Connect and Collaborate With Students

There are clear benefits—schoolwide, in classrooms, and for individuals—when staff and students have trusting, positive relationships, when the school is responsive to student input, and when students are elevated as partners in school improvement efforts.

Strong staff-student relationships lead to a greater sense of belonging and investment in school, improve academic achievement, and lay the groundwork for effective staff-student collaboration (Hallinan, 2008; Mitchell, et al., 2018). Staff reports of stress, emotional regulation, and connection with students are significant predictors of their students’ stress, outlook, prosocial behavior, academic achievement, and perception of teacher support (Oberle & Schonert-Reichl, 2016; Braun et al., 2020; Arens & Morin, 2016). Students who feel seen, valued, and supported will be more likely to share problems they experience within the school community and see possibility for improvement. When staff work in partnership with students to understand these challenges and develop solutions, it builds trust and helps expand students’ understanding of themselves as problem-solvers and critical thinkers who can make an impact.

Learning to build relationships with students, elevate their voices, and partner with them to solve problems and improve is an important aspect of educators’ social and emotional competence.

SEL and Equity in Action

How can educators lean into the five SEL competencies as they receive feedback from students and …More

How can educators lean into the five SEL competencies as they receive feedback from students and collaborate with them?

SELF-AWARENESS → with a focus on identity
“My identities impact how I perceive and navigate the world and how others perceive me. It is important to be aware of this and continue to explore and reflect on this.”

Example: A teacher considers the impact of race and ethnicity, class, gender, home language, ability, interests, learning style, and other factors when reflecting back on their experience when they were a student. Knowing that their students’ experiences may be similar to or different from their own, they seek to understand student perceptions about school and themselves as learners; meet students where they are; and challenge, support, and inspire them. 

SELF-MANAGEMENT → with a focus on agency
“I know I can have an impact and choose to act to improve conditions for myself and others. I will intentionally make room for others to act as well.”

Example: A school leadership team creates conditions where students can co-lead in the school environment. Students help to plan schoolwide assemblies and family events, create and administer surveys, and conduct focus group interviews to gather input and plan ways to improve the school. The leadership team shows they take student feedback seriously by creating structures, such as a student advisory board and participatory town hall meetings, that empower students to advocate for themselves and peers.

SOCIAL AWARENESS → with a focus on belonging
“I am best able to contribute when I feel I am valued, welcomed, and an essential part of this community. It’s important to support others to feel this way, too.”

Example: A teacher who has taught the same grade level and subject for a long time recognizes that the makeup of the school community changes over time. Each year during the first weeks of school, they do activities to learn about their new students and their unique interests and cultures and make revisions to their lesson plans to be inclusive and reflect the diversity of their new group of students. They devote time every week to community-building activities, ensuring that all students can share about their lives and feel seen.

RELATIONSHIP SKILLS → with a focus on collaborative problem-solving
“I am more effective when I listen to others to understand problems and share ideas to develop solutions. The process of sharing power and working together is important to get to the best solution.”

Example: A school counselor not only asks students for their perspectives, but also asks them about possible solutions and how they would like to be a part of the improvement process. They ensure that the administrative team communicates back to students what they heard and creates a plan to impact decision-making at the highest levels. 

RESPONSIBLE DECISION-MAKING → with a focus on curiosity
“I lean in with courage and choose to learn about myself, others, and the world. It is important to be open to and seek new information and perspectives when making decisions.”

Example: A principal begins a problem-solving meeting with students and staff by sharing her belief that there is never one right answer to complex problems. Throughout the meeting she models curiosity by asking thoughtful questions, listening more than she speaks, and asking for the perspectives of others.

Strengthening Relationships and Community With Students

Building positive relationships with students is both a key skill for educators and an essential component of a healthy learning and workplace environment. Students who perceive that their teachers care about them, respect them, and support them are more attached to school, experience a greater sense of belonging, and invest in their learning more, which leads to improved academic outcomes and fewer disciplinary incidents (Hallinan, 2008; Mitchell, et al., 2018).

Teachers who report they trust students also have higher job satisfaction and report less emotional exhaustion and burnout (Van Maele & Van Houtte, 2015). When staff prioritize relationships, they create the context for students to discover who they are and what they value, take academic risks, and analyze the world around them.

Search Institute has created a Developmental Relationships Framework to help adults build strong, supportive relationships with young people. By sharing power, expressing care, and providing support to young people, all adults in the school contribute to developing students’ agency and sense of belonging.

SEL teams can support staff-student connection by: 

  • Providing tools and strategies for staff members to get to know their students better as individuals, be responsive to their needs, learn from them for the benefit of the school, and build relational trust (for example, see the tool 5-Minute Chats with Students or the 2×10 strategy). Helping students to feel valued and cared about for who they are begins with listening. Young people themselves will share about their interests, values, and cultural assets if they feel safe and valued.
  • Ensuring that each student has at least one adult they feel connected to and that they can check-in with during the day.
  • Prioritizing relationship-building in the daily schedule. Support ongoing structures such as welcoming students at the door, check-ins, advisory, morning/afternoon meetings, or community-building rituals aligned with the developmental relationships framework.
  • Gathering data about students’ perceptions of their experiences and relationships with staff members, working with students to interpret and develop recommendations based on the data, and using student recommendations to help all staff act in ways that are responsive to students’ needs and perspectives.
  • Evaluating discipline practices to ensure they are restorative and equitable and serve to strengthen relationships between staff and students over time (Gregory & Fergus, 2017).

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5-Minute Chats With Students

A structure and sample questions for one-on-one chats to open dialogue with students and learn more about how they are experiencing school


Adults play a critical role in supporting connection and community among students, as well. To help nurture community, adults can establish shared routines and make time for community-building rituals that model care and compassion and help all students feel valued, respected, and assured that adults have confidence in them and their abilities. This creates a sense of belonging at school, which allows students to focus on leadership and learning (Darling-Hammond et al., 2019). Many SEL programs include community-building practices, and adults can also incorporate this focus into existing class meetings and discussions using protocols such as the one below.

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Community-Building Circles

Planning considerations, a set-up checklist, a recommended circle process and planning template, and four sample circle scripts


To learn more about creating the conditions for student belonging and emotional safety see Focus Area 3 > Belonging and Emotional Safety.

Empathy Interviews With Students Shape Approach to Improving School Climate

Students in Dallas Independent School District conducted empathy interviews with their peers, asking questions such as, “What does it feel like to belong somewhere?”, “When and where do you feel most welcomed and included?”, and “What do you want for the students at this school?”

Student leaders at schools across the district led a variety of projects to improve wellness and school climate based on responses. For example, at New Tech High School, students worked with staff to get permission and resources to build a Zen garden in an unused outdoor space to “benefit the students and teachers in having a more comfortable work space” and to “be a place where kids can really connect with each other.”

Collaborate With Students to Implement SEL

Students have unique perspectives that can improve the implementation of SEL from planning to evaluation. For students to participate fully in SEL work, staff need to ensure students feel connected, have positive relationships, and believe they’ll be listened to.

Perceived responsiveness informs the degree to which students believe it is worth their effort to participate in a student voice practice (Search Institute). Additionally, students tend to have better academic outcomes and lower absenteeism when they perceive that teachers and school leaders are responsive to their concerns (Kahne, et al., 2022).

Students should be part of the process of creating a shared vision, conducting a needs and resources assessment, creating an action plan, and collecting and reflecting on data to continuously improve. Young people can contribute to each of these stages in developmentally appropriate ways.

  • Contribute to a shared vision statement. Include students in defining the purpose for implementing SEL at their school. At even the youngest stages, students have something to contribute. Elementary students could draw a picture of a time they felt cared about in school and what adults and other students did to help them feel that way. High school students might focus on career and community and describe the skills and mindsets they anticipate they will need to be global citizens.
  • Conduct a needs and resources assessment. A strong needs and resources assessment asks the questions, “Where have we been?” and “Where are we now?” Students have a distinct perspective on these questions. Whether or not it was called SEL, the school has already implemented programs and initiatives to support and engage students. Ask students what has worked and what, if anything, prevented them from feeling safe and supported at school (including in the lunchroom, classrooms, and hallways). Students may also be able to share bright spots by identifying times when their social and emotional needs were met and educators who helped support them. The educators who surface as informal leaders may be great additions to the SEL team!

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Strategies for Elevating Student Voice

Ways staff can support and elevate a broad range of student perspectives and experiences as part of schoolwide SEL efforts

  • Gather, review, and interpret SEL data to support continuous improvement. Schools can include youth in survey or interview design, data collection, reflection, and decision-making. This protocol supports student leaders in facilitating discussions with peers about data and generating recommendations.

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Student SEL Data Reflection Protocol

A student-led, structured process for students to reflect on data in partnership with adults, to observe trends, and discuss ideas for improvement of SEL implementation

  • Join the SEL team (and other leadership teams). Student representation on the school’s SEL team, school improvement, hiring, or equity and diversity teams can be of great value to both the school and the students. While all voices are important, it is especially critical to hear from those who may feel disconnected from school. Their experiences can provide a critical perspective on how to continuously improve a learning environment that supports all students, not just those who are already thriving. Prepare adult team members to receive input in a way that is respectful and encouraging, particularly when student feedback is critical or delivered in unconventional ways. See further guidance for supporting student team members.

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Supporting Student Members of the SEL Team

Ways adults can create equitable space for students in their role on the SEL Team by preparing students to lead and adults to act as allies and mentors


For more information about and case examples for promoting student SEL leadership, see Focus Area 3 > Elevate Student Voice.


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