Meet Laura Tollis, an 8th-grade teacher who co-teaches math, social studies, language arts and whose primary focus is supporting students with special needs. She describes how she builds relationships with all the students in her class, and offers tips to connect better with those who have diverse needs and invisible disabilities:
When I set out to build relationships with my students, I first recognize that I need to find space to learn something about them. My favorite saying is, “go slow to go fast.” I spend a lot of time at the beginning of the year just getting to know my students. I don’t really touch the curriculum until the second week of school. It’s so important to create a solid foundation.
Once we’ve gotten through the first month of school, I don’t drop the relationship-building. I implement a “get-to-know-you” moment at the start of the day. This year, I’ve been using a simple question in the morning: “What’s good?” It’s purposefully open-ended and encourages students to tell me what’s going on in their lives.
They can share whatever they are looking forward to or something that is happening to them. Sometimes it’s as basic as letting me know that they had mac and cheese for lunch, or it can be a much bigger event. It starts class off on a positive note and gives me insight into where my students are coming from.
Here are five other tools and activities I’ve found helpful for connecting with students and creating a sense of belonging.
1. Memes: Students are encouraged to submit memes that they currently relate to. I always tell them, “I’m not as cool as you are. Please tell me what’s fun.” It’s a way for me to get on their level.
2. Along: I use this tool to check-in with students and to give them a chance to tell me what’s on their minds in their own way and without any peer pressure.
3. Team-building activities: These can be anywhere from 5-30 minutes. It’s a chance to stop and play in a meaningful way and to see our lessons from a new angle.
4. Collective goals: I find ways to show that we’re all on the same time. For instance, right now, I have a bulletin board outside of my room that has a tree with autumn leaves. When students pass a focus area, they take off a leaf — so other students see how the tree changes and how they are part of a bigger picture.
5. Summit Learning: My whole school is part of the Summit Learning program, and we have dedicated time for one-on-one mentoring. Summit Learning gives me a fresh opportunity to connect with students over specific subjects and topics.
When it comes to connecting to students with diverse needs, my first and foremost goal is to make sure that everybody is represented. It’s key to remember that many disabilities — such as ADHD and high-functioning autism — are invisible. I try to seek out the students who are quieter and set aside time specifically for them. If a student seems particularly withdrawn during the “What’s good?” question, I’ll make a mental note to check in. Sometimes, it’s as simple as just sitting and chatting with that student while they’re working.
Here’s an example: I have a student who was struggling in my class, both academically and behaviorally. So I took the time to find out what was happening outside of school. I discovered his dad was temporarily transferred for work on the Mexico-U.S. border. Since the student had an opportunity to tell me what was going on in his life, his mindset changed. Now that I have a rapport with him, we’re able to work through some of his behavioral issues in a more manageable way. He’s willing to listen and put in the work.
A crucial part of teaching students with diverse needs is to be flexible and to provide options. This is particularly helpful for students on the spectrum. These students don’t always feel comfortable talking to teachers one-on-one. So I’ll leave a sticky note on a desk that says something positive about their work that day. The Along tool has also proven very helpful for connecting with these students. It gives students different options for how they communicate with me and gives them time to think before they respond.
For students with attention difficulties, I go a different route. These students tend to prefer more in-person communication instead of writing things out. So I may ask them to go for a walk-and-talk. It gives them a break, there’s movement, and we’re talking. It removes pressure and helps us connect in a new way.
The reality is that there’s no magic fairy dust. I’m always adjusting on the fly. There are a lot of times where I have an activity planned, but when I enter the classroom, I pivot. I can sense that the energy isn’t right or that the activity won’t work for a specific student. I scaffold a lot of activities and rarely take something straight from a book. I am always adapting, accommodating, and thinking about individual students within my classroom.
Even though it can be a lot of thinking on my feet, I find that the outcome is always worth it. I believe that connecting with students in a deeper way helps them in their learning journeys and in the world. They become more resilient. When you have a relationship with students, they are more willing to be flexible. They speak up when they need extra support or when they feel that they are not meeting their own goals.
What’s most important is that students are happy and safe. If students feel these things, they will be ready to learn. Sometimes we think about it the other way around. We expect students to learn, and then be safe and happy. But it’s the student-teacher relationship that springboards students forward. The learning comes after that.
What We Learned/Big Takeaway
The key to starting relationships off strong is to understand each diverse learner as an individual and to figure out a unique strategy for connection. Once we lay that foundation for students to feel seen and understood, educators can personalize their lesson to each student’s diverse needs.
What We Are Still Figuring Out
There’s not a magic formula to address the needs of all diverse students, though this is what every special ed teacher wants and needs. I have to modify activities for everybody while also seeing what works for individual students.
What I Would Tell Other Leaders
With diverse learners, it’s important to read the room every day so you can be flexible.
Along is a digital reflection tool that is designed to help educators make each student feel seen and understood. Along lets students share quick one-one-reflections with their teacher so they can open up about who they are and what’s really on their mind—without peer pressure.
Educators get instant access to research-informed questions and ready-to-use resources, and students choose how they want to reflect—either over text, audio, or video messaging—on their own time and in their own way.
Summit Learning is a research-based approach to education designed to drive student engagement, meaningful learning, and strong student-teacher relationships that prepare students for life beyond the classroom. Created by educators with experience in diverse classrooms, Summit Learning is grounded in decades of research about how children learn.
With Summit Learning, students gain mastery of core subjects like math, history, English, and science, while also carefully developing the skills and habits of lifelong learners. The Summit Learning program offers schools customizable curriculum, a range of educational resources and technology tools, professional development for educators, and ongoing coaching and support for schools.
About The Author
I am currently an 8th grade special education teacher at Saline Middle School, located outside of Ann Arbor, Michigan. I’m in my eighth year teaching here and have always taught either 7th or 8th grade students. I’ve always wanted to be a teacher ever since I was a kid. I looked up to my teachers as role models, and appreciated the teachers who built relationships in middle school and high school. My primary focus is supporting students with special needs in math, social studies, and language arts.
At Saline Middle School, we believe that middle-level education must respect the unique developmental issues facing early adolescents. These students are experiencing multiple changes causing them to face many life-changing challenges. As educators, we feel it is our responsibility to educate the whole child, not just teaching information, but teaching life lessons that will assist them in becoming successful adults.