WITS Talks: Building Positive Relationships with Students presented by Michele Lansing, MA, MS Ed., LCSW

By Eric Coleman Development & Communications Manager

On November 9, 2018, Michele Lansing, MA, MS Ed., LCSW of the Juvenile Protective Association (JPA) presented the first WITS Talk of the 2018-19 school year on building positive relationships with students.  Michele provides insights on working with students that are especially relevant to new or returning mentors working with new students. Read on for an interview with Michele and view the accompanying slideshow for the above video.

Describe your professional background and your current role at JPA.

I used to be a teacher. I taught in Brooklyn, New York and what I found was that my students were fantastic and strong. They were so inspirational and yet they came in with both hands tied behind their back because of what was going on in their lives. I believe that education is the way for a person to broaden their options and change their own fate. If you walk into school with hands tied behind your back you can’t do that. I went back to grad school to figure out how I might be a better support to kids to help them untie their own hands. I went for my Master’s in Social Work here in Chicago, and then did some work with survivors of sexual assault at the YWCA, worked at Heartland Alliance, and now am here at Juvenile Protective Association.

My official title right now is Director of Professional Development & Training. In short, I support individuals and groups who support kids through professional development, training, and consultation work.

Why is it important to build a positive relationship with students?

I always tell people to think of someone who really made a difference in their life, like a favorite teacher. When you close your eyes and picture that teacher, my guess is that you’re not remembering that they used Pearson reading materials or a special math textbook that you loved. The connection is made instead with the person and the relationship you had with them. Especially when looking at education and the school environment, its really important to understand that the best learning happens for students in relationships. The research supports this and shows that having strong relationships with educators: teachers, mentors, or other positive adult role models, is among the strongest protective predictors in a student’s life.

What does a positive student and mentor relationship look like?

In my experience, developing positive relationships with students is centered around attunement, which relates to being a good listener and good at guessing. The research supports this idea of being able to tune in to how a child is feeling and then giving them space for those feelings. When you think back on that teacher that you really cared about, chances are they were someone who heard you, saw you, and gave you space to be you. Those behaviors are key contributors to developing positive relationships.

Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, wrote in her book Lean In that “talking can transform minds, which can transform behaviors, which can transform institutions.” As a therapist, I am a believer in the importance of talking and listening to each other. The idea of really listening to a student seems so simple, but can be challenging to implement in practice. It is important for us to be intentional and engaged listeners as we build relationships with our students.

What are a few key steps WITS mentors can take to develop and support positive relationships with their students?

My colleague has a saying that we, at JPA, have all adopted, it goes, “feeling first, solutions second.” In every conversation mentors should try to lead with, and listen to, feelings first. When students share things, it is important to resist the urge give advice in that moment or tell them some piece of information that we feel is important. If mentors can slow all of that down and instead start with the feelings, whether identified by the student or heard in their story, they will be much more likely to find an entry point for connection and begin building a positive relationship. For example if you’re telling me about your job and I say “ wow, it sounds like it is really satisfying to you,” we will be more likely to connect than if I were to say, “well have you tried doing this or that?”

Instead of making these conversations about what you have in mind, try to make it about the feelings of the person who you are listening to. While we are talking with this skill as it applies to students, it is just as applicable to adults in your life.