How to Build Strong Relationships with Students Using Culturally Responsive Teaching

Educators across the country are building relationships and empathy with their students, and meeting them where they are. Here’s how.

By Anna Sudderth

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 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?

Building strong relationships with students empowers them 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: 

The past few years have 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. 

By creating an environment that integrates students’ identities, educators empowered each student to express what they needed for their learning experience at home and at school.

“In the pandemic, we 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 centered around relationship-building ensures that students have consistent touchpoints 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—an XQ school located in Washington D.C.—social-emotional learning is a central focus of the school’s mission to empower students to succeed. 

For instance, during the pandemic, WLA educators helped students develop coping skills. 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—an XQ school in Sanford, Florida—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 educators need to flex to the relevance of the moment. For example, during the beginning of the pandemic, that meant asking students to think critically about the dramatic changes they saw taking place around them. “What does it mean to be a global citizen at this time?” asked Scott Bess, the executive director at Purdue Polytechnic High School (PPHS), an XQ school in Indianapolis, Indiana. “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 creating meaningful and engaged learning. These projects 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.

Creating Relevant Projects for Students to Explore Their Skills  

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. These challenges also promote meaningful and engaged learning by connecting skills to students’ interests outside the classroom.

In one memorable project, a team of PPHS students built an “EV Cart” (electric vehicle go-kart) for competition in a go-kart race. Completing this project took students out of the classroom and into the real world, as they took initiative and mastered skills to complete their ambitious goal. 

For example, planning for the race challenged students to step into professional roles, exploring career-relevant areas like marketing and fundraising. All students also participated in the actual building of the EV cart, which required deep dives into various math and science concepts, like acceleration and velocity. 

Students working on this project didn’t just learn academic skills. They also mastered teamwork, project planning, and problem-solving. These skills map onto PPHS’s 20 identified competencies, which sum up the academic, social, and thinking skills students will need to succeed after high school. Projects like the EV cart challenge encourage these competencies by connecting skills with relevant challenges, designing around questions like:

  • What are my students passionate about?
  • What role do adults—teachers, coaches, and industry professionals—have in supporting their learning?
  • How can students take the lead in directing and evaluating their own learning?
  • How does this work connect to students’ communities?

Similarly, in remote learning, 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 inquisitive world citizens who respect and seek out diverse points of view to solve the most urgent problems of our day?

Engaging with the Community as a Means of Student Growth

Educators at Latitude High School—an XQ school in Oakland, California—similarly worked 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, 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.” , that means creating projects that engage students’ creativity and connect 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 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 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 with 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 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? How do you create environments that support your students’ personal growth? Join the discussions on Caring, Trusting Relationships and other XQ design principles on the Rethink Together Forum.