5 Ways to Use Student Interests to Build Relationships

Student interests are varied and ever-changing. How can we use them to help build our relationships? In our ongoing series about building relationships with students, we’ve talked about using positivity and respect and helping them feel valued. This post will focus primarily on building relationships with students through their interests.

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Student Interests

Does anyone have a student who is obsessed with Pokemon? How about sports? Ocean creatures? The interests that students have are varied and many! Students may just think that these are something they like, but for teachers, student interests are a key to understanding and connecting with them, and in return building and strengthening relationships.

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How Do We Use Student Interests to Build Relationships?

How do we take student interests and turn them into something we can use to make a connection? There are 5 things I do to learn and capitalize on these interests.

Spend 1:1 Time with Your Students

This is easier done in a smaller setting, such as my pull-out special education class. I am able to spend time with my students learning about what they like, individually. Giving them space to talk and an ear to listen makes them feel comfortable telling you all the different things they like or relate to. Then, throughout the days you can reference these interests. Do they need some coloring pages or a token board? You can make these directly related to your student’s interests. 

I had a student who loved the PBS Kids show “Word World” in which the characters would spell words. The characters sang a little jingle every time they spelled a word together. Once I figured that out, I started incorporating that jingle into our word work and spelling lessons and not only did it make a less preferred activity more exciting, but it connected the two of us with his interest.

Develop an interest in their interests

I have never been much of a sports fan. I’ve been to games here and there but I don’t watch sports and I rarely know which team is in the lead. However, I had a student who was sports obsessed. He knew every score of every game and which standing each team was in. So what did I do? I made sure I turned the radio on in the car on the way to work to catch the scores of the game the day before. And when that student hopped out of his car in the morning, I was ready to greet him with a comment about the game or ask him to fill me in on what I missed. It became his favorite part of the day and for sure made our relationships stronger. When students feel that you are interested in them, they want to build those connections.

I had another student who loved Pokemon and always carried a stuffed Pikachu around with him. At one point he gifted one of my paraprofessionals her own stuffed Pikachu. She could have said thank you and moved on. However, what she did instead was to take that Pikachu home, and every now and then she would do cooking projects with Pikachu and take pictures of him doing all the steps of the recipe. Then, she would print them out and bring them in the next day for the student to see. Of course, this made his day and built the relationship between them. Bonus points: the pictures could then be used for sequencing and narrative writing activities.

Look for Something to Comment On

Do you enjoy it when someone notices your new haircut? Or comments on your new pair of shoes? Students love it too. And handing out compliments or giving comments is pretty easy to do. Have they been working hard on a project in art class? Comment on it! Have they been making big behavior changes lately? Comment on it! Let them know that you SEE them and what they are doing and appreciate them for who they are.

Have a sense of humor

Listen closely, this does NOT mean sarcasm. Students often have a hard time determining and understanding sarcasm. But they do love jokes and humor and silliness. I make up random songs all the time about whatever the students are doing. I have a song about going to their Adapted Physical Education class. I have a song about cleaning up their tables. I have a song about leaving me alone while I’m sitting at my desk… the list goes on. And the kids go crazy for knock-knock jokes. If the mood needs to be lightened, just whip out a knock-knock joke and they love it. 

Turning that humor on yourself works well too. If I make a mistake, instead of getting upset, I turn to “oh, silly Mrs. Huber, what in the world was I thinking?!” or something to that effect. That way, they see that making mistakes isn’t terrible and we all do it. This strengthens the relationship and makes us as teachers relatable to students.

Attend Student Events

This is a strategy that some teachers love and some teachers don’t love. Some teachers would prefer for their job to begin and end in the classroom and that is where they draw their boundaries. This is totally fine. But putting yourself out there and attending something your student is doing outside of school goes a long way to strengthening relationships. Attending a dance recital or a sports game means a lot to the students to see you showing up for them outside of school hours. They get to show off something they like to do and make a connection with you outside of school.

Side note: this also goes a LONG way toward building relationships with your students’ parents, which we will be getting into during the next blog post.

Image of a whiteboard and blue text reading "5 ways to use student interests to build relationships: spend 1:1 time with your students, develop an interest in their interests, look for something to comment on, have a sense of humor, and attend student events."

Interested in learning more? Check out these articles as well!

⭐️ Simple Relationship Building Strategies

⭐️ Strategies for Teachers to Build Positive Relationships with Students

⭐️ How to Build Stronger Relationships with your Students

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Do you have any examples of how you build relationships with your students? Have you tried any of these strategies? Let me know in the comments or find me on Instagram @sleepyowlteaching!

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