3 Steps to Strengthen Relationships in Your Classroom

Written By: John Norlin

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At CharacterStrong, we always start our staff Professional Development Trainings with the line, “It’s all about relationships.” It’s true: we were built to be relational from the time we were born needing human touch, connection, and love. In 1979, Dr. Lisa Berkman of the Harvard School of Health Sciences conducted the Alameda County Study, looking at 7,000 people between the ages of 35 and 65. After studying the group for nine years, she determined that those who lacked social or community connections were three times more likely to die of a medical illness. We also know that there are students in every one of our classes coming in with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES). Trauma Informed Practices will tell you that one of the number one things that a student needs to be successful who is dealing with childhood trauma is a consistent, positive relationship. Schools are realizing how critical it is that they focus on teaching not only the traditional academic core classes, but also the social-emotional and character skills of their students. We can no longer wrongly assume that students should “know better.” The fact is that students do not always know what strong relationship skills look like. No matter what social-emotional and/or character curriculum a school may be implementing to support their students, the number one way that we are going to teach students these important skills is by role modeling them ourselves.

Research has shown that building positive teacher-to-student relationships is a highly effective classroom engagement strategy. A few years ago, I was introduced to Dr. Clayton Cook who is currently a professor at the University of Minnesota in the Department of Educational Psychology. He introduced me to a strategy called EMR (or Establish, Maintain, and Restore) as a guiding practice for teachers to create and support effective relationships with their students. The EMR strategy is a specific framework for understanding the teacher-to-student relationship in three dimensions: 1. Establishing the relationship through positive interactions  2. Maintaining the relationships with continued support and encouragement, and 3. Restoring the relationship following episodes of teacher-student conflict. In a practice guide created by Dr. Cook, Stephen Ottinger and Kevin Haggerty from the University of Washington College of Education and Social Development Research Group, they break down this strategy and identify the EMR research evidence as 'strong' and the time each week to implement as 'less than thirty minutes.' This is a high leverage, low time-investment strategy!

The goal of the Establish-Maintain-Restore process is to help you reflect on the status of the relationship you have with each student in your classroom.

  1. Start by taking a class roster and label each name with either an E an M or an R. If you are still Establishing a relationship (E), if you have a positive relationship started and need to continue to Maintain a relationship (M), and if you recently have had a negative or punitive interaction with the student and need to Restore the relationship (R).

  2. Next, pick one or more students that you marked with an (E) to focus on for the next two weeks using 1-2 intentional strategies to build a relationship with that student.

  3. Finally, pick one student that you marked with an (R) to focus on for the next two weeks using one intentional practice to restore the relationship with that student.  

How does EMR work?

Establish: Make time to implement one or more of the following with the intention of having individual time with the student.

1. Banking Time: Finding individual time to spend with a specific student to deposit into the relationship.

  • Asking open-ended questions
  • Validation Statements
  • Active Listening

2. Track Personal Information: Gather, review, and find opportunities to reference important information about a student:

  • Special occasions, pets, family members, hobbies, likes/dislikes
  • Gather information through:
    • Brief conversations with the student.
    • Sentence completion forms (Idea: Give each student a notecard and have them write down one thing they could teach you).
    • Journals
    • Surveys (Written or Electronic) that include questions about interests and passions.

3. Second Hand Compliments - Find something to compliment about the student’s behavior or performance and relay that through another adult rather than delivering it directly to the student.

  • Positive note or call home
  • Positive office referral
  • Telling another teacher and encouraging

Maintain: Teacher continues to engage in positive relationship building with each student through some of the following methods.

  • Teachers use high ratios of compliments or other positive interactions to reprimands or other negative interactions.
  • Teachers use brief relationship check-ins, in which the student is encouraged to share about their lives or personal thoughts, to support the student’s sense of respect and connectedness.

Restore: Conflict, reprimands, or other negative interactions are nearly impossible to avoid. However, teachers follow up each negative interaction with efforts to restore the relationship through specific communication techniques.

  • Taking ownership (e.g., “As your teacher I realize I could have handled the situation better, it’s actually my fault.”)
  • Apologizing (e.g., “I’m sorry we both had a rough day yesterday and for not being able to support you better in class.”)
  • Asking for a do-over (e.g., “I know things got a little rough between us, but here’s what I say. Let’s have a do-over and just try again today.”)
  • Conveying care (“I just wanted to let you know that although your behavior was a bit difficult to deal with, I care deeply about having you in my class and think you are a pretty amazing student.”)

The goal of Establish-Maintain-Restore is to build and maintain positive relationships with all students, and to focus intentionally on those students who may be most difficult for you to connect with. The result should be a better classroom climate and more engaged students because of the positive teacher-to-student relationships being created.

A few years into teaching it became very clear to me that those teachers who were really effective at establishing, maintaining, and restoring relationships had just as much time as everyone else. I realized that they were really good at making time for what was most important and knew that by being intentional with what they were doing related to relationships, that they could improve student engagement as well as decrease problem behaviors in their classroom.


Supporting Research

  • Cook, C., Coco, S. (in press). Cultivating Positive Teacher-Student Relationships: Evaluation of the Establish, Maintain, and Restore (EMR) Method.

  • Cook, C., Coco, S. (in press). Cultivating Positive Teacher-Student Relationships: Evaluation of the Establish, Maintain, and Restore (EMR) Method.

  • Dube SR, Anda RF, Felitti VJ, Chapman DP, Williamson DF, Giles WH. Childhood Abuse, Household Dysfunction, and the Risk of Attempted Suicide Throughout the Life SpanFindings From the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study. JAMA. 2001;286(24):3089–3096. doi:10.1001/jama.286.24.3089

  • Fredrickson, B. L., & Losada, M. F. (2005). Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing. American Psychologist, 60(7), 678.

  • Perry, Bruce. “Resilience: Where Does It Come From?” Early Childhood Today, Apr. 2006.


About the AuthorJohn is co-founder of CharacterStrong as well as the Whole Child Program Administrator and Director of Student Leadership for the Sumner School District, a Servant Leadership trainer, and motivational speaker. He was Washington Advisor of the Year and taught 5 leadership classes per semester for 10 years at Sumner High School.