In this episode, we discuss the profound impact of classroom relationships on learning and development. Today’s guest is Kate Matthew. Kate is a co-author and Project Director of the STREAMin3 curriculum model from the Center of Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning (CASTL) at the University of Virginia. Today she shares enlightening insights that underscore the crucial role that relationships between educators and students play in shaping successful learning environments.

Drawing from her wealth of experience, Kate shares practical strategies and innovative techniques such as "Banking Time," a unique approach aimed at bridging the gap with students who find connection challenging. Listen to today’s conversation to learn about how educators can fortify these critical relationships by offering choice and autonomy activities coupled with acceptance, interest, and responsiveness.

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Emily: Hello, and welcome to the Teaching with CLASS podcast, the podcast that gives you quick, actionable tips to easily implement in your classroom. I'm your host, Emily Simon. As a former early childhood educator, but now a product marketing professional, I couldn't be happier connecting back to my classroom roots and serving as today's guest host. In today's episode, we'll be discussing the importance of building relationships in the classroom.

We are joined today by Kate Matthew, a co-author and project director of the STREAMin3 curriculum model from the Center of Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning, also known as CASTL, at the University of Virginia. Kate, welcome. Thanks for joining us. Can you tell us a little about yourself?

Kate: Yeah, thank you so much for having me. As you said, I am a project director for the STREAMin3 curriculum model at CASTL. STREAMin3 is a comprehensive birth to preschool model that naturally weaves together social, emotional, academic learning, and professional development. We're currently partnering with the Virginia Department of Education to make it available to any publicly funded classrooms across Virginia.

I started off as a Head Start teacher, a home visitor, and a community consultant before joining CASTL, where I've done research and helped to create resources, things like curriculum, teacher-child relationship building, supporting challenging behaviors, all the fun stuff.

Emily: Exactly, as you were talking about, all the fun things. That's exactly how you ended it. It's such an exciting and fun avenue of work. Let's just dive right in. Today's about relationships and relationships specifically in the classroom. Why are they important? And what are some ways that we can start intentionally thinking about our relationships that we have with the children?

Kate: Great. I think as adults, we all know how much relationships matter to us. They're what let us thrive. They make us feel safe, connected, able to be ourselves, take risks, and all of those things. And it's no different in the classroom. Relationships don't just make us feel warm and fuzzy, though of course they do. They really can be a gatekeeper of opportunities for children.

Responsive, sensitive relationships between educators and children allow for those children to learn and grow across all areas of development. When children feel safe and connected, they're able to fully explore and engage in the world around them. They take risks, they try new things, they show increased self-reliance and persistence, compliance, and focus, all the things that we want for them to have during their day.

When children feel safe and connected, they're able to fully explore and engage in the world around them.

Educators in these relationships, they will anticipate issues and or calmly address them when they occur so that children can quickly reengage in the classroom. Children use their relationships with educators as a model when learning how to communicate or relate to others. They seek out educators to help them when they encounter problems or when they need comfort, support, or guidance.

On the other hand, when relationships between educators and children are filled with tension, conflict, or even just indifference, children often miss out on the social, emotional, and the academic learning opportunities. Children with negative or indifferent relationships with their teachers are more likely to be excluded from learning activities. They're more frequently punished than their peers, they're called on less often, and some educators may avoid interacting closely with them altogether.

Just to be clear though, as a former educator and as a full support in everything that they're doing, all of this is likely unintentional. No teacher is actively trying to exclude a child to not have a relationship. But when those relationships aren't present or they're not nurtured, then sometimes those things can unintentionally happen.

Emily: So powerful, and that's exactly what I was thinking. I loved how you phrased the concept of an indifferent relationship. It's not negative, and it might not be my most positive in the child that I think about immediately in my classroom. It's just someone who is in the background. When you think about your classroom of 20, it's the child that maybe just stays in the background of when you're thinking and planning or telling someone about the children in your classroom.

I love that, as being a former educator, I can pinpoint those exact indifferent relationships. It's not that I didn't like the child or didn't want to have a relationship with the child. It was just that we struggled to connect as easily as some of the other children.

What I'm hearing you talk about is indifference having unintended consequences. What are some strategies, not to focus on the indifferent, but just in general? When I'm looking to build relationships in general with any child in my classroom, what are some of the first things that I can be doing to foster relationships?

Kate: First, I just want to agree with you around the indifference. We can think of kids who are just flying under the radar a little. You're not having big conflicts. You're not having big withdrawals or tension, but they just may not be coming to you when they need support, or they may not be fully seeing you as that resource or feel really safe to engage in that way with you. 

I'll get into some strategies, but first thing would just be noticing that. Just taking the time to know how important relationships are, not just for the sake of relationships, but to all learning that's happening in the classroom, and then making it a priority to just check in on the different kids in your classroom, and just have a little inventory of how's my relationship with each child in my classroom.

Again, teachers are open. They want to connect. They're inviting and they're open, but not every kid is going to take you up on that in the same way, because we're all trying to have matches, personalities, where we come from, and who we are. It's not a one-size-fits-all. Even though we're trying, we're open, and we are receptive to relationships, some kids may need something different and may need something more.

Again, I know teachers are doing this already. I think it's around bringing the intentionality to stop, pause, and make sure that each kid is getting what they need from you, and that's going to be different in your relationship. Just like your relationships are different with the adults in your life, you don't expect the same reactions from all of your relationships.

Getting into some strategies, first of all, a high quality educator teacher-child relationship is established through repeated moment-to-moment interactions that convey sensitivity, respect, and warmth. And they require the active engagement of both the educator and the child. They don't happen overnight. Let's think about three simple strategies for building relationships with all the children in your classroom.

First thing we can think about is helping children see you as a resource. That's a helper or a partner in problem solving. One way to do this is through showing empathy and acceptance of feelings, so words like I see you're feeling frustrated that the doll won't stay on top of the block.

Sometimes we, as adults or in or out of the classroom, can be tempted to tell children to stop feeling negative emotions. How would you feel if your friend said, oh, don't be sad, it's fine, don't cry, honey, after you called to tell them about your really tough day? No matter how small or silly a reason a child is upset may seem to us, the realness of the emotion is the same for the child and we need to show acceptance and acknowledge that emotion.

Another way to be a resource is to offer assistance. Here's the tricky part, without forcing your own solutions. That one's hard for me particularly at home sometimes. It’s offers such as, I'm happy to help you if that's okay, or can we figure out how to make it stay together and work through the problem together rather than words like, it's okay, just put this block this way, or if you can't play together, just take turns. He goes first, then you.

To be clear, that doesn't mean you can't ever step in and give solutions to help children. Especially if a child is having a very difficult time, they may need your help in that way, in that moment. Or if it's more in alignment to the way that your classroom or their culture for adults to lead sometimes, that's okay. But we always want to find the right level and involve them as much as we can.

First was to be a resource. Next step I'd say is to promote autonomy. Autonomy means that children are active agents in their own learning. When you promote autonomy, you're showing genuine interest in the children's ideas, interests, and activities.

Some ways to do this would be joining in their play and really following what they're doing, following their lead, offering choice, storing planned activities, incorporating their ideas and their preferences into daily activities, just greeting them at the door, checking in to see how their day's going so far, but really letting them have an active voice, opinions, and ideas in what they're doing in their own learning. It's like saying, I see you, I hear you, I genuinely care about your ideas and your interests.

The third strategy is to engage in social conversations. That one might seem a little silly. Maybe just a little bit at first, but engaging in meaningful social conversations with children helps build their confidence and their trust in your relationship. You encourage children to share their own ideas and interests. It lets them know that you value their thoughts, their ideas, and their experiences, and that you truly enjoy spending time with them.

We all know what it feels like when someone is spending time with us, and we are picking up on that vibe that they're truly enjoying spending that time with us. They also love when you share a little bit about yourself. That doesn't mean, oh, I'm having this big fight with my partner, but more just things around your life, your pets, or your garden, what you did that weekend. When you share something personal about yourself, it helps them feel close and connected, which makes them feel safe and loved.

When you share something personal about yourself, it helps them feel close and connected, which makes them feel safe and loved.

I think a distinction in the social conversation is you're not teaching something. You're going to have to do that all day, but it's taking the time to sit down while they're eating meals, having a snack, or you're walking out to the playground just chatting and just spending time together in a way that's I see you, I care, and I want to feel connected to you.

Emily: That last strategy of engaging in social conversations really resonates with me. It takes me back to a specific moment in my teaching career where I had an epiphany, where I didn't know that that was a strategy to be used in building relationships, but I happened upon it, if you will. There was a little girl in my classroom. We didn't have a negative relationship. We didn't have a positive relationship. It was one of those indifferent relationships. I think it's a great way to describe it.

She organically started eating her snack where I would sit during snack time. I let her have that autonomy and that choice to sit there. Organically, we just would begin talking. I would be like, tell me about your weekend. She would tell me about her weekend, and I would ask questions. I'm telling you, I think that was a pivotal moment of our relationship changing.

It really speaks, I think, to the power of this seems so simple, right? These seem like, oh, of course I should be doing that. But I think going back to one of your earlier points of making it a priority and just thinking more intentionally about that, that can have the power to really unlock those relationships.

Kate: Yeah, it gives me goosebumps thinking about that. In the classroom, we talked about birthday parties. I happen to have a classroom of kids who celebrated their birthdays, and they were just so into it. We would just talk all during lunch. That's what we're talking about, but they knew I cared to hear what they were saying outside of it.

I think there's so much pressure to teach, and there is. You're a teacher. You have to find every teachable moment. I love teaching math during meals, teaching science, reading, and all those things. I'm fully supportive, but it's also just giving yourself the grace to carve out space that just pure relationship building is also really, really important for its own sake, but it also will help with those other academic skills.

I just think there's a lot of pressure to do those. Teachers want to connect. They want to be with kids, they want to do that. I think sometimes, it's just a nice reminder that it's okay to really prioritize that, just sit down, and chat about whatever.

Emily: That is so powerful. As you were talking, I was thinking about the joy of teaching. We know that educators go into teaching because they love children. They love connecting with children. It's that pressure of having every teachable moment that takes away that joy at times. I think reframing that I'm building a relationship so that I can teach, so that the child can experience the development and growth that is expected might help shift where our priorities lie.

Kate: Yeah. You want to make sure that you're carving out space and prioritizing about relationships, but it's also weaving them into the academic learning as well. Promoting autonomy can be just making sure that there are choices in your activities.

Your goal or your objective might be around math, but there are places to build in choice for kids, to add in which one they want to count, or which pattern they want to make. You can have a social conversation a little bit around the thing you're counting. It's about carving out space, but then also just weaving it into the other things that are happening in your classroom too.

Emily: So powerful. Kate, again, I'm going back to my own time in the classroom, I'm thinking about, okay, if I did these three things, but there's still that one child that I'm not connecting with, and I'm struggling to form that relationship, and we're seeing the effects of that start to happen, what do I do? What do I do when that doesn't come easy and the things that I'm trying aren't working? What's left?

Kate: Something that we touched on a little bit earlier is that every child is going to be coming into your classroom with a different set of experiences and background. The number one priority for any of these strategies is to really get to know your kids, what they need from you, meet them where they are, and match where they are.

I think that what comes to mind when thinking about a relationship is it just needs a little bit more support and a little bit more digging in. It would be to think about a strategy called Banking Time. Banking Time was developed at UVA. It is available through Teachstone.

Basically, Banking Time is you have a 10 to 15-minute sessions two to three times a week. It's a bit more structured. The other things are like, we're getting into a conversation. This is more structured. This is more intensive for when you need to really do some relationship building.

So 10-15 minutes, two to three times a week, and the sessions are ideally outside of the classroom, where a teacher and a child can really connect, be together, and just focus on that uninterrupted time together. Really key here is that this is not a time to teach like a skill. You wouldn't say, we're Banking Time, we're going out to work on our colors. This is more about conveying acceptance, interest, and responsiveness.

The teacher is going to really follow the child's lead in what they're doing. They're going to observe what the child's doing, perhaps narrate and label what the child is doing like, oh, I see you chose to build this with that block, or I see you chose to put that turtle puppet, or whatever it is that they're working with.

You're going to narrate and label after you're observing what the child is doing, and then really think about how you can weave in these themes of like, I'm here to help, I am interested in what you're doing, I'm interested in what you're thinking. It's really important for them to know that you're safe and consistent.

Something around Banking Time is that they're not contingent on behavior, so they would never be like, well, if you can share with your friends during all of the choice or free time, then we're going to go have our Banking Time session. Or if they're having a bad day, you do not cancel a Banking Time session. This is a way for you to say, I'm consistent, I'm reliable, I care about you, and I want to spend time with you no matter what, even when you make mistakes, or even when you're making behaviors that I find challenging.

...if they're having a bad day, you do not cancel a Banking Time session. This is a way for you to say, I'm consistent, I'm reliable, I care about you, and I want to spend time with you no matter what.

Emily: That is so powerful. I got chills when you said, I'm here for you even if you make mistakes, and how powerful that message can be for that child.

Kate: And for all of us. We all want to know that we're all going to do things sometimes that others are not going to be really excited about us doing. Just know that the people in your life are still there, that's your strongest. We have to be that rock for the kid. I'm here no matter what.

Emily: Really powerful. Kate, as I think about and digest everything that we've talked about, I'm coming to this realization, if you will, that relationships can be the secret power in a classroom. It can be the secret power to unlocking learning, to unlocking joy, to unlocking connection. As we look to wrap up today's conversation, if our listeners are also being like, yes, relationship is my secret power, what is the thing that you want them to remember or to take away as they look to unlock this superpower in their classroom?

Kate: I think what's most important is just the foundation that we know that this is what teachers are doing and what they're trying to do. Look at what's working already in your classroom and build on that. If you have strong relationships or things are going really well, look for that and see when do you feel really connected, when do kids seem really connected, and then just make sure that you are providing that for every child in your classroom.

I think really just taking a look, taking that inventory, seeing who's coming to you, who might you be correcting all the time that you need to just balance that out by connecting more. We're going to have to make corrections sometimes. Yes, but we want to make sure we're always balancing that with let's make sure that the relationship is still really strong. I can also be a source of comfort and positivity in this child's life. I think the most powerful thing is just to look through, prioritize relationships, think about what every kid needs from you, and then try to meet them where they are.

Emily: Kate, thank you so much for joining us today sharing your expertise, your advice, and your powerful stories. Where can our listeners learn more?

Kate: Great. To find out more around the STREAMin3 curriculum and what we're doing to support educators in Virginia, that's A resource that I'm really excited to share about is the ECE Resource Hub, and that's at What that is a collection of professional development resources across a whole host of skills, but there's a big old section in there around relationship building for children.

You're going to find classroom examples, you're going to find strategies, you're going to find podcasts, webinars, and PD guides for whether you're holding a session for a group, in coaching, or just your own reflection, but a whole bunch of tools and tricks in there. Also, a lot of those are developed out of the University of Virginia, but not all of them. Really, our team looks to find great high quality vetted resources that exist out there and just serve as a way to point an arrow to get folks to them.

Emily: Amazing. Thanks again, Kate, for sharing that wealth of information and resources with us. We'll be sure to link those resources in today's episode's show notes. You can find today's episode transcript as well as other episodes full of practical tips and tricks on our website,

Thank you, architects of the mind, for sharing your love and wisdom with the children of the world and for being here to add to your box of wonders.