“A Simple Way to Elevate a Struggling Child”


As I've written before, nothing you try as a teacher will work if you haven't established a good relationship with your students.

One major barrier to connecting with kids is something called the "one-up relationship."

What is the one-up relationship?

You may have observed in your own conversations and relationships that one person is often "one-up" on the other. The person who is "one-up" is the one predominantly in control. He or she may be an expert in a subject that you are just beginning to learn, or perhaps there are other factors that put one person one-up on the other.

I'll give you a common example: going to the auto mechanic. When your car makes a funny noise and you bring it into the auto mechanic, do you ever feel one-down" I know I do!

At first, I feel very much in control in describing the problem, but then as the mechanic begins theorizing what could be wrong with my car, and then calls me later with the final verdict, I'm usually left to just listen and hope the final repair total doesn't have a comma in it!

Struggling students almost always find themselves feeling "down" in their relationships with others, especially with adults who have control in their lives. It's natural for these kids to feel less important. It's easy to feel that what they want or think doesn't matter to the adult. As a result, they have little motivation to change and are less likely to establish a trusting relationship with that person.

When you as a teacher (or counselor, mentor, therapist, etc.) surrender the one-up relationship, you are showing that child that they have great worth. You show them that what they think is important. You share your authority with the child, which helps the child see that they are the authority on themselves.

This is extremely powerful. You're demonstrating that that you merely want to help them, but that ultimately they are in control of their own lives.

I don't know about you, but I can hardly think of a more important lesson than that. Remember, the goal here is not solely to teach but to tap into motivation. One of the best ways to do that is to build a trusting relationship by surrendering the "one-up."

So . . . How do you surrender the one-up relationship?

Here are five specific ways to surrender the one-up dynamic

 1. Send a Positive Note Home

A lot of kids never get a note sent home unless it's for doing something wrong. It's very powerful to send a note home that says, "Katie is doing really well. I'm happy to have her in my class. While she may be struggling with X, Y, or Z, I know she's going to be okay because she's bright, she's capable and she's a good friend to the students around her."

Some kids will keep a note like that the rest of their lives, all because YOU took the time to acknowledge their essential worth.

 2. "You Can Always Talk to Me, Even If You Fail"

Point out to your students that they have value and worth because of who they are and not because of their accomplishments and failures. Stress that if they don't reach their goals it is okay to come back. You will still believe in them and not give up. Tell them that what they do AFTER their success and failure is just as important as the accomplishment or failure itself.

 3. Who is the Real Expert?

Let your students be the expert on themselves. It's my belief that one reason many kids "tune out" is because they sometimes feel dismissed by us. This is quite understandable – after all, we were all kids once and it's easy to make assumptions, dispense advice and approach kids from "on high" because of our experience.

But when you think about it, everyone's ride through life is unique, and only that student has lived his or her exact life for the past 13 years (or however old they are.)

So let them know you recognize their expertise and that you need their help if change is going to happen. Emphasize that you work FOR them, that THEY are the boss, and that your job is to help them get the directions and resources to help make them happier. You could even tell them, "This may be the only time in your life that you have someone working for you with the goal of making life better for you, so take advantage of this!"

Yes, you are the teacher, and you are always the one in control of your class with complete authority, but when you project a sense of collaboration and respect for that student's individual path, you'll get better behavior and a better effort in return.

Let's take that a step further . . .

 4. Let Them Sit in Your Chair

This is a symbolic way to let the student know you respect their expertise on themselves. You could say, "I want you to sit in my chair because you are going to play the biggest role in solving your problem. You are the expert so you should sit in my chair. You could also ask, "If you were me, what advice would you give you?"

 5. Connect on a Topic

Work hard in finding any topic of joint interest. It can be something as simple as you both like TV, you both like a certain food, or you both like to sleep. The possibilities are almost endless. Do whatever it takes to find something in common, and then have them teach you about a topic they have a passion for that you don't understand very well. (Popular culture is usually a gold mine for this.)

The important thing is that your interest be sincere.  My program for teachers gives you an easy, ready-made way to find topics of interest in your students without having to "dig" for them. You'll find that in the chapter on "Interest Inventories."

Three More Ways to Surrender the One-Up Relationship

Because establishing a relationship with your students is probably the most important thing you can do as a teacher, I want to give you three more ways to do just that.

Here are three more ways to “surrender the one-up relationship”:

   1. Who am I, Why Should You Talk to Me?

It’s easier to open up when you’re talking to someone you feel you already know pretty well. So when a student knows a little bit about your life, or your perspective on things, it builds trust with that student, and he or she is more likely to let their guard down.

And when a student lets down his or her guard, then you’re halfway home in getting to the bottom of a problem and making significant improvements in behavior and achievement.

A great example of this is a teacher named Shawn who used the methods in my teacher training program to forge a bond with a student who loved skateboarding.  It turns out this teacher could execute the "ollie" maneuver with his own skateboard, and when the student heard about this his attitude toward the teacher and his class transformed almost immediately. 

Now, I realize not many teachers reading this will be able to pull off impressive skateboard stunts for their students!  That's just one example.  Here's another way you can do this . . .

If you are a counselor or someone who has just met this student, you could say to the student, “You know, Justin, you have only known me for a few minutes, and you may share some difficult things with me, so let me introduce myself a bit and you can ask me a few questions if you want.”

Remember to share things only that are appropriate and comfortable for you (for example, “I have six brothers and sisters, so I know what it’s like to deal with a big family.”)

Use humor whenever you can. Tell an embarrassing story about yourself. Or share any story about yourself from when you were their age. Share enough of your world so that they are comfortable letting you into theirs.

Make a real effort to smile often during the first few sessions, because this communicates acceptance. Also, look for ways to pay the student a sincere compliment, but make sure it’s something you genuinely feel and not mere flattery. (“Horatio, I really respect you coming to see me today when you really didn’t want to be here. This shows me you have a lot of strength.”)

    2. Why I Do What I Do

When talking privately to a student after he or she has done something wrong, let the student know that you sincerely want to understand why the extreme behavior occurred. What did they benefit or gain from acting out? It may take a little time to get a good answer, but if you’re patient and keep the student on a direct path to an honest response, you should get something to work with.

Once you understand why it may have occurred, let the student know you want them to have their needs met, but in ways that are more positive and longer lasting. Remember it is healing for a youth to express why they do something and have an adult understand why it happened, even if the adult doesn’t agree with the behavior. We all want to be heard and understood – this often helps prevent future behavior problems.

Important disclaimer! Listening to a student explain his reason for doing something wrong is not giving him “an out.” It is not letting him off the hook. You need to walk that important line between truly listening and validating the student’s reason as well as letting him know that doing something wrong is still wrong, no matter what the reason.

However, truly listening to the student’s explanation is a proven tool to give the student more clarity on his actions

   3. Take a Guess, Then Understand

In talking privately with a student, take a guess at how they are feeling and give them permission to correct you if you are wrong.

You’re feeling __________ because __________.

For example, let’s say one of your students acted badly in class soon after a reading assignment. You could say, “All right, Sara, let’s try and get to the bottom of this. I want to understand what’s going on so that we can address this. Let me take a guess at how you’re feeling and you can correct me if I’m wrong, okay?”

(Sara responds.)

“All right, so I’m going to say that you’re feeling upset because some of the other kids were laughing when you were trying to read . . . How am I doing so far?”

And then wait for Sara’s response. In this way, you can eventually get to the truth of Sara’s behavior, which will help explain it (not excuse it!), which then means you can go about showing Sara how to better deal with this situation next time.

Use these three additional ways to get closer to your students and watch your problems dissipate.

If you want even more ways to reach a child "on their level," then take a serious look at my teacher training program.  The reason there are so many eye-opening case studies on my teacher success stories page is because my methods for reaching a child at their level work better in the long run than anything else you can so.  You can take a look at that resource by clicking here.