Make Sure Your Students Know They Matter
This post is the third in a series dedicated to techniques for boosting student confidence. Today, our focus is on building relationships.
When we get to know our students, not only do we gain the opportunity to talk to them explicitly about the strengths we see in them, but we are also implicitly communicating that we believe they are worth getting to know, and you never know how much that might mean to a student.
I know, because I’ve been that student. I remember in particular a history seminar I took my first semester of college. While I went through high school as one of those super nerdy straight-A students who feels more at home in the library than the cafeteria, for some reason, that history course intimidated me.
I had myself convinced that all of the success I’d had in high school was completely irrelevant to the experience I would have at college, and that I was utterly unprepared to participate in seminar-style college courses. And because my mind likes to follow such thoughts as far down the path to doom and gloom as possible, I was also quite sure that I was so uninspiring as a student that my professor had zero idea who I was and wouldn’t have recognized me if we’d bumped into each other anywhere else on campus, even if it was only 10 minutes after class had let out.
To be honest, I probably was pretty uninspiring as a student, because I let those fears keep me from speaking up much in class.
Then one day, my entire experience in that course changed.
My professor called on me by name.
Yup, that’s it. It hardly seems earth-shattering, I know. But for me, that one small act was enough to stop the spiral of self-doubt. I saw that I mattered enough to my professor that she had bothered to learn my name. And if I had been wrong about her not remembering me, then maybe I was wrong about the rest of my doubts as well. I started speaking up more, and my confidence increased exponentially, until I was back to my old nerdy self in the classroom.
So yes, developing relationships is a fabulous and important way to build students’ confidence, and in the rest of this post, I will be sharing several concrete tips and strategies to help you do so.
Never underestimate the power you have to change how your students see themselves.
THE STRATEGIES: Five things you can do to Build Relationships With Your Students
Let’s start by seeing how what you do outside of the classroom can help you build relationships in the classroom.
1. Meet with students outside of class
Scheduling time with students outside of class is beneficial for many reasons, and it can be especially helpful when dealing with less confident students.
To begin with, we’re sending the message that we think they’re worth our time. For some kids, that alone might be enough to give them a shot of confidence.
It also gives us the chance to probe the root cause of any insecurities more deeply, in an environment that is likely to feel safer than a room full of their peers. That lets us address their particular anxieties, concerns, and needs, and we can equip them with tools they can use to feel more confident when they are back in the classroom.
Finally, the experience will help them see that we’re not scary! Many students feel intimidated about approaching their teachers for help, but if we can get them to feel comfortable talking to us, they’ll be more likely to come to us in the future, creating even more opportunities for us to help them be more confident in their abilities.
2. Learn Something Unique About Them
Does your student love hiking? Do they have a sugar packet collection? Did they share a story about that one time they were trying to make cookies with their sister, and she added salt instead of sugar? Don’t just listen to these stories, remember them and reference them! You can do this via casual comments in class, or by actually incorporating your students and their personalities into your in-class activities.
By doing so, you’re sending the message that your students are worth knowing and remembering, and if you believe they’re worth it, they just might start to believe it, too.
And it doesn’t take much. My students even love it when I do something as simple as using their names on our worksheets, but when I take a few extra minutes to personalize a lesson, the payoff increases exponentially.
For example, I have one student who is really into political diplomacy and military strategy. Here’s what my slides looked like when I was explaining the passive voice to my class (I’ve changed his name and covered his face to protect his privacy, but in class, he saw his real name and face on the screen!):
Jeffrey was delighted to find himself the conquerer of France! And once he realized that I was invested in him, he has become more willing to put himself out there and take risks in class.
After all, if he can conquer a country, surely he can conquer the passive voice!
3. Email Unexpected Compliments
The extra effort that it takes to send an email after class instead of just telling them “Good job!” in the moment will send a powerful message. After all, it’s pretty much our job to acknowledge their work in class, but an email sent on our own time must mean that we really were impressed.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sent a quick note of praise to one of my students and received a reply along the lines of “That really means a lot” or “You just made my day” or—one I find particularly meaningful—”I feel so much better now.”
4. Have Students Praise Each Other
There are many different ways in which our students might struggle with their self-confidence. I, for example, was comfortable interacting with my teachers, and I didn’t doubt my intellectual ability, but I did lack social confidence. For students like me, the most affirming message might be positive words from the other students in their class.
Try having everyone write down something they appreciate about each of their peers, then compiling the messages and giving each student a sheet listing what their classmates value about them. (This also gives you the chance to double check the messages first.)
A side benefit to this exercise is that it might give you some inspiration with regards to your students. We’ve all had kids who were challenging, or with whom we simply didn’t connect as naturally, and reading through the list of positive traits that their peers see in them might help you reframe your own vision of those students. At the very least, it can give you a place to start when you’re looking to find something positive that you can use to encourage them. (Perhaps via an unexpected email, as in tip #3!)
5. Utilize Your Nurturers
You know those students that we all just adore because they are so kind, warm, and good at helping others feel comfortable? Use them to your advantage! If you have an anxious or timid student, try pairing them up with one of your nurturers, especially towards the beginning of the year.
In the previous post in this series, on strategies for creating a comfortable classroom environment, I brought up the fact that students are often more willing to participate when working in small groups than in whole-class activities. It’s also common for students to feel more comfortable with each other—in groups of any size—than they feel with us, especially before we’ve had a chance to put tips #1-4 into practice. By partnering an anxious student with a nurturer, you’re giving them a safe person to turn to with any questions.
And guess what? Not only will your nurturer help put your timid student at ease, but the pairing will also give your nurturer an extra shot of confidence as well! Anytime you can put someone in a position to help someone else, you’re setting them up to feel great about themselves and what they can bring to the table!
What did you think? Which of these strategies are you already using to build relationships with and among your students? Which are you most excited to try out? Let me know in the comments!
Next up: How to create opportunities for success. I’ll share six ways you can help guide your students to those confidence-boosting wins!
Don't Miss the rest of this series!
If you want to hear more of the techniques I love using to increase student confidence, make sure to subscribe to my blog so you’ll get notified when each post comes out!
Miss the first two parts of the series? Go back to read my overview on boosting student confidence, including the self-reflection we should all start with, and then continue on to find six strategies for creating a comfortable classroom environment.
And don’t miss the final post in the series: 3 strategies for setting clear expectations in the classroom