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Three steps to forge positive relationships with students

Tips to foster holistic wellbeing and social emotional learning

As an impact coach for City Year Jacksonville, I have the privilege of coaching AmeriCorps members who work with students every day as tutors, mentors and role models.

My experiences working in schools, both at City Year and in my previous role as a teacher, have shown me that helping students to develop social and emotional skills such as self-management, teamwork and optimistic thinking enables them do better in school and in life. For students to succeed academically and for schools to close gaps in performance, we have to address factors that contribute to those gaps in the first place. Often, the first step to nurturing students’ holistic well-being–both in and out of school–is to build positive relationships with them.

Here are three tips for mentors of all ages who seek to connect with and promote children’s holistic growth by building developmental relationships — trusting, meaningful relationships that help young people better understand themselves and the world around them.

1. Be open and vulnerable with the students you mentor, tutor and support.

To build trust with students, we, as caring adults, have to be willing to open up and risk a bit ourselves. I always say, “Be as transparent as you are willing to be, and then push yourself a little bit further than that.” Young people have a keen ability to detect falseness, and we want our students to know we genuinely care for them and are personally invested in their success. Sharing a bit of ourselves, our motivation, and our challenges can help to build an authentic bond.

2. Establish and maintain healthy boundaries between caring adults and students.

This tip may seem to contradict my first piece of advice, but vulnerability and boundaries go hand-in-hand. Well-established boundaries can help to build trust between students and adults. Sometimes, students bring serious issues to a mentor that should be shared with another school staff member or parent. It is important for mentors to say: “I’m sorry this is something you are experiencing, and I’m glad you shared this with me. You need to discuss this with your parent (or school counselor or school nurse). Would you like me to connect you with the right person to talk through how you might do that?” As important as mentors are in school settings, we do not replace other key staff, including school social workers, nurses, or mental health counselors. Often the most helpful role we can play is to notice what is going on, be compassionate and connect students to appropriate resources.

3. Treat every day like Day One

My students taught me that every day is a fresh start. When I was teaching, I realized I was carrying my experiences from the day before into the next day. A kid who had given me a hard time on Tuesday would hug me like it never happened on Wednesday. Students are able to move past things, so we adults need to be able to do the same. Otherwise, we unintentionally label kids as good and bad, and cut them off from future positive growth because of a bad experience they may have had one day.

Anyone who works with students can tell you that building relationships isn’t always easy, and you can’t expect instant results. But if we spend time investing in relationships, it can be tremendously fruitful–and powerful enough to change the trajectory of a student’s school experience.

Alexandria Johnson serves as an impact coach for City Year Jacksonville, where she oversees training and professional development on social-emotional learning for City Year AmeriCorps members. Before joining City Year, Alex taught science to fifth-grade students in Duval County, Florida with Teach For America. Alex received a master of public administration and a bachelor of science from Eastern Kentucky University.

This essay originally appeared on Education Week’s website, part of its Learning is Social and Emotional blog series hosted by the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development. It has been adapted for the City Year blog.

We bring together diverse, talented teams of young adults to serve in high-need schools across the country, where they support students, teachers and schools all day, every day. Serving as a City Year AmeriCorps member is a complex and challenging, yet rewarding, commitment. Through their work in schools and communities, City Year AmeriCorps members not only make a difference in the lives of students they serve, but also acquire valuable skills that prepare them to become the next generation of civically engaged leaders. Interested in getting involved?

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