One thing that has rung true over the years of my working with middle level students is that the relationship you establish with them is everything.

I realize this might sound cliché or warm and fuzzy, but it is the key to both social-emotional and academic growth. It is easy to make the connection between a strong relationship with students and social-emotional learning, but it is the key ingredient to unlocking the academic success of our students as well.

As educators, we likely all took educational psychology classes that established the foundational knowledge of human behavior from classic schools of thought such as those of Jean Piaget, B.F. Skinner, and Abraham Maslow. I recall reading about different theories, and today I understand how my professors were trying to expose us to researched thinking that would help us motivate students, manage behavior, and assist in molding a healthy, well-rounded child.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

After more than 15 years as an educator, I now realize that these theories were the gold that I mistook for a less precious metal in my preservice training. In particular, I’ve found that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs—the concept in which humans’ basic levels of need (food, safety, love/belonging) must be fulfilled to establish protection and security before they can grow—is a fundamental component of an effective, productive learning environment. Kids need to have the basic necessities of life in place before they can even consider expending any efforts on increasing their reading and math fluency.

Arguably, some of these basic elements of security are easier than others because they can be established with mere money (food, clothing, school supplies, and transportation). Other more complicated needs, such as meaningful relationships at school that involve trust and a sense of belonging, are ultimately dependent on the child. But, we must not overlook the interpersonal communication skills and the knowledge of social-emotional learning methods of educators.

Benefits of PBIS

In our school, we’ve implemented a Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS) program for the past eight years. The benefits of PBIS are endless from my experience as a middle school administrator. Explicit expectations, direct behavioral instruction, and consistent reinforcement of desired behavior all take time, effort, and resources, but this front-loaded work pays massive dividends on the back end.

We track our student behavior data to craft our behavior lesson plans around where our students demonstrate the highest need. Oftentimes, we see patterns year after year regarding the peaks and valleys of infractions and when they occur during the year. All of these proactive components of our PBIS program provide the opportunity for conversations with students outside hard-core academics. These conversations don’t just explain desired behaviors, but also function as a conduit for relationship building.

Most intervention frameworks speak of 80 percent/15 percent/5 percent divisions to analyze student performance, typically represented using a triangle. With this theory, 80 percent of students will respond to universal interventions, 15 percent will require some additional supports (often referred to as Tier 2), and five percent of the student population may require individualized attention (sometimes called Tier 3 supports). Our behavioral Tier 2 students check in with a staff member each morning to ensure they are mentally prepared for a good day, and to have their lower Maslow needs met (such as not being hungry or needing school supplies). Our Tier 3 behavioral students check in with a staff member each morning to discuss the day ahead and check out in the afternoon after reviewing the day while it is still fresh in the students’ minds.

Checking in With Tier 2 Students

My co-principal and I began checking in with behavioral Tier 2 students each morning. This experience has afforded me firsthand experience with how relationship building can positively impact students. Our student problem-solving team identified these students as unconnected to our school and unable to identify with a staff member whom they trusted and had a meaningful relationship.

With this understanding, we set out to establish a relationship first—before we expected change in student performance behaviorally or academically. I began by checking in on one student and then added an additional student.

Though it takes weeks of quick, consistent meetings that are not based on academics or traditional learning, eventually students’ protective walls came down and they opened up. I enjoy these conversations and presume these students do as well, because my check-in students often seek me out during the day to engage me in further dialogues that don’t necessarily, but sometimes do, touch on academic performance.

Daily scheduled check-ins with disconnected students force a change in student behavior, either positive or negative. One can’t guarantee positive results, but when a student is stuck socially and disconnected, preserving the status quo cannot be an option for responsible educators.

Connecting With Peers

We have experimented with other methods of capturing a student’s heart to get to their mind as well. Beyond connecting to an adult, it is important for students to connect with peers. In past years, we have increased our extracurricular offerings to include more sports, academic clubs, and recreational clubs. Guiding our expansion of extracurricular activities was a student survey that informed our student activity development.

This wide variety of offerings has increased our student connection with their peers and, ultimately, has further connected our school. One element of restorative measures when dealing with major violators of our student code of conduct includes mandatory extracurricular involvement. Though these types of occurrences are few and far between at our school, when they do materialize, we often have found that the student had no connection to the school other than the class schedule assigned to them.

As part of the behavior modification plan established for these students, they must choose a club or team to participate in each week. Though these systems aren’t foolproof or without hiccups, in the long run, they do yield positive results. Recently, one student who fits this description asked that his detention after school be moved to a different day because the club he belonged to met on the same night as the detention. It was nice not only to hear this student present a respectful suggestion to accommodate his schedule and own his consequence, it was wonderful to see him advocate for not missing his extracurricular activity.

Because we tend to measure the success of schools based solely on student academic performance, it is a natural inclination of principals to focus on the more traditional elements of school. However, taking your eye off the academic prize for a few minutes to focus on students’ hearts might actually lead them to the promised land of greater learning.

Perry A. Finch is a co-principal at Blackhawk Middle School in Bensenville, IL.