Over the years Alina has served on many writing committees and teams for developing professional development around the country. She is an ASCD Emerging Leader alumni, class of 2010, and Past President for the board of Florida ASCD. Alina has written for ASCD Inservice and reviews ASCD books proposals for potential publication. Alina also served on the ASCD Nominations Committee for Board of Directors. She facilitates online professional development courses nationwide and develops course content for CaseNEX. Currently Alina is leading the programs and compliance for students with disabilities at an elementary school and is awaiting the opportunity to secure an assistant principal-ship.



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