smiling teacher

Improve Behavior Management by Building Relationships

This article is a guest post by Elijah Carbajal, a 4th grade teacher in Aztec, New Mexico

I had been frustrated for a long time. I had a classroom of 28 fourth graders in desperate need of behavior management.

Nearly half had special learning needs. The ones who didn’t have IEPs probably should have. And there was plenty of drama. I was facing my most difficult classroom yet. Students would yell at me, and they would cuss at each other. Girls said the meanest things. Of course, there were also the well-behaved kids who desperately wanted to be in a different classroom.

After a particularly challenging Monday, I sat alone in my classroom and contemplated the day. So many thoughts and questions were running through my head.

I’m not a bad teacher, am I? I thought my behavior management was on point. What’s going wrong? When, in the last 4 years, did I become the teacher that yells? My class is out of control, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

The Behavior Management Breakdown

I’m sure every teacher asks these questions to themselves every once in a while. Any teacher who says otherwise is either lying, or they have some sort of magic wand. Even the most experienced teachers have “those days” when everything you try fails. It seems that students can see through every trick in your behavior management bag of tricks!

I told myself that maybe it was the group. Other kids probably have better parents and better parent involvement. Or maybe last year’s class just had been better trained by the teachers before.

The one person I didn’t focus on was myself. Was it possible I was contributing to the behavior management problems?

I began to reflect. A lot. I decided I did not want to repeat the previous year. I knew something had to change.

Learning About Relationships

This year, I teach fourth grade in the same school. My class runs smoothly, there is very little drama, students don’t yell at me, and I don’t yell at them. They actually work very hard for me. They seem excited to come to school. Something had changed.

It started when I began to realize that I needed to connect with those who had experienced the same challenges I was facing. I sought out resources. I read books, like Kids Deserve It, listened to podcasts, and even found a mentor. (Not just someone who was assigned to me).

In all my searching and research, I found what I believe to be the one key to better behavior management: positive relationships with students. But is there a secret ingredient to creating strong relationships?

Interact with Students Outside the Classroom

I always thought I had good relationships with my students. Sure, I did all the things to get to know students inside the classroom. But “get-to-know-you” activities on the first day of class just don’t cut it. Talking with students about their likes and dislikes weren’t enough for me.

In realizing this, I made some changes. I used to eat lunch with kids as a reward for behaving well. Now, I just started eating lunch with kids because I wanted to. I started playing tether-ball and kickball with them. Started coming to their performances and sporting events. It wasn’t that I was showing up to make them behave.  I found that I just enjoyed my students more when I did these things.

Once I began to respect students and show them that I cared about who they were outside of my four walls, they began to return that consideration in the classroom.

Show Students Respect

Part of the reason interacting outside the classroom is so important is that it puts us on a level playing field. We need to engage with our students on an entirely different plane. We have to come down from our thrones and meet them at their level.

Inside the classroom, we reign supreme. Outside the classroom, it’s their world. They don’t care how smart you are and how many ways you can solve a math equation…if you don’t enjoy being around them for who they are then they won’t be giving you 100% of their focus and efforts.

Even if you have all your kids focused and in order, the relationship will be based on rules instead of relationships. They will be following laws, instead of following a leader.

Successful Relationship-Based Behavior Management

The effort I put into growing relationships with my students has really paid off. That’s what has made the difference, and that is what will continue to make the difference. My kids aren’t perfect little angels. But I know for certain that they respect me for who I am. In their eyes, I’m legit, because in my eyes, they are too! They work hard for me, because I take time to show them that I respect them as people.

When behaviors are flying off the handle, how we respond is an indicator of the depth of our relationships with our students. Yelling and losing our cool only shows that we care more about rules than we care about them. Remaining calm, cool, and collected can turn those out of control moments into teachable moments. It shows them that we care about them and we respect them. That is what they really want from us. It is the thing we all desire.

Intentionally work to build positive student relationships; you’ll soon begin to see just how far a simple game of tether-ball will go.

Ready to Invest in Relationships?

Teachers who invest in relationships have better outcomes. Whether you are looking to improve classroom management, motivation, or achievement, students need to know that you’re on their side.

With our busy lives outside the classroom, we may struggle to find time to connect with each student. The reality is that every interaction with students helps to shape how they see us as teachers. 

If you’d like to leverage social-emotional learning to help build motivation and improve student behavior, we can help. Save your seat in our upcoming workshop, A Social-Emotional Approach to Behavior Management.

You’ll learn classroom-tested strategies that increase engagement and motivation. And you’ll receive your own digital copies of all the resources you’ll need to take these lessons back to your classroom right away.

Save My Seat!

Elijah Carbahal is a National Geographic Certified educator and host of the Shut Up and Teach podcastElijah Carbajal is a fourth grade teacher at Park Avenue Elementary School in Aztec, NM. Learn more and connect with him on Twitter @carbaeli