How to Build Strong Relationships with Students Using Culturally Responsive Teaching

How to Build Strong Relationships with Students Using Culturally Responsive Teaching


The Civil Rights Movement never ended. What we’re seeing now is the continuation of decades of work to advance equity and deliver on the promise of America’s democracy. There’s a growing wave of young activists working to dismantle the unjust structures that disempower them and adults play a key role in creating the environments to support them. 

 This raises many questions:

  • What is the role of student-teacher relationships in this context?  
  • How can we create the environments for students to become self-aware of their own power and potential? 
  • What does it look like when students are wildly reflective about their place in the world and recognize their skills and strengths in the fight for educational justice?

In this third post of our four-part series, we continue to explore how to build powerful connections for learning to meet students where they are, including those who are academically behind or vulnerable to falling behind, and create the environments that allow students to achieve to their highest potential. These insights come from our discussions with XQ schools across the country. (Check out how care and trusting relationships can build powerful mindsets and can help keep students engaged during remote learning.) 

This week, we focus on fostering relationships that empower students to develop a clear sense of their identity. These relationships allow students to become self-aware and self-directed learners who proactively seek the perspectives of others in order to meaningfully create a just society. We are learning in real-time how imperative it is for our students to be open to inquiry—to analyze knowledge with incisiveness, to navigate diverse viewpoints, and to understand the lived experience of others.

 In this post, we answer: 

  • How do we create a learning environment that is culturally responsive to students’ complex and overlapping identities? How do we make sure that students feel like they belong and trust those around them?
  • How can we empower students to explore and construct their identities to help them make sense of themselves and the world around them?

How do we create learning environments that are culturally responsive to students’ complex and overlapping identities? How do we make sure that students feel like they belong and trust those around them?

The pandemic and national protests have no doubt compounded our students’ stress levels and increased mental health issues for many young people. Since strong relationships with young people can lead to a better understanding of our students’ unique identities and their needs, educators must learn and continue to cultivate these relationships. Our students need to feel supported in responding to their current circumstances and empowered to impact the world meaningfully. 

How to Build Positive Relationships Through Targeted Support Networks 

At  Da Vinci RISE High—an XQ school located in South Central L.A. and Hawthorne—educators create relationships with students that meet them where they are and support their unique needs. Most students at Da Vinci RISE High are in foster care, on probation, or experiencing homelessness, and as a result of these unstable living environments, many of them struggle with depression and anxiety and require targeted and intensive support. During remote learning, these supports took the form of tele-counseling, 1:1’s with mental health teams, and more. 

On the first day of school closures, Da Vinci RISE High shifted into a therapy-based inspired model, aimed at putting the social-emotional needs and holistic identities of students first. 

By creating an environment that integrates students’ identities, each student expressed what they needed for their learning experience at home:

“We immediately divided up into support teams for individual students,” shares Ana Resner, the case manager operating out of the school’s Hawthorne site. “We created a crisis team for higher-need students, which included a teacher, an academic coach, a special education teacher, and a counselor. These teams were structured around a point person to make sure that the students weren’t overwhelmed with five calls a day.” This approach ensures that students have a consistent touchpoint with at least one person at the school who is aware of the student’s context and identity. 

How to Build Deeper Relationships by Supporting Students Emotional Needs

At Washington Leadership Academy—located in Washington D.C.—the school’s on-site social worker has been sending weekly ‘social-emotional development at home’ emails to WLA’s students to ensure they reach the same support even during school closures. “A good portion of our social-emotional development work focuses on educating students on how to acknowledge, accept, and change their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors,” explains Molly Graham, WLA’s social worker. “Some of our newsletters also focus on grounding exercises, which bring our minds back to the present and away from stressful thoughts and memories.”

For instance, when students become overwhelmed with anxious thoughts, they use any one of the grounding techniques she sends out to her students. These include the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise: “Take a deep breath and look around you. Name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can feel, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste.” Through a consistent practice of self-regulation, students effectively strengthen their ability to respond to inevitable challenges with effort and persistence, a key skill that will allow students to manage and direct their own learning.

In moments of acute stress, this practice helps teachers and counselors learn more about their students’ learning environments, allowing them to teach and support their students better: Can students see their younger siblings for who they might care? Can they hear dogs barking, sirens blaring, or the buzz of a television? What kind of foods can they smell cooking? Ultimately, this serves as a tool to extend an educator’s awareness of their students’ unique learning environments—creating an awareness of what their students may be experiencing. 


How to Build Positive Relationships Through Asset-Based Mindsets 

It’s also important to help students create optimal learning environments that fit their individual needs. “These environments name and help young people build the critical skills that they need in order to succeed,” explains Karen Pittman, Co-Founder and President of The Forum for Youth Investment

PSI High puts that theory into action. PSI focuses on creating learning environments for their students that help them grow as individuals and as learners. One educator at PSI, Angela Davis, focuses on creating an asset-based mindset—an approach to teaching that highlights and reiterates each students’ strengths, fermenting a strong and positive sense of their identity. 

“I just want students to hear every single day, that they do these amazing things and bring all this value to the space,” she reflects. With educators like Angela ensuring that the learning environment is responsive to students’ complicated and overlapping identities, students at PSI High feel that their unique strengths and contributions are valuable.

How can we empower students to explore, construct their identities, and make meaning of themselves and the world around them?

Students sniff out busy work from a mile away—so amidst a global pandemic, educators need to flex to the relevance of the moment. “What does it mean to be a global citizen at this time?” asks Scott Bess, the executive director at Purdue Polytechnic High School(PPHS). “This might be the first real disruption in our students’ lives, so how do we build off of that?” 

XQ believes that authentic, community-connected, and place-based projects are essential to create meaningful and engaged learning. However, these projects often require connection to the local community, an authentic understanding of a need or problem they are trying to solve, and integration with the scope and sequence of an existing course. With no ability to engage with the community physically, how can schools bring problem-solving for the community context into remote learning environments? 

Creating Relevant Projects for Students to Explore Their Skills  

During a regular school year at PPHS, students pursue their passions through hands-on and project-based industry challenges. Each academic year, the school hosts five, 6-week design thinking challenges in concert with industry partners, who introduce real-world business challenges to students. These challenges give students plenty of opportunities to explore different career pathways by allowing them to learn with work-based opportunities that align with the skills employers need.

When shelter-in-place began, PPHS leaned on Open IDEO—a social impact platform that expands on the power of crowdsourcing—to continue these industry-caliber projects. IDEO equips communities with the resources, connections, and design tools they need to create relevant impact. (They also recently held a Reimagine Learning Challenge on the Rethink Together Forum!) 

Open IDEO’s COVID-19 Business Pivot Challenge—“How can we help communities live a healthier life amidst crisis?”—allowed PPHS students to come up with solutions to address global and local issues and respond to this cultural moment. 

Through open-ended globally-situated challenges like these, students are provided with the flexibility and creativity to explore multiple future career pursuits and their corresponding problem-solving approaches:

  • Would they approach the problem as an engineer or scientist? As a health care clinician? As a city planner? As a journalist? What about as a politician? 
  • How, amongst all of these organization role identities, might the nuanced confluence of other senses of self—from race and ethnicity to gender expression and primary language—play a role in co-creating with others to create impact? 

What better preparation could there be to encourage students to become the inquisitive world citizens who respect and seek out diverse points of view to solve the most urgent problems of our day?

Exploring Identity Through Relevant Projects 

XQ has found that projects that encourage students to contribute and process creates natural student engagement. Additionally, we’ve found that projects that weave in each students’ unique and intersecting identities, heritages, and cultural backgrounds hold meaningful weight for each student. Amidst shelter-in-place, teachers at Da Vinci RISE High launched a 3-month interdisciplinary project that probed how voting affects communities differently. Students used an identity wheel to explore how voting impacts people with different heritages, genders, and sexual orientations. They presented their final products and narrative at an online student exhibition. By drawing upon identity as a source of knowledge, Da Vinci RISE highlights its critical and inherent value to play a role in solving complex issues like systematic disenfranchisement. (For example, check out these RISE students learning from actor and activist Logan Browning about voter awareness.)


Engaging with the Community as a Means of Student Growth

Latitude High School, in Oakland, California, similarly work to ensure that their students continued to express themselves creatively and connect with their community during remote learning. “We want students in this climate to have an opportunity for collaboration and discussion. We want them to build in routines and rituals that allow them to be challenged cognitively,“ explained Lillian Hsu, Principal of Latitude High School. “In order for students to reach their fullest potential, they need to unpack their sense of identity—and get a sense of what drives them and what motivates them,” she explains in a MIT Teaching Systems Lab video on context-centered equity mindsets, “and oftentimes that goes back to their roots.” 

At Latitude High School, that means creating projects that engage students’ creativity and connects them to their community’s needs. Last school year, Physics teacher Regina Kruglyak asked her students during shelter-in-place to create plans for tiny houses to house local homeless young adults and engaged in solving the Bay Area housing crisis. Students interviewed designers, professionals working with homeless youth, and people in the tiny home community to understand the scope and needs of the project properly. After completing their sketches, students pitched these virtually to the Youth Spirit Artworks board for feedback, revision, prototyping, and hopefully at some point building of these communal spaces.


It’s clear to us at XQ that when we engage students in creativity and problem-solving in their community, we are essentially setting students up to explore and probe the identities that allow them to best effectively create an impact in the world around them.

Invite and Encourage Students to Engage 

Relationships are interwoven with identity development. Self-actualization is a messy process and personal growth often takes place as we place ourselves into context around those around us. Given this fact, it is imperative that educators learn to support students when they need it and affirm students’ strengths to help them work at their highest capacity.

Most importantly, educators should ask students to engage meaningfully in the world in front of them. “Right now, students are connecting things in a way they’ve never had before at school,” says Angela Daniel, a teacher in the XQ network. “We asked them to extrapolate all along, and now they’re supporting their opinions in class with details in their own life.” 

By widening the scope of education to include the world around them, students not only engage with education in a deeper way, but they also grow into empathetic problem solvers. And we need empathetic problem solvers, generous collaborators, and original thinkers for an uncertain world now more than ever.

How are you building care and trusting relationships with your students during remote learning? How do you create environments that support the personal growth of your students? Join the discussions on Caring, Trusting Relationships and other XQ design principles on the Rethink Together Forum.

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