The Three Rs – Relationship, Relationship, Relationship


Kellye R. Wood, director of Early Childhood for Oakland Schools, offers advice on how teachers can better build relationships with students as we move into the new school year.

 What is one of our main “jobs” as educators at the beginning of the school year? It is to build relationships. Why? Because learning is ultimately based on relationships: Relationships between people in order to access relationships between the concepts, content and skills we want students to learn. As educators, we also proactively partner and build relationships with parents, extended family, and other important adults in children’s lives. Indeed, we honor the parent-child bond as the most important human relationship. Though we are experts in educative best practices, the parent is The Expert about his or her child. We need parent insights about what the child needs, wants, likes, worries about, wonders, etc. We are intentional about providing meaningful, ongoing and varied opportunities for parent and family engagement in children’s education and learning. Thus, creating relationships of trust with children and parents is more than just our “job.” It is: Educator ethic. Mission and calling. Portal to all else for the child and learner: School and life success.

So, how do we build trusting relationships with children and other adults?


  • Authentic – Give voice to your best self – genuine, honest, reasonable and encouraging.
  • Warm – Model sincere regard, kindness and positive support.
  • Accepting – Act with belief in the inherent worth of fellow humans, even if you sometimes disagree with their actions.
  • Respectful – Treat others as capable individuals who can learn and grow.
  • Empathetic – Seek to understand “where others are coming from” to connect and go forward together.

(Kostelnik, et al., 2015)


Be a confident listener and patient conversationalist: Pass the WAIT test. Check yourself by asking, “When Am I Talking” at rather than with others? Strive to observe and listen first. With a young child, bend at the knee, do not tower like an oak. For older children, position yourself in an open stance for gentle lateral eye contact. Internally suspend your to-do list. Be fully present. When a student finishes speaking, paraphrase to 1) show you cared enough to listen and 2) encourage the student to think and say more. Aim for several conversational volleys. This is how to build substantive conversation, vocabulary, cognition, positive approaches to learning and relationships. It is what differentiates intellectual from merely academic classroom environments.

  • Caveat: Please avoid peppering students with yes and no questions, aka “conversation and cognition killers.” Ask questions selectively to help children “think about their thinking.” Be a Socratic conversationalist.

Realize: By being thoughtful about developing relationships of deep regard and substance at the beginning of the school year, you construct a launching pad for a higher trajectory of learning throughout the year.

Finally: Know that learning is ultimately an ongoing conversation based on relationships. When adults and children relate well to one another, this helps the student relate concepts, content and skills to his or her life. Activities become experiences infused with meaning, personal purpose and joy for the learner. Is this not why we teach? If so, you might affirm your own meaning, purpose and joy by thinking or saying out loud on your way to school each day: I am an AWARE teacher who builds talented thinkers and doers.        

Kostelnik, M. J., Soderman, A. K., Whiren, A. P., Rupiper, M., & Gregory, K. (2015). Guiding children’s social development and learning: Theory and Skills (8th ed.). Belmont, CA: Cengage.

Michigan State Board of Education. (2005, revised 2013). Early childhood standards of quality for prekindergarten. The partnership with families (pp. 105-108). Learning environment: Relationships and climate (pp.116-120). Teaching practices (pp. 121-128). Lansing, MI. Retrieved from (2015). W.A.I.T. Why Am I Talking? A Better Meeting Guide. Adapted and retrieved from

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