February 17, 2022

Helping Students Create Healthy Relationships

Michael E. Creekmore, Jr. LPC, CPCS
Photo of Michael Creekmore with illustration of lightbulbs as hot air balloons

Relationships are the glue that connect us to each other. As adults, most of us have come to realize that relationships are essential, not only in success but also in daily living. How long did it take for us to learn such a valuable lesson? Where and how did we learn to establish relationships? 

Some may be able to recall elementary school as the “Where” and our interactions with classmates as the “How.” There really wasn’t a class for it. Learning and developing relationships seemed pretty self-paced with no differentiated instruction available. At times, the learning curve was steep. With limited technology, seemingly safer communities, and sometimes forced social situations — like parents making kids go outside and play — kids of yesteryear were forced to create relationships with peers. 

Fast forward many years later, students are still learning math, reading, writing, history, social studies, science, and a variety of other subjects — but relationships isn’t one of them. Well, not officially. Some schools do offer groups and Social Skills training, which often aids in the development of relationships; however, the importance of relationships is rarely realized until students exhibit behavioral issues. 

Let’s face it: Many school districts and leaders don’t really think about teaching “Relationships” when they prioritize content, determine grade-level placement, construct classroom rosters, and create master schedules and agendas throughout the school year. Ironically, most of the behavioral incidents that occur in many schools are a result of poor relationship skills. Of course, there are incidents that couldn’t even be resolved by a relationship guru, but the majority are not those. The majority are often a result of a misunderstanding, a miscalculation of some sort. 

Behavioral incidents usually involve one of the following: lack of empathy, lack of active listening, lack of interpersonal skills, lack of effective (verbal/nonverbal) communication, or an inability to resist peer pressure. Now that we know this, we can prevent every behavioral issue in every school district across the world, right? Okay, maybe not, but it sure is a good indicator of target areas educators can help students develop throughout the course of the school year. 

Over the past two years, students have slowly regressed in their ability to form, maintain or repair relationships. Prior to sheltering in place, quarantining, and social distancing due to COVID-19, the younger generation was already replacing traditional relationship skills with those of an impersonal variety: texting and DM-ing. 

Technology has seemingly erased the angst many adults recall during their teenage years — the feeling of calling your significant other and getting sweaty pits because you didn’t know who was going to answer the phone, or having to muster up all of your courage to ask your crush to go out with you. Those days required nerves of steel because in many instances, you had to actually face or speak to the person, not wait for a readable response on a cellular device. Sounds archaic, right? There’s something about those experiences — the unnerving anticipation, wondering if the person feels the same way, if we are the person being asked, wondering how you can say “No” without hurting feelings. Needless to say, those times are no more. 

Ironically, being told “No” can build resilience. The adversity that we endure in those moments of rejection can truly build resiliency when we are able to process those feelings of discomfort and overcome them. Face-to-face situations do not allow us to escape through technology. We are often unable to soften the blow or minimize feelings like shame and rejection. As we get older, the way in which we process or work through those feelings becomes the manner in which we deal with similar situations in our lives. Those experiences help shape us into the version of us that is able to process and rebound from rejection. 

Now that we’ve taken a trip down memory lane, what can teachers do to help students create healthy relationships?

  1. Incorporate opportunities for students to build relationship skills. During instructional time, intentionally create situations that require students to utilize relationship skills. For example: Have students pair up with classmates they don’t usually pair up with, and give limited instruction aside from interviewing each other. Students are only allowed to talk to their partner.
  1. Engage students in class discussion. Classroom discussion is not only a great way to help students process what they’re learning, but also a way to encourage students to express their thoughts and feelings related to the subject. When students share opposing opinions, there is an opportunity for them to understand the perspective of others and constructively work through differences.
  1. Encourage discussions about empathy. Teachers have seemingly 1.5 million tasks to complete on any given day. Sometimes we have to take moments out of our day to directly discuss particular topics. Empathy is one of those topics. We would like to think that most students know what empathy looks, sounds, and feels like, but we’d be wrong to assume. Understanding empathy is a step toward demonstrating empathy; when our students are able to regularly demonstrate empathy, there’s less room for ridicule, bullying, and rumors to operate among them. 
  1. Help students remember the cost of negative peer pressure. A student’s peer group is the greatest sphere of influence at this stage in their life. Regardless of educator input, stories told, and potential consequences, students are easily swayed by their peers. Since our students are often more prone to listen to their peers, it’s essential to help them realize the importance of surrounding themselves with peers who make responsible decisions. These conversations are typically done on an individual basis once we’ve started to notice trends or changes in student behavior.
  1. Virtual relationships still require relational work. When it comes to feelings toward technology, there are two separate crowds: The “Technology is the greatest thing ever” crowd and the “I miss how things used to be before technology” crowd. In actuality, there is room for both crowds to exist. If you are an educator who believes technology is the greatest ever and you’ve been able to create and sustain friendships through the internet, your students could benefit from your expertise. Taking the time to explain DM (Direct Messaging), texting, email, and comment etiquette may be the one lesson your students take away from your class. Don’t shy away from an opportunity to incorporate that information or have a direct conversation to educate your students. 
  1. Coordinate efforts to address student relationship skills with a school counselor. Regardless of the grade level, school counselors can provide a wealth of knowledge and insight regarding relationship skills. Classroom counselor lessons are an easy way to directly address and teach relationship skills. If there are particular students that present with challenges, inform your school counselor for individual follow-up.

In short, RELATIONSHIP SKILLS are often referred to as “soft, people skills” that include empathy, active listening, effective communication, cooperation, and resisting negative pressure. The phrase “soft, people skills” simply means there are particular nuances when utilizing them. Since relationship skills are essential in how we function as humans, there is an ever-growing need to evolve with technology; therefore, the tried-and-true skills of building and establishing relationships are needed virtually. 

Although technology has minimized (and in some ways eliminated) the risk taken in social situations, the ability to build, maintain, and repair relationships will always require a particular set of skills. Helping your students develop the tools necessary may be the best lesson your students could ever learn.