Every day, whether in a real or virtual classroom, effective instructors create strong relationships with students. They help kids feel a feeling of belonging and purpose by fostering emotional relationships.

This isn't a simple job. It is, in fact, one of the most difficult yet crucial tasks that an educator can undertake. Relationships between and among children and adults are “a key mechanism through which biological and environmental variables affect and mutually reinforce each other,” according to the most recent developmental science study.

This means that when children experience positive relationships, they are not only creating the pathways for lifelong learning, adaptation, and integration of social, emotional, and cognitive skills, but also making qualitative changes to their genetic makeup. In other words, children’s brains change in response to their life experiences, relationships, and the environments they encounter from birth into adulthood.

Positive relationships also foster resilience, and reduce the impact that negative factors—such as adverse childhood experiences (ACE)—may have on children’s healthy development. Researchers from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University suggest that these positive experiences, along with support from adults and the development of adaptive skills, can counterbalance the lifelong consequences of adversity.

While an increasing number of schools are adopting social-emotional learning (SEL) programs and practices to create positive learning environments, many fail to incorporate cultural competence as an essential building block to foster these trusting relationships. However, educators still need to gain awareness of their own cultural identity, consider their biases, and how they use their power and privilege with students. Cultural competence also means that educators develop their ability to learn about and build on the varying cultural and community assets of students and their families.

The root of developing a culturally responsive classroom lies the belief that students’ diverse cultural practices and ethnic backgrounds are assets in the learning process, that should be celebrated and incorporated into academic content and pedagogy. “Culture is central to student learning,” writes education consultant Zaretta Hammond. “Cultural practices shape students’ thinking processes, which serve as tools for learning in and outside of school.” Therefore, students’ languages, cultures, and life experiences should be acknowledged as meaningful sources for learning and understanding.

1. Develop an awareness of your own racial and cultural identity

This entails identifying the historical roots of your identity, as well as beliefs, values, the way culture has influenced your life, and the things that motivate and matter to you. It also involves considering implicit biases, and the privileges and disadvantages afforded to you based on your race or ethnicity.

2. Learn about each student and incorporate this knowledge into classroom instruction

The quality of teacher-student relationships has been repeatedly linked with students’ academic, social, and emotional outcomes. These relationships can be established when educators take the time to know their students individually; learning about students’ historical roots, ethnic group, home language, religion, or immigration story can provide teachers with valuable information.

3. Promote an inclusive and equitable classroom that proactively works to counter bias

In order for classrooms to be inclusive and equitable, educators need to understand the larger sociopolitical context that shapes individual experiences. Many BIPOC, LGTBQ+, or neurodiverse students, and those coming from low-income backgrounds, experience insults and denigrating messages in and outside of school on a regular basis. When students have to face hostile environments, they use most of their cognitive and emotional skills for dealing with these challenges rather than for learning.