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The Power of Positive Student–Teacher Relationships

By: Kelly Rossetti , Amber Venoutsos 05/14/2024
Discover the impact of building strong schoolwide student–teacher connections on academic, social, and behavioral success.
The authors sit on the carpet with students during a relationship-building activity.

How One School Prioritized Connections to Set Students Up for Success

Students who have strong, positive relationships with their teachers are more likely to experience academic, social, and behavioral success. Teachers dedicate a lot of time and energy to building connections with students in their own classroom setting, and it is time well spent. But the impact of positive adult relationships does not have to be limited to individual classrooms. Our school has made a commitment to prioritizing relationships throughout the entire building, and it has made a powerful impact.

Launching PAWS Time

Five years ago, we began an initiative called PAWS Time at our Grades K–2 school. The project had one goal: to encourage positive relationships between students and staff. Since then, PAWS Time has become a staple within our school community and an invaluable time for both children and adults to “pause” and connect. Each year, we are reminded of the profound impact of intentionally strengthening connections.

Named after our schoolwide expectations acronym—Practice kindness, Always be safe, Wise choices, Show respect—PAWS Time has evolved as we navigated the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, our entire school community participates in PAWS Time for a dedicated 30-minute block each week. During each session, students listen to a social-emotional learning read aloud that is prerecorded by one of our teachers, participate in class discussions about the text, and complete an activity that encourages participation and teamwork such as STEM challenges, hands-on projects, or cooperative games. This structure alone is incredibly engaging for kids, but to top it off, each class does PAWS Time with different teachers each week. As a result, every child gets to know every adult in the school over the course of the year. 

When PAWS Time began in 2019, our school averaged 17 student office referrals per day. Data collected at the end of last school year showed a drop to just 4.5 daily referrals schoolwide and a decrease in disruptive behavior. According to staff and student survey data, 98 percent of students feel happy/excited during PAWS Time, and 100 percent of staff members believe that PAWS Time has supported positive relationships among students and staff. 

What Does an Ideal Student–Teacher Relationship Look Like?

While the data is powerful, the small moments that have come out of PAWS Time have positively impacted our school culture the most. Teachers now greet students by name throughout the day. Students with a history of shutting down in class tend to participate in PAWS Time. Teachers choose to use their prep time to revisit classes they have bonded with. Students make connections with every teacher in their grade level before they get there and maintain relationships with teachers they’ve had in years past. Siblings in different rooms have a weekly shared experience and talk about what they did during PAWS Time with their families. One teacher stated that PAWS Time “reminds her why she got into teaching in the first place,” and one student wrote that “the best part of PAWS Time is how it makes [her] feel.” It’s only 30 minutes, but that 30 minutes is so valuable. 

Starting a schoolwide community initiative is far from an easy undertaking, but the impact is well worth it! Here are the most important lessons we’ve learned through the process.

Start Small

PAWS Time started as a trial with just Grade 2 students and 11 teachers in our building. This trial allowed us to experiment with the structure of a new program, measure its impact on students, and collect feedback from staff. After a successful trial, we grew to schoolwide the following year.

Expect Challenges

Visiting other classrooms and swapping places with colleagues is not in most teachers’ comfort zones, and that’s okay. Over time, we have also learned that some activities work better than others. Like in all other aspects of teaching, we learn as we go and adapt each year to meet our kids’ needs.

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

We are so fortunate to have administrators who share our vision for what school should feel like for kids. Their trust and encouragement helped make the idea for PAWS Time a reality. We can never thank the teachers and staff at our school enough for their flexibility, feedback, and advocacy for PAWS Time over the years. A successful schoolwide program takes the commitment of every member in the community!

Celebrate Little (Big!) Victories

Little moments, like watching that one student who usually sits off to the side with his hood up come over and participate, or hearing an entire classroom cheer when a new teacher walks into the room, are not so little at all. They are everything. It’s those moments that motivate us to keep the program moving forward.

There is no greater gift we can give our young learners than a group of adults who are in their corner. When students can walk into school every day knowing they are loved and supported by an entire community, we set the foundation for everything else they will do at school.

Want to hear more about the PAWS Time program? Tune into the Extraordinary Educators™ Podcast.