Building a thriving culture of excellent behaviour, mutual respect, kindness, and joy, are common aims of school leaders and teachers. We want to go to school every day and focus on what we do best: teaching our subject, using our expertise to help children make progress, and forming healthy relationships in a safe place.
Everyone should come through the gates in the morning and feel a sense of belonging and safety. ‘I am about to experience another day of feeling comfortable, looked after, at ease, and academically encouraged and challenged. And I’m basing those feelings of safety on experience; the fact that the day before, and the day before that, were similarly predictable and calm’. That’s what I like to imagine children and staff will feel when they are en route to our school.
Firstly, I’m going on the basis that a school has a clear, consistent, fair behaviour policy that teachers and leaders use effectively. For me, building relational trust can only work well in an environment where there are sky-high expectations of behaviour which are reinforced consistently by staff. No matter how good you are at building trust and relationships with students, they’ll never fully trust you if you don’t help build an environment in which they are safe and respected by other students and staff. So, before I proceed, there is no blue sky thinking, here. Schools must work hard to make respectful, good behaviour the norm.
That’s step one. It’ll impact lessons, teaching, learning, break and lunch, and how just about everyone feels about being on this school site every day.
Now, assuming this is in place, or is developing, you can improve the school culture exponentially by deliberately building a sense of belonging and relational trust through daily interactions.
As a Deputy Head, I have the privilege of doing duties at all hours of the school day, and walking around the school an awful lot. Sometimes this feels challenging when your to do list mounts up, and you are out of your office, essentially just talking to people. But it is real work, and it has real productivity. I’m not great at everything, but one thing I pride myself on is putting in the hours, interest, smiles, and care, to build trust with children across the school.
Good Will Hunting features the wonderful relationship between the troubled Will (Matt Damon), and his therapist, Sean (Robin Williams). Will isn’t interested in forming a bond, or even engaging. But Sean persists. He asks tough, open questions. He uses humour. He has high expectations of Will. He always shows up. He doesn’t give up. He models his own vulnerability. He allows dialogue and sharing. The bond that they form is not only touching, but it allows Will to develop other relationships and goals in his life. In some way, I’ve always aspired to this sort of impact on someone’s life. But life isn’t a movie, and school staff have different time constraints and pressures than Will and Sean.
But there’s so much we can do;’ so, here’s what I’ve learnt, and what I do, to try to build trust and relationships.
Top and tail the day – out on the gates – see every child
My aim is to see almost every child come through the gates in the morning, and to see them walk out at the end of the day. Yes, this takes some juggling with other things, but it’s effectively blocked out on my calendar every day. The morning is a chance to set the tone: big smiles, hello how are you, what have you brought in for food tech? But it’s also an opportunity to align the children with your expectations, for example by correcting uniform or checking for trainers, etc. Finally, this is a good time to see students who might need a conversation after an event the previous day. Tell me about the house point you got in Spanish? I saw that you picked up a detention in Maths – shall we talk about it?
At the end of the day, we can have similar conversations. The consistency of having trusted staff on the gate at the beginning and end of the day makes a huge difference to how the children feel about coming on and off site. This year, I’ve had a lot of students, who I don’t know well, come to chat to me on the gate about something they are worried about, purely based on the fact they see me in that same place every day, and feel a sense of familiarity.
Being out and about during the transition time, including the ‘hot spots’ where student build ups occur, is a great time to be a positive presence. Of course, this means some correction, but also positive conversations, pep talks, check ins, helping people find their way because of room changes. Importantly, be consistent – the children will appreciate knowing you are usually in the same place.
Break and lunch
This is probably the best time to build trust and rapport. The students have more time and space to express themselves. Keep moving around, speak to as many groups as you can. Be proactive with things like litter, behaviour, and general conduct so you are visible promoter of mutual respect and kindness. Good quality supervision at these times means that staff can spend time getting to know the children and following up on things, while overseeing calm, safe recreation time.
How are you?
I speak a lot about these three simple words. Asking other how they are, then listening and responding, gives people a chance to engage with you. But, even more importantly, it improves the odds of them asking you in return, and then an ongoing, two-way dialogue begins. When it becomes the norm for students and staff to dialogue in this way, great things happen!
Always be fair, always be consistent.
Trust is built on so much more than conversations. We tend to trust people based on how dependable they are: can I rely on this person? For school staff, this means being consistent and fair; treating students the same when they behave in a certain way and showing up for them in the same way. Sanctions will be needed sometimes, so follow the same process each time and explain to students how you investigate and make judgements (link to behaviour policy). Don’t overlook things for those you have pre-existing relationships with; they will notice, and so will others. Fair treatment of students can turn negative situations into positive ones.
And finally, consistency goes for your demeanour and mood, too. It’s hard to trust someone who reacts differently, day to day.
Do what you say
We have a lot of intentions during the school day. To go and check in on certain staff or students. To log house points. To get our marking done. It’s hard to do everything. But if we tell a child we will do something, be it phone their parent or come back and see them later on for a wellbeing check in, we have to follow through. Weeks or months of trust development could be undermined by one or two instances of not showing up.
Ask first and de-escalate situations with positivity
Moving onto more technical ways to build trust and rapport with students, especially those less familiar or sure of you or their adult relationships, try asking first. If a group approach you who need to be spoken to, don’t charge in with an immediate, negative correction. Ask something, establish some common ground. Always say please and thank you. Always finish the interaction positively. It’s very rare that a conversation, even if it involves correction of some sort, won’t involve warmth, kindness, positivity, and relationship building. Whether a student is moving somewhere they shouldn’t be, has got their shirt untucked, or just been unkind to another student, you can simultaneously correct their behaviour and build a relationship with them through speaking with respect and asking questions / listening, too.
Also known as fake it till you make it, at times. Our mood has a profound effect on those around us. Showing up with warmth and energy can lift people, on a Monday morning or dreary Wednesday afternoon. Your positivity may be the difference to a child walking away with a smile, ready to engage positively with the next person.
Communicate with staff and encourage them
Talk to staff about what you notice when you’re out and about, talk to them about the climate of the school and how it can be improved. Model your interactions with students clearly so that other staff observe and feel empowered to do the same. Being out and about to build relationships with students doesn’t come naturally to everyone, so keep promoting it publicly.
New students or those struggling with staff relationships
Some children, for a variety of reasons, trust less easily than others. If a student is new, for example if they arrive via a managed move, I try to encounter them as often as possible in their first weeks with us. This begins by getting to know them, of course, but also by being crystal clear about school expectations and systems. I want them to know the school as well as possible, so they can predict what will happen in their day, and not have to react to things after the fact. It’s hard to trust what’s going on around you when there are too many unknowns. Overtime, you can get to know them, but to begin with, give them the best chance to succeed by being clear and consistent.
Ultimately, I believe children benefit from two things:
- Staff presence around the school, ensuring positive behaviour and correcting it consistently when it falls below that standard
- That same staff presence involves warmth, kindness, and a relentless desire to build strong relationships with the students
Behaviour spreads, and you’ll be amazed how quickly culture can shift when staff increase their presence and become consistent and positive role models across the school. The more dependable these figures are, the more trust will exist between students and staff, and therefore the school as a whole.
Thanks for reading