Strategies To Build Trust And Classroom Community

Trust is the foundation of strong relationships and creating a classroom community where students can learn — a safe space where all students can thrive. But how can we generate trust amongst our students, teachers, and the school community? This post explores five research-based “trust generators” to support the development of your classroom community.

I’m heading back into the classroom this week, and the last few weeks of learning, planning, and dreaming are finally actualizing. In just a handful of days, I’ll have a new class of seventh graders in front of me and roughly 180 school days ahead of me.

My colleagues, school leaders, and even all of the random teacher-group posts I see on Facebook are all talking about lesson plans and content and curriculum. And of course, perhaps they already have their “beginning of the year” stuff planned, perfected, and ready to go. But I wonder… 

In my teacher prep program, I wasn’t taught how to “manage a classroom” beyond clip charts and ticket rewards. (And while clip charts are a big HELL NO for me, I won’t fault anyone for a bit of ticket rewards fun. Everyone likes to be recognized and appreciated at times, right?) Anyway, I didn’t learn much about building relationships or cultivating community. And all of my limited learning stemmed from experience (see here). Discipline systems were designed to be punitive, and when I look back on it, compliance was always the goal.

That doesn’t sit with me so well anymore.

I don’t think it sits well with students today either.

And while that has made it a struggle for a lot of educators who are used to simply commanding respect, I’m kind of excited to see what a generation of individuals who can recognize and communicate their needs, see their self-worth, think critically and for themselves, collaborate to solve problems, and creatively dream a new, more sustainable and more equitable future can accomplish. 

Of course, our students need more than a touch of defiance or wariness of authority to accomplish those things, so “managing a classroom” so that our students can learn is still pretty important.

But I’d argue, it’s going to look a lot different than the classrooms I experienced myself or was taught to lead. 

Classroom Community: Moving Beyond “Classroom Management”

“Classroom management” is not a term I love. Erin Sadler & I shared our thoughts about that on the Teaching Science In 3D Podcast recently. We realized we preferred terms like “creating classroom culture” or “community.” But since most discussions of behavior and creating an environment conducive to learning describe this task as “classroom management”, I’m rolling with that.

One of the foundation pieces of a truly effective approach to classroom “management” is the development of a community — a caring community where all members can thrive (both teacher and student). While community alone won’t fix all of the problems that arise in classrooms, it can mitigate a lot of the minor “misbehaviors,” “infractions,” or conflicts that occur. And from a brain science perspective, it’s vital to creating an environment where students can engage in higher-order thinking and truly learn — especially students who have experienced trauma (which, just considering the collective trauma of living through a pandemic, is pretty much everyone on your roster).

So How Do You Build Your Classroom Community?

Community is built on relationships, and relationships are built on trust. So the real question is, how can we build trust amongst students, teachers, administrators, and anyone else in the building?

In Dare To Lead, Brené Brown shares a story about a moment when her daughter’s trust was betrayed by her friends. She told them something privately, and by the time recess was over, the entire class knew and was laughing at her. She was heartbroken and vowed never to trust anyone again.

Like any parent, Brené contemplated getting those girls’ names. 😂 But instead, she introduced an analogy I really love — “Trust is like a marble jar.” 

Trust is a marble jar that is filled up, marble by tiny marble. Over time, trust accumulates. 

Brené Brown and her daughter then talked about ways her friends earned marbles for her — everything from sharing a seat at the lunch table to walking her to get a bandaid to remembering her grandma’s name.

Alone, these acts are small. But together, marble by marble, they fill the jar.

This is what relationship-building looks like in the classroom

It isn’t just a “get to know you game” on the first day of school. It isn’t a student survey that you look at once and trash with your junk files at the end of the year. 

It’s marble jar moments where you show your students you care and marble jar moments where your students show each other they care.

That’s how trust is built. That’s how relationships are built. That’s how we establish a caring community where our students can thrive.

Marble Jar Moments For Creating A Caring Culture

So how can we fill the marble jars in our classroom? How can we build relationships one little bit at a time?

There’s actually a lot of research out there on how trust is built or generated. [Check out Zaretta Hammond’s Culturally Responsive Teaching & The Brain!] And while it all comes down to simply caring, there are ways we can effectively show we care for our students, colleagues, and community. 


We all want to be recognized as the unique individuals we are. We want to be seen and valued. Affirming our students is one way we can build trust. In the classroom, this looks like learning and using students’ names (and pronouncing them correctly). This means appreciating what they bring to the table — their backgrounds, ideas, class contributions — and validating their experiences, thoughts, questions, and ideas. Affirming can also look like listening just to listen — not listening to respond, to conclude, or to judge. Just listening to listen. (Sometimes, we just need to be heard.)

Getting Vulnerable

Trust is built through vulnerability. As adults, relationships are often deepened (from the perspective of both parties) when we ask for help. Many adults avoid doing this — worrying we will come across as a burden or hassle for another — but in reality, vulnerability strengthens relationships.

Now obviously, this plays out differently in the classroom. It is not your students’ job to care for you and your emotions. But we can be selectively vulnerable, sharing experiences our students can relate to when the moment is relevant — whether it’s how you failed your physics test to how it felt when your first pet died. Talking about things that make you nervous, sharing times you have had to ask for help, discussing mistakes you have made — your students can see you as a real person with whom they can relate.

Again, we should be careful what we share with students. Young people should never become our sounding-boards, our emotional dumping grounds, the people we “let off steam to,” and so on. They are not responsible for our emotions.

But at the same time, students can appreciate learning about how we have worked through challenges or have struggled with emotions they can relate to. They can even learn from how we choose to manage our feelings in the moment, if we are willing to share the strategies we are employing. (One of my favorite lines I don’t use enough at home is, “I’m feeling frustrated. It’s not your fault. I need to take a break from this conversation.”)

Dabbling in the personal and telling our stories is a great way to build trust with our students as it humanizes us to them.

Showing Up For Your Classroom Community

Building trust requires contact and familiarity. It means our students need to see us. Obviously, they see us each day in class — but where else might we see them? Can we make phone calls or send emails? Can we show up to community events? Can we share a lunch break? Attend a basketball game? 

Even when we can’t physically be there, showing up can be a verbal — “How did your game go?” 

Which brings me to…

Shared Interests And Experiences

My three year old is really into Transformers and Rescue Bots currently, but in the morning, we always put on PBS Kids. Wild Kratts was the choice of the day, and he watched the guys turn into a robot elephant in the episode. He immediately started talking about how the Wild Kratts are basically animal transformers, and now it’s his new favorite PBS Kids show. (Sorry, Super Why!)

It’s amazing how similarities and connections can immediately foster warm feelings and new preferences. Obviously, this little anecdote was about a TV show, but it really works for building relationships too (and even our content, but that’s a post for another day!). Bonds are built by connecting over shared likes, dislikes, hobbies, interests, and so on.

So what might this look like in the classroom? Create opportunities for students to share what they’re into and discover what you enjoy. Find the commonalities!

  • This could be a monthly show-and-tell day — seriously, no one is ever too old for that. 
  • You could incorporate a morning meeting, using routines like check-in circles, class dedications, mindfulness practices, and reflections. These meetings can focus on your students’ lives outside the classroom — non-academic content.
  • You could ask students to share their favorite song or artist and then create a class playlist for independent working times.
  • You could challenge students to investigate you by examining the clues you’ve scattered around your classroom and through your decor! (Check out how you can use this for C-E-R learning here!)
  • Play This-Or-That to break up a monotonous task and get kids moving, and make sure to play along yourself!
  • Finally, you can give students choice — creating space for them to incorporate their interests, hobbies, and values into your curriculum and/or into how they demonstrate their learning. Our education system can stand to be a little less (or a LOT LESS) one-size-fits-all. Consider giving students the opportunity to be uniquely themselves in their learning. 

Centering Joy In Your Classroom Community

And of course, with that in mind, we can fill our marble jars through simple positive interactions. We can make space for play — from brain breaks to mini dance parties to game days and knock-knock jokes. Laughing and playing with our students can create shared experiences where everyones vibing on the same feel-good brain-chemicals. Release some endorphins and just have some fun with your students.

You’ll be amazed what it does for your classroom relationships!

Trust Comes Before Learning

As I head back into my classroom this week, creating a caring classroom community is my top priority. Curriculum and content will come in time — and my students will be ready for it when it does — but first and foremost, we will focus on building our relationships and establishing our culture. 

From my own experience, from all of the research I’ve done, I know this time is not wasted, and it will pay off in the long run — even from a “cover the curriculum” standpoint. But more importantly, it’s serving my students by making my classroom a safe space they can come “home” to no matter what else is going on in the school. 

(And I’m sure I’ll make mistakes and occasionally eff-up in some way or another, because we’re all human and learning, and then we’ll work on repair — which is a great concept I wish I had learned about earlier in my parenting journey!)

If you’ve found this article helpful, I’d love for you to share with a friend, colleague, or even administrator. And of course, let’s stay in touch! I’d love to continue sharing thoughts, ideas, inspiration, and resources right to your inbox! Sign up for my newsletter here.