Building Positive Teacher-Pupil relationships

teacher pupil relationships

Wellbeing, community, happiness, safety, security, empathy, and resilience. All words are used a lot in education today but one word, more than anything, sticks out as central to everything we do in schools… Relationships. So how do you build positive teacher-pupil relationships?

Everything in our lives, and the world around us, ultimately stems from the relationships we maintain. In every facet of our professional and personal lives, the links we hold with those we work with provide us with support, security and success. In this article, I will explore the importance and value of developing and maintaining relationships within educational contexts, and in particular, the vital role that relationships play in the interactions we have with our students.

I got a new job this year, in a different country. The fifth country I’ve worked in since retraining as a teacher in 2008. For the fourth time, I stepped into a world of strangers. When you live and work in education abroad, these situations come up regularly. Your colleagues are usually your support networks, your friendship groups, and your community. You have no choice but to build relationships with these strangers, or else you isolate yourself and likely as not, struggle.

Establishing a positive relationship quickly

Within international education, we work in the transient, fluid environments where pupils and teachers come and go regularly. Quickly establishing relationships with our pupils allow us to ensure they are getting the very best experiences for however long they are with us.

Critically, the sooner positive pupil-teacher relationships are forged, the more likely the pupils are to feel secure, safe and have a sense of belonging within the school. Relationships underpin everything. Nothing, at all, happens within schools that is not linked directly to the relationships we hold with those around us.

I challenge you to think of one thing, just one, that does not require you to have and hold a relationship with someone else. Simon Mann, retired headteacher and educational consultant, talks about the importance of building positive climates within our schools. Simon will tell you that relationships are the foundation to everything else we do in schools. Fundamentally everyone needs to feel connections to those around them, Ultimately we all desire a sense of belonging to something communal and supportive. 

When we create strong positive relationships we create connections with others, in turn developing that sense of belonging. This positive climate comes not from policy or paperwork, but from engagement. Humans, inside and outside of classrooms, building connections with each other, through shared experience, belief, attitudes and culture.

Connecting with others through cooperation and collaboration and perceiving their sense of worth within an educational setting. Relationships between colleagues are critical to not just staff wellbeing and efficacy, but more importantly to student learning.

You don’t have to go any further than the first line of John Hattie’s (2016) update of ‘The Applicability of Visible Learning to higher education’ to recognise that ‘through shared belief and collective action, educators can influence student outcomes and increase achievement for all students (Donohoo 2017). 

In other words, shared connections and relationships through shared experience and beliefs regarding teaching and learning, will directly influence, positively, the outcomes of our students. 

Our relationships with our pupils

Positive teacher-student relationships are associated with key student outcomes, including reduced challenging behaviours; increased academic attainment and motivation, wider school participation and emotional regulation as well as generally immersion in classroom activity (Oh, 2021). 

Children’s relationships with teachers are a crucially important influence, affecting all aspects of students connections to the schools in which they function (Fredriksen & Rhodes, 2004)

Teachers and students desire mutual trust, respect, and support from each other. In class, teachers and students influence each other as they develop relationships. 

What we do in our schools directly affects the way that students perceive us, each other, and the wider environment in which we work. 

Positive relationships with Physical Education

Positive relationships with Physical Education teachers specifically influences the positive perception of our subject area, in turn supporting positive attitudes and engagement towards physical education.

So how do we know we are building relationships with the students which we support? How can we ensure we supercharge those interactions that lead to positive perceptions and what can we do, especially in the early stages of relationship building, to establish close, professional but also personal connections that allow pupils to feel a sense of security and belonging when engaged in our lessons? 

7 Top Tips for Building Positive Relationships

Having moved five times in my career, requiring the formation of new relationships with the pupils within each school, I believe the following seven things are critical, in the building of positive pupil-teacher engagement.

  1. Commit time to relationship building – Give time to your pupils. Whether in lessons or outside the classroom, pupils will want to engage with you and talk to you. Give them time to build a belief that you are a teacher and human who will listen to them. Children believe their voice is important and want you to demonstrate that you value their thoughts and ideas.
  2. Find specifics to engage with – Children are intelligent young humans, developing the ability to read and understand body language and facial expression. They know if you are engaged with them and if you can show genuine interest in the things that matter to them, they will value this engagement. Don’t glaze over, don’t daydream. Listen, hear and respond positively.
  3. Be interested in them – Children have all sorts of interests. They are unique, complex individuals who will be motivated, excited, challenged or concerned by all sorts of things. Find shared commonalities. A style of music, a favourite sport, game, movie, subject, book. Whatever it is that gives you (and them) a hook upon which to build a relationship. 
  4. Shared stories and shared values – If you don’t talk to people, they’ll never learn who you are. Tell pupils things about you, share stories. Be human. Children want to believe their teachers are normal, like them. Don’t pretend to be anything else. Humanise yourself and show you have a life outside the classroom. 
  5. Be present in their lives – Take the opportunity to discover your pupils in different lights. Be present at cultural, sporting or artistic events. Show them you support them. Be their fan. 
  6. Be in the moment and be emotionally available – It’s not enough just to learn their names. We are so task oriented and focused on the next job or task, we forget to just be ‘in the moment’ in our interactions with others. Be emotionally available, be aware, spot changes in mood, respond to those signals. Enjoy the interactions, rather than hurry them along. 
  7.  Have a Sense of Humor– School life has a habit of taking itself too seriously. Sometimes teachers forget that life is supposed to be fun, for everyone. Our environment need to be welcoming, fun, happy places where everyone enjoys spending time and learning. Be the light in your school. Laugh with your pupils. Be silly, make them want to spend time with you. 

Before I retrained as a teacher I worked in sales. I had minutes, at most, to build a relationship that would lead to a purchase. I had no choice but to build relationships that provided equal value to both parties. Relationships were what I was selling. My targets, bonuses and promotions were ultimately down to my effectiveness to build relationships with others, quickly.

First 100 days AND beyond

In business (and politics), we talk about the ‘first 100 days’. In education, we talk about the first term. (‘Don’t smile until Christmas’ type stuff). When building relationships, it’s worth considering this long-term approach as well. 

Whilst there is no evidence whatsoever that it takes a set amount of time to build a positive relationship with a pupil, it is certainly the case that ‘Moment-to-moment interactions between teacher and student’ (Wubbels, 2013) provide the building blocks upon which long term relationships develop and that these moments occur frequently and regularly, but over time. 

What does the research say?

Relationship Building

If we look at teacher-student relationships from a research perspective, the work of Wubbels on interpersonal teacher behaviour and the subsequent impact on pupil perceptions suggests that pupils who engage with teachers display high levels of agency (effectiveness to make a difference within their lives and learning) and communion (the willingness to interact with them) in both everyday teaching and outside of the classroom, develop more pupil motivation and engagement. 

Basically, if you are present in their school lives, show an interest in them as a human and display care and attention to them, they are far more likely to engage positively with you as they respect and value the relationship you have with them.

Asking others from the PE Community

I reached out across my PE teaching community to see what other PE teachers believed were the fundamental keys to building successful relationships. Unsurprisingly many of the themes we’ve explored above are apparent in their approaches as well:

‘Don’t just learn their name, but also something about them. What are their hobbies? Who are their siblings? Take a genuine interest in what they are telling you. Always meet and greet them when you see them’


‘Watch them when they are involved in things outside your subject area. School productions, Music recitals, House events, Assemblies’


‘Get involved in wider school initiatives. See your students in different lights. Trips are the best for this. Ask students how they are. Find common interests’


‘Be relevant, communicate on their level. Make the pupils feel like they’re teaching you something’


Closing thoughts

From my perspective, the best piece of advice I’ve ever received during my time as a teacher was simple and powerful and has stuck with me for many years. Someone once said to me ‘Wear the soles off your shoes’. Get out of your bubble, out of your classroom or office. Engage, interact, be present in their lives.

About the Author:

This guest blog was written by Phil Mathe – physical educator and author of Happiness Factories currently based in Riyadh with lots of experience in various international schools.


  • Hattie, J. (2015). The applicability of Visible Learning to higher education. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 1(1), 79–91.
  • Luce C. A. Claessens, Jan van Tartwijk, Anna C. van der Want, Helena J. M. Pennings, Nico Verloop, Perry J. den Brok & Theo Wubbels (2017) Positive teacher–student relationships go beyond the classroom, problematic ones stay inside, The Journal of Educational Research, 110:5, 478-493, DOI: 10.1080/00220671.2015.1129595
  • Wubbels, T., Brekelmans, M., den Brok, P., Wijsman, L., Mainhard, T., & van Tartwijk, J. (2014). Teacher-student relationships and classroom management. In E. T. Emmer, E. Sabornie, C. Evertson, & C. Weinstein (Eds.). Handbook of classroom management: Research, practice, and contemporary issues (2nd ed., pp. 363–386). New York, NY: Routledge.

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