How to build rapport with hard to reach pupils

The rapport, connection or relationship we have with our pupils is arguably the most significant factor in how effective we are at behaviour management. Our rapport with our pupils also greatly enriches our job and our well being as teachers. I have worked in Pupil Referral Units with teachers who have no teaching qualifications and no behaviour management training at all, but because of their rapport with the pupils alone, they were exceptional at classroom management and loved working in some of the most challenging learning environments in the country.

Rapport is like an emotional bank account. We improve it by making deposits every time we show that we care and communicate with our pupils. If you think about the people you hold dearest, they might not necessarily have all the qualities we associate with excellent social skills. They might not be the wittiest, charming, outgoing, extrovert you know. Those skills can help build rapport and I do envy teachers with those skills, but what counts the most to us is how strong our connection and how much we care about each other and that comes from investing time and care into our relationships. These are our 8 strategies:

Take an interest

Working with young people involves many challenges, but one of the benefits is that they are so interesting! The world they are growing up in is so different to one we grew up in and each pupil has a different background, culture, religion etc. Enjoy getting to know their world and they will enjoy sharing it.

Be approachable

Do you want pupils to approach you? If you focus on this you will naturally look more approachable. You will make more eye contact, your posture will open up, you will smile, you will face pupils you want to approach you and if you have an office your door will be open.

Problems are opportunities

Every time our pupils have a problem (even a behaviour problem!), they are expressing an unmet need. If we transform the way we see problems and see them as opportunities to empathise, connect and support (not solve), instead of being a barrier for rapport we can get closer to our pupils through them.

Ask for advice

Next time you keep a pupil behind to have a chat about their behaviour, try asking them for some advice and see how it affects your rapport. For example if they say the problem was that they bored, say “I want to make lessons more fun, how do you think I could do that? What activities have we done that you have enjoyed?”. Then follow their advice and announce to the class that you are doing the activity because of a request and make eye contact with the pupil. This is great way to get that pupil on side.

Positive contact with home

We don’t want all contact with home to be negative. Parents will normally pass on the positive feedback and it means a lot to a pupil that you are on their side and have put in a good word.

Give pupils responsibilities

We all know younger pupils will jump at the chance to take on responsibilities and they really appreciate it. This strategy can work with older pupils but responsibilities that require more trust are more effective. For example younger pupils may be happy to collect the text books but older pupils might see this more as chore. Telling a pupil how precious your watch is to you and then letting them use it to be time keeper, will even make older pupils feel touched that you trust them enough for the job.

Suggestion box

Having a suggestion box is a great way to show your pupils you care. To get the ball rolling you can ask the whole class to write a specific suggestion (eg. what type of activities do you want to do more of?).

Talk out of class.

Chatting to pupils in the playground, lunch hall, corridor etc. means more to some pupils than talking in class. Pupils love it and feel special when you reach out in your own time.

How to have effective conversations with even the most hard to reach pupils.

If we are honest, most of us have a better rapport with the pupils who are easy to talk to. This can be the well behaved pupils who are polite and confident, or it can be the outgoing, cheeky pupils who drive us mad, but we have a lot of fun with them at the same time! The challenge is how we connect with the pupils who don’t want to socialise and don’t have the skills necessary to communicate effectively. What is sad is that these pupils might be the ones who need the connection the most. For this we need to understand the building blocks of conversation.

Questions vs statements

Anything we say in a conversation is either a question or a statement. A question could be “how was your weekend?”. It is an invitation for the other person to speak. The talker could replace the question with a statement though and say “I had a good weekend this weekend. I went away with my family to Centre Parks”. This is an inspiration which might inspire the listener to respond with further questions or statements of their own about how their weekend was or their previous experiences at Centre Parks.

Questions are used more when first getting to know someone but if we ask too many questions, it can feel like an interview (especially with young people who don’t want to speak). So instead of asking a pupil you are struggling to connect with “do you like playing Xbox?” and getting a yes or no answer back, try doing a bit of research into the best new Xbox game that everyone loves and walk into class saying “I saw an advert for this rubbish looking Xbox game yesterday, it was called…” and see how half the class will all be desperate to tell you their opinion about how you are wrong and it is the best game ever!

If you know they love Barcelona football team, instead of saying “have you watched Barcelona play recently”, try saying “I saw Real Madrid beat Barcelona the other night and Ronaldo (from Real Madrid) proved that he was a better footballer than Messi (from Barcelona) once again…” and see what response you might get!

Keeping the conversation flowing

The key to keep any conversation flowing is how well you pick up on ‘Free Information’. Anything in a statement that can inspire more conversation is called ‘Free Information’. If you said to me “I had a great weekend. I went to Centre Parks with my family” The ‘Free Information’ is weekend, Centre Parks and family. I can then choose to talk about how my weekend was, my previous experiences at Centre Parks, ask questions about your weekend at Centre Parks or ask questions about your family.

Using this technique, the only time we run into problems is when we ask yes or no questions like “did you have a good weekend” because we won’t receive any ‘Free Information’ in the response. Question starting with ‘what’ are more open for example “what did you do at the weekend?”