How to Connect with Students and Understand Their Emotions?

How to Connect with Students and Understand Their Emotions?

Jaclyn Siano

How to Connect with Students with Social Emotional Learning

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is a revolutionary educational practice in formal education. Until now, we’ve seen schools as a place where intellectual knowledge is passed on to new generations. However, education has significantly evolved and schools are now an environment where children also learn more about their emotions and the emotions of others, how to express themselves more effectively, and how to build relationships with their peers.

Because of this, we can say that at the basis of any healthy and harmonious classroom, there’s a strong, positive relationship between teachers and students. The most crucial aspect of all is that establishing an emotional connection with students helps teachers pass on positive values so students can internalize prosocial behavioral traits.

There are many SEL strategies teachers can incorporate in the classroom to achieve these things. However, to make them truly meaningful and effective, teachers first need to understand how learning occurs under different emotional states and establish a genuine connection with students.

Emotions In Classrooms: How Students Feel

Formal education is designed to provide a structured and systematic form of learning that will equip students with essential knowledge and skills for adulthood. However, regardless of how much we improve that system, the outcomes won’t be any better until we make students more receptive to learning.

Contrary to popular belief, being receptive to learning has a lot to do with one’s emotional state and very little with actual intelligence.

After all, what typically manifests as laziness or unwillingness to learn is a negative attitude accompanied by negative emotions toward learning. The reasons behind these emotional states are just as diverse as the emotions themselves. The most common emotions manifested in the classroom include emotional tension (response to stress), performance anxiety, social anxiety, aversion, boredom, and frustration.

how to connect with students with social emotional learning

Reasons Behind Students' Emotional States

Students of all ages experience a range of emotions in the classroom - from intense excitement to crippling anxiety. Teachers should be able to identify those emotions and help students regulate them. SEL strategies for emotional regulation are incredibly beneficial, but teachers need to understand the root of the problem to choose the right ones. 

Let's break down some of the most common sources of emotional turmoil in students.

Character Traits

Social situations tend to provoke similar emotional responses in most people. For instance, losing a pet makes us extremely upset, social isolation leads to loneliness, while praise from a family member or friend makes us feel good. Yet, not everyone reacts the same way. Even if we all feel sadness, joy, anxiety, boredom, fear, and so on, the manifestation of those feelings will be extremely personal. Also, some people are more sensitive, feel things more deeply than others, and have a hard time moving on from one emotion to another, while others are complete opposites.

This is important because teachers need to make an effort to get to know their students better to be able to understand their emotions. For instance, an outsider seeing a student with their head down doodling something in their notebook might assume they’re taking notes. On the other hand, an involved teacher might see it as a sign of distress because that behavior is atypical for that particular student.

Connecting with students requires teachers to always consider the character traits of students when they attempt to understand their emotions. Usually, children with specific character traits can be more prone to performance anxiety (perfectionism), social anxiety (introversion), or frustration (choleric or sanguine temperament), etc.

Peer Relationships

Another thing to always consider when connecting with students is their social position in the classroom. Classmates and friends throughout middle school and high school have the highest influence over students’ emotional state.

Naturally, in all classrooms there are social butterflies as well as social outcasts. Additionally, students frequently form cliques that could disturb the emotional dynamic in our classroom. Peer relationships can lead to stress, aversion toward school (example: not wanting to go to school), embarrassment (example: not wanting to speak in class), distraction, unwillingness to learn, and so on.

One of the most powerful SEL tools for understanding the existing social and emotional dynamic in the classroom is the sociogram

The sociogram helps teachers understand which students need emotional support or intervention and figure out how to best group students during work assignments to promote collaboration and tolerance.

Therefore, if teachers want to connect with their students, they could start by creating a sociogram and visually map the students’ relationships with each other.

Home Dynamics

Students usually change their attitude toward learning when there’s a change at home. In fact, their behavior inside the classroom can be a symptom of their problems at home. To connect with students, teachers also need to form close relationships with the parents. When teachers and parents work together and present a united front, students are more likely to accept their guideship and point of view. 

Moreover, collaboration, mutual respect, and great communication with parents allows them to facilitate the teachers’ efforts and continue the learning process at home.

On the other hand, teachers will be more privy to the family dynamic which can negatively affect the students’ behavior inside the classroom. This way, they’ll be able to provide emotional, physical, or financial support when needed.

And, when there’s no direct communication with the parents, teachers should be wary of any changes in the students’ emotional state.

The most typical indicator of problems at home is when a student manifests a sudden change in their behavior (after you exclude bullying or other changes in peer dynamics). For instance, when typically curious, creative, and spontaneous students suddenly become withdrawn, sad, or lack interest in topics they were previously passionate about.

Subject Matter

The subject matter is another source of emotional turmoil for students. Just think of math and the reputation it follows. Many students never even give math a chance and enter the classroom with a negative attitude, expecting to be bored, stressed, or overwhelmed.

Connecting with students means understanding their fears, expectations, attitudes, and interest in different subjects or subject topics. Sometimes even students with good grades overall can appear bored or show lack of interest in specific topics. That’s okay and normal.

In these situations, teachers need to tell students that it’s okay, understandable, and even completely human not to be interested in everything and not to like some subjects and topics. If students feel understood and heard, chances are they’ll be more open to hearing about the importance and usefulness of these topics later in life and how to overcome feelings of boredom, apathy, and aversion.

Relationship With the Teacher

Last but not least, the relationship that students have with their teacher affects how willing they are to learn the subject matter.

In psychology this phenomenon is called transference - when people redirect the emotions they feel toward something or someone to something or someone else. The most typical example is “I don’t like the teacher, therefore I don’t really enjoy that subject.”

Unfortunately, students regularly transfer their feelings toward the teachers to the subject the teacher teaches. This is why, connecting with students, making them feel good, and capturing their attention with engaging activities is crucial for motivating them to show interest in the subject.

The most common indicators that students might transfer their negative feelings for the teacher into the learning process is when they appear hostile, bored, distracted, or apathetic. 

The Importance of Social-Emotional Connections

From everything that we’ve learned so far, it’s safe to conclude that understanding students’ emotions is an incredibly difficult task. Still, SEL teaches us that connecting with students and  building close relationships with them is crucial for students’ academic and life success. And, here’s why.

Establishing a positive emotional connection with students can help students regulate their emotions and overcome negative attitudes toward learning regardless of their source.

First, through a close emotional connection with students, teachers can help them overcome some personality traits and habits that are holding them back. To give you an example, teachers can provide personalized and valuable strategies keeping social anxiety at bay. In fact, by simply being an emotional support and making the classroom a safe place, students will feel much better and more confident in themselves.

Second, by keeping track of students' relationships with their classmates with the sociogram and other SEL strategies, teachers can intervene and make social outcasts more involved, or break down destructive cliques by separating them in group activities. These are just a few examples, but having an emotional connection with students allows teachers to be more involved in their social life.

Third, by connecting with students, teachers can also be helpful and keep students safe when they’re experiencing problems at home.

Finally, understanding students' emotions toward the subject matter puts teachers in an advantageous position to adjust their teaching style, provide additional information, include different methodologies, and ultimately subvert students’ expectations in a positive way.

Needless to say, if students are experiencing a negative attitude toward learning because of the teacher, then connecting with students and building close emotional connections is likely to help.

So how can teachers establish a genuine emotional connection with their students? The following SEL strategies might help.

Strategies for Emotionally Connecting with Students 

With the challenges that the pandemic put forward, teachers struggle more than ever to establish an authentic emotional connection with their students. This is why we put together this list of 7 valuable SEL strategies that can really make a difference. Here’s what you can do.

Feedback Is Always Welcome

In the quest of building an emotional connection with your students, feedback is your best friend. The reason for this is simple - you first need to genuinely understand your students and their interests to be able to get close to them.

The good news is that you can gather feedback from everywhere. First, build a close relationship with parents. Second, observe students’ interaction with other classmates. Finally, ask them directly what you want to know - it's as simple as that. If you want to get to know them better, organize meetings, debates, casual conversations, or other opportunities where students can freely express themselves and share their interests.

Additionally, you can use anonymous surveys - this is the best way to gather truthful and uncensored opinions about you as a teacher, the subject matter, or other topics.

Feedback is underappreciated and usually overlooked, but it’s necessary to evaluate your efforts, gain knowledge, and to simply stay on top of things.

Availability Is a Necessity

For students to open up, they need to know that you’re available for them when they need it. Instead of always initiating conversations and trying to get students to talk about their life, let them be the ones in control. For instance, print out a schedule of your open hours and encourage students to reach out whenever they need advice, want reassurance, need to share something in private, or talk about their plans for the future. Then, be patient, and you will be surprised to see just how often students take advantage of that opportunity.

Open office hours usually convey a powerful message to students - you’re there for them. This goes a long way in establishing an emotional connection with students because it paints you as an involved, thoughtful, and fair teacher who looks out after their students.

Extra-Curricular Activities Build Closer Relationships

Most of the time, school hours take all of your energy, leaving you exhausted both mentally and physically. So the thought of spending even more time with students is not always an appealing idea, but trust us, it's worth it.

Whenever possible, attend your students’ extra-curricular activities. This is a great place to get to know your students and their interests better, and to bond with them in a more casual environment. For example, if there’s an upcoming chess tournament or a football match and some of your students are participating, make an effort to attend and provide moral support.

There’s no greater feeling when students know that their mentors are proud of them and want to see them succeed. In fact, just showing up sends a message that you’ve remembered something that’s important to them and they genuinely matter to you.

When students feel that teachers care for them, they put in more effort in their studies. They would not want to disappoint you or leave a bad impression, which is a great motivation for learning.

Assignments for Emotional Reflection Establish a Foundation

The most straightforward way to weave SEL into the fabric of your curriculum and give students the tools for more mature and stable emotional connections is to introduce class assignments designed to promote emotional reflection.

Examples of such assignments include:

Ex. What are you most proud of? What are your best traits? What did you learn this past year? What are your biggest goals for the year to come?;

  • Role-playing: when a child participates in pretend play (or dramatic play) and takes on a role of a character; when teachers use drama and/or theater processes for conflict-resolution; or when students participate in school plays.
  • Sharing opinions about an emotional story.

Ex. How would you describe this character? Would you have done the same thing in their place? What should they have done better?;

  • Reflection circle: gathering students in a circle where everyone shares a positive and negative emotion;

Ex. I feel like…; I really do not like…; I feel angry when…; I love that…;

  • Body-language exercises: one student demonstrates an emotion or emotional situation (story) while the other students try to guess what they’re trying to convey.

Depending on your students’ age, the activities for emotional awareness and reflection will vary greatly. For instance, younger children should work on identifying emotions and learning emotional vocabulary i.e how to properly express their emotions, while older students should focus on introspection and subjective interpretation of emotions.

Connecting with students is facilitated when they have a high emotional awareness and feel comfortable communicating their feelings.

Casual Conversations in the Morning Set the Tone For the Rest of the Day

One of the most valuable SEL strategies is starting the day with a casual conversation.

Do not overload students with questions about homework, new material, upcoming assignments or other school-related requests as soon as you enter the classroom. Early in the morning, students are either still sleepy or anxious about what’s coming.

To break the ice, make them feel more comfortable, or wake them up, it’s best to ask about their day and spend five to ten minutes talking about anything - from gaming, music, TV, and sports, to news, politics, and local events. Let students guide the conversation and listen to what is currently trendy in their lives.

Doing this for just five minutes a day will help you learn more about your students than any other activity during the class or after classes.  Plus, it can be a special tradition that students would look forward to. And, if you end up talking about something they’re really excited about, we promise you, you’ll energize them just enough to stay alert for the upcoming class.

Every Classroom is Unique

Many different SEL strategies can help teachers connect with their students.. That being said, not everything will work for you and your students. Be prepared for failure, awkward conversations, silence, and even resistance from the students in the beginning.

There’s a learning curve where students slowly lower their guard and begin to trust you, so do not expect to form close bonds overnight.

This is another reason why feedback is important. There will be SEL strategies and methods that you love or think are going great, but in reality are not doing much for your students' particular needs. Listen to them and encourage feedback. When you notice that something is not working, try something else.

It’s a good thing that there are so many SEL tools and methodologies for teachers - it allows for teachers to personalize their approach to their students' needs. Keep this in mind and use all the resources you have at your disposal.

Practice What You Preach

Let’s finish this list by saying that students are smart, so making them believe something that you yourself are not practicing is impossible. They’ll see right through you, so the best way to form long-lasting emotional connections is to be genuine, honest, and practice what you preach.

In fact, just by showing continuity and consistency in your principles will send a stronger message to kids than a dozen lessons on a particular topic. Here are a few simple examples: You can’t expect kids to respect your class and be always on time, if you are often late. Also, no matter how many times you forbid mobile phones in class, if your own phone rings in class or you check your messages, you’re sending a clear message to students that such behavior is okay.

Teachers should be role models that follow the same rules as students. This will show them that you respect them, see them as responsible individuals, and really believe in what’s right or wrong.

If there’s an exception and you need to break the rules, be open about it and communicate it at the beginning of the class. For example, inform students that you have to leave your phone on today because of an emergency and you’re expected to be available. Apologize for the inconvenience and ask for their understanding. This is also a good example that teaches students how to behave when they need to make an exemption in case of an emergency. 


Connecting with students and understanding their emotions is difficult but absolutely necessary. Hopefully, this article will help you lay out the foundation by changing little things that make a big difference. For instance, you can start by gathering feedback and evaluating where you stand in the eyes of your students. This is a great starting point. From there, you can make a better decision with what to proceed.

You can even try different things and see how it goes, just don’t put too much pressure on yourself. It can take years to establish a bullet-proof framework for connecting with students. And, even then, there will always be students who will present a bigger challenge than others in one way or another. Experience comes with time.

In the meantime, you can learn more about SEL and other useful methodologies for teachers in our blog where we regularly share guides with insightful tips.

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