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When we approach setting high expectations as a positive and nurturing experience, we can integrate these two strategies to support students more effectively in meeting their goals

Balancing high expectations with relationship building to boost engagement

When we approach setting high expectations as a positive and nurturing experience, we can integrate these two strategies to support students

Teachers are constantly challenged with improving student engagement, something they know directly impacts student learning outcomes. A USC Rossier School of Education Center EDGE survey this year queried 1,400 teachers about the engagement strategies they use most often in their classrooms and those they think will hold most value next year. For 2022, the most common response was building relationships with students. In 2023, educators anticipate establishing high expectations for students. 

The prioritization of these two practices alongside each other begs the question of how teachers can balance these two strategies — one of which relies on kindness and compassion, and the other which lends itself to more serious goal-setting and intense conversations. The key is approaching high expectations as an integral part of building strong relationships.

Raising the bar for learners 

When we approach setting high expectations as a positive and nurturing experience, we can integrate these two strategies to support students more effectively in meeting their goals. Showing your students that you see them — that you understand their areas of growth, you care about their goals, and you know they can achieve them — builds trust and demonstrates your commitment to helping them progress.

Setting high expectations is often (and should be) an individualized process. The conversation when setting student goals is a powerful opportunity to convey how much you care. You can demonstrate your investment in them by asking them about their personal goals. 

Compelling prompts can help students think about their goals and demonstrate that you care about them as students in your class and as human beings. For younger students, this could look like even introducing the concept of goal setting, and asking them what kind of book they’d hope to be able to read by the end of the year. For older students, that may look more expansive, with prompts including: 

  • What change do you want to see in your community? How would you like to be a part of creating that change? 
  • How do you envision your life at 25? What about when you’re 40? 
  • What impact do you want to have on your family, friends, and community?

These types of prompts allow you to connect with your students meaningfully. Once they have a clear vision for their future selves (whether that be long-term life goals, or reading levels they hope to reach by the next assessment), you can help them identify what it will take to achieve these goals, like collaboratively backward-mapping the steps required to reach them. You can start at a high-level: What type of experiences and education will they need? What courses will they need to take? From there, you can start asking: what skills and knowledge will they need to master in your class in order to be set up for success at the next stage. Finally, you can ask them to set in-class goals for their performance to put them on a path to realizing their long-term aspirations. 

By collaboratively setting goals aligned to their dreams, you will contextualize the importance of the high expectations while reinforcing your investment in them — not only as a student but as a human.

Integrating high expectations day to day

With a keen understanding of a student’s long-term aspirations, you are well-positioned to consistently remind them of the in-class success targets necessary to achieve their goals. This might look like reviewing their current NWEA results and discussing any areas they need to develop to be proficient, or sharing a student exemplar of what the final product on a project can, and should, look like. 

On other occasions, high expectations might be behavioral. It might mean reminding a student that paying attention in class is integral to understanding the material and that mastering this material will help them realize their long-term goals. The more you can connect these discussions that transpire during the school day to their personal aspirations, the more expectations can reinforce a strong student-teacher relationship.

Establishing a culture of compassion 

With the massive toll on student mental health as a result of the stress that came with COVID-19, it’s not a surprise that teachers reported their most-used engagement practice in 2022 was demonstrating their caring, relationships, and support for students. Over 96 percent of teachers reported using this engagement strategy daily. In a post-pandemic world, we need positive classroom environments. Students need to feel supported, nurtured, and cared for to feel engaged and successfully learn . 

While setting high expectations and building caring relationships with students are interconnected, it doesn’t always feel that way for students in the moment. Educators need to invite students into the goal-setting process and ground their high expectations in this context. 

Looking ahead

The implementation of these two strategies is complementary. Building relationships with students on a foundation of trust is natural and appropriate before you can ask more of them. In learning more about what matters to them, you can better contextualize the purpose of your high expectations.

As we move into 2023, we’re excited to continue connecting with educators to understand if their predictions of reinforcing high expectations as the primary engagement strategy serve them well and how it propels student achievement. Establishing strong relationships with your students is the foundation that enables students to engage in learning, and, ultimately, drive outcomes. 

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