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Building Positive Relationships With Students: What Brain Science Says

By Trynia Kaufman, MS

Understood's resources for educators are backed by research, vetted by experts, and reviewed by classroom teachers.

Understood's resources for educators are backed by research, vetted by experts, and reviewed by classroom teachers.

Students’ brains are hard at work every moment of the day, learning skills and connecting new information with old. Those same brains are also constantly processing information when it comes to their relationship with you, their teacher.

Positive student relationships are fundamental to success. When students feel supported, they’re more likely to engage in learning and have better academic outcomes. Plus, when students have positive interactions with teachers, they have fewer behavioral problems. These relationships are more important—and more challenging—than ever in uncertain times, like during the coronavirus pandemic.

Neuroscience can help us understand what’s happening in students’ brains when they feel safe and understood. Here are four reasons why positive teacher-student relationships are important—and how you can build those relationships.

1. Positive relationships build motivation.

The brain science: Positive relationships are built on positive interactions. Each of these interactions has a powerful effect on the brain. When you authentically praise a student or have a positive interaction, the student’s brain releases dopamine.

This creates a cycle. You provide positive feedback. The student’s brain releases dopamine. The student feels good and is motivated to feel that way again. With this increased motivation, students spend more time and attention working on a skill. They build those skills. You give more praise—sparking the release of more dopamine. And the cycle starts all over again. 

On the flip side, when students don’t receive positive feedback, they’re less likely to enter the positive cycle of motivation and learning.

How to do it: To build a positive relationship, you need to have more positive interactions than negative ones. More specifically, researchers recommend having five positive interactions for every one negative interaction. Positive interactions could include greeting students by name at the start of class, giving praise for working hard, or asking about a student’s pet.

Students who learn and think differently often have more negative interactions than positive ones. For example, students with ADHD may receive constant reminders from teachers to be on time and stay on task.

This doesn’t mean that you should never provide students with corrective feedback and reminders. But make sure the positive interactions outweigh the negative ones. The more you get to know your students, the more you’ll recognize when they need praise or encouragement, and when they’re open to constructive feedback. You can keep a tally of how many reminders you give a student to complete an assignment. Try to find five times as many positive things to comment on and tally up as well.

2. Positive relationships create safe spaces for learning.

The brain science: Social activities like talking and laughing cause the body to release the hormone oxytocin. This helps us to bond with others. Those bonds create a feeling that’s often called “psychological safety.” When students feel psychologically safe, they’re more likely to participate in class discussions, ask questions, try to do an assignment even when it’s hard, or talk in a tone of voice that’s appropriate for the situation.

Think about how this applies to your own life. If you have a supportive principal who has established psychological safety in your school, you might be more likely to challenge yourself and try new ideas in your classroom. But if school leaders consistently give critical feedback, you might not feel psychologically safe enough to try something new. It’s the same for students.

Building psychological safety is harder with some students than others. Think of the last time you saw a student seeming to overreact. This behavior may result from trauma or chronic stress in the student’s life (such as having a learning or thinking difference or growing up as part of a marginalized group). This can cause them to feel threatened in situations that other students find harmless. The brain learns that the environment is not safe and remains on alert to potential danger.

For these students, when something is perceived as a threat, a region of the brain called the amygdala sets off an alarm. The amygdala is known for its role in detecting threats in the environment. Its job is to keep us safe and alive. Think of an animal that must decide whether to run or freeze when it sees a predator.

The amygdala triggers the release of cortisol (also called the stress hormone) and epinephrine (also called adrenaline). This sends extra energy throughout the body. The muscles tense up and the heartbeat quickens, preparing for fight or flight. When the threat detection system in the brain is highly activated, learning cannot happen. This is the opposite of psychological safety.

In students, this might look like:

  • Avoiding assignments

  • Putting their head down

  • Yelling or making negative comments

  • Walking out of the classroom or leaving a live video lesson

  • Acting out physically or aggressively

While building psychological safety may be even more difficult with these students, it is especially important for them. That’s because oxytocin also helps keep the amygdala’s threat detection system quiet. Over time, when students are surrounded by people they trust, their threat detection system is less likely to activate, and they’re better able to learn.

How to do it: You can build psychological safety for students by praising the effort rather than the outcome. It’s also helpful to reassure students that certain skills are really difficult. You can let them know it’s OK if they answer incorrectly or fail sometimes. Modeling how you respond to your own failures can be a powerful lesson as well.

For students who are at risk for a fight-or-flight reaction, your approach will need to differ slightly. Use strategies like when-then sentences so they can know exactly what positive outcome to expect when they complete a task, while giving students the power of choice. Expect that they may overreact sometimes, and provide the space and time needed to calm down. By remaining calm, you’re not only reminding yourself to react to their behavior as a form of communication and respond appropriately. You’re also building psychological safety and trust.

3. Positive relationships build new pathways for learning.

The brain science: What you’ve heard is true: Tapping into students’ background knowledge will help them learn new information by activating neural pathways in their brains. Developing a new neural pathway is like forging a new trail in the forest. It takes time, work, and a lot of repetition to develop the new trail. And it makes sense to start where another trail already exists. 

As you teach the new information, new neural pathways connect the old information with the new. If students don’t understand the context or aren’t able to link the new information to anything they currently know, they’ll have a hard time understanding the lesson.

How to do it: Ask your students about their hobbies and interests so that you can reference their background knowledge when needed. It can help you individualize instruction by connecting that knowledge to the new information you’re teaching.

Ask students to share what they know about a topic. Every student has a different set of background knowledge. For example, if you know a student is a talented artist, you can leverage their knowledge of different kinds of paintbrushes to explain friction. Or you can make an analogy about the relationship between the characters in a student’s favorite book and the domestic strife in the Civil War.

4. Positive relationships improve student behavior.

The brain science: Research supports the idea that early relationships and interactions, including those with teachers, play a central role in shaping children’s behavior and social skills. Whether you know it or not, your students are likely mirroring your behaviors. Your words and actions matter.

Neuroscience research has started to uncover why this imitation happens—and how it can be used to encourage positive behaviors. Studies have shown that when people observe an action being performed, it activates some of the same neural pathways that would be active if they actually performed the action. This is called the mirror-neuron system.

Essentially, our brains are practicing the action that we’re seeing, even though our bodies don’t move. Studies show that when people see an action first, they are able to perform the action more quickly than if they had not seen the action.

How to do it: Start by thinking through what behaviors and social skills you’re modeling for your students. For example, you likely already model social skills like turn-taking, cooperation, and empathy on a daily basis. You can take it a step further and explain the behaviors you’re modeling. The next time you’re feeling frustrated, tell your students how you’re feeling. Talk about how you deal with frustration, such as taking a few deep breaths.

For younger students, use pre-correcting and prompting as a classroom management strategy. It allows you to explicitly tell, show, and remind students how to approach tasks or situations.

Young children are even more likely than adults to imitate the behaviors they see. That’s because they’re still learning social skills and appropriate behavior. Plus, the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that allows us to choose where to direct our attention and to regulate our behaviors and emotions) isn’t fully developed until we’re in our 20s. Childhood is a prime time to model behavior and social skills for students.

Research

“The mirror-neuron system” from the Annual Review of Neuroscience

“Understanding the stress response” from Harvard Health Publishing

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About the Author

About the Author

Trynia Kaufman, MS

is the senior manager of editorial research at Understood. She is a former educator and presents nationwide at education conferences.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Jerome Schultz, PhD

is a clinical neuropsychologist and lecturer in the Harvard Medical School Department of Child Psychiatry.

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