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Blog Aug 12, 2021

Design Principles for Schools: Five Tools to Help You Build Trusting Relationships with Your Students

What would it mean if all of the places where children are growing and learning were designed to meet each child, the whole child, where they are and help each and every one develop to their fullest potential?

The Essential Guiding Principles for Equitable Whole-Child Design outlined by the Design Principles project can be used to create learning settings that do exactly that, by centering on:

  • Positive developmental relationships
  • Environments filled with safety and belonging
  • Rich learning experiences and knowledge development
  • Development of skills, habits, and mindsets
  • Integrated support systems

We know that a healthy context for learning and development requires attention to all of these things, not some of them. It is all one developmental story, and the essentials for whole-child design cover all of these important bases for accelerated learning and holistic growth.

So how do you begin?

Start with relationships.

Why Starting With Relationships Is Important

As many great teachers already know, relationships are central to learning, engagement, motivation, and managing stress. Here’s the science behind why: The primary energy source for the wiring of the brain is human connection. Developmental relationships engage the brain’s motivation systems, which encourage exploration, curiosity, and practice, and fuel neurons, causing them to fire and connect to other neurons.

Trusting relationships also release the hormone oxytocin, which protects children at the cellular level from the damaging effects of cortisol, the primary stress hormone. Relationships that are strong and positive not only offset the damaging effects of cortisol but can even produce resilience to future stress.

The human relationship and oxytocin is the most powerful example we have of positive context. This is why relationships are central to all development and learning. Relationships can happen and do happen everywhere that children grow and learn, and children are building relationships everywhere and all of the time.

That relationships are important is not new knowledge. Relationships engage children in ways that help them define who they are so they can calibrate challenges and take productive risks—such as trying a new strategy in math or contributing a different idea to a classroom discussion. Relationships are central to motivation, engagement, and to the learning process itself.

How can you build relationships with your students?

How to build developmental relationships with your students

Resources to Support Building Relationships in Schools

Trust is the cornerstone of developmental relationships—and it is created when we go “beyond being nice.” Trust can be built through interactions characterized by gestures of caring, authentic listening, personalization, consistency, and dependable support.

Explore the following resources from the Turnaround for Children Toolbox to discover new ideas and resources for building trust with your students:

Turnaround for Children Toolbox: scenario analysis tool thumbnailScenario Analysis: Developmental Relationships

Use this exercise to analyze how the characteristics of developmental relationships can build trust in common school scenarios such as the morning routine and sharing activities.


Turnaround for Children Toolbox: Educator Reflection: MindsetsEducator Reflection: Mindsets and Messages

Use this tool to reflect on how the mindsets you hold and corresponding messages you send can influence relationship building with students.


Turnaround for Children Toolbox: Relationships InventoryRelationships Inventory

Use the educator inventory and student surveys to reflect on relational aspects of the classroom.



Turnaround for Children Toolbox: Relationship Strategy BankIndividualized Relationship Strategies

Use these tools to strengthen relationships with individual students.



Turnaround for Children Toolbox: Empathetic Listening StrategiesEmpathetic Listening Strategies

Empathetic listening helps support the development of trusting relationships through committed attention, non-judgment and probing to understand.


Create a free Toolbox account to access these resources and many more!