Enhancing Our Connection With Students

As a Houseparent, how important is connecting (our relationship) with our kids? Does what a student think about us make a difference or can we do our job if they “hate” you? And how well are we at connecting with our kids? I think that sometimes we focus more on the “house” part of houseparenting instead of the “parenting” aspect. Connecting with a student is critical if we want to do our jobs well. It’s a simple concept, but it’s not easy and takes a lot of work. Let’s look at why it’s so important and go over some powerful ways to quickly connect with students.

I remember when we first began houseparenting at MHS, I heard about the importance of connection from relationship expert and author Danny Silk. It sounded good back then, but now after 8 years I can say with certainty that he was absolutely right: Connecting with each child’s heart is the most important thing in those relationships and as your role as their houseparent. While the structure and expectations are vital for the student home, the relationship is essential for the student. You can’t lead a student home without structure, the same way you can’t lead a student without connection. Both are needed in our roles as houseparents. But when it comes down to it, we are here to take care of and influence students (not houses).

Relationships are about connecting with other people. Good relationships have strong connections; bad ones have weak (if any) connection. The amount of influence you have in someone’s life is directly proportional to the strength of your relational connection. The stronger your connection, the more you are able to guide, direct, challenge, and speak into someone’s life.

Everything we do as MHS houseparents, from teaching social skills and character, to changing negative behavior, to getting them to complete their chores and homework, comes down to influencing students. So, while we could have the best information and truly have a heart in helping students grow, if we don’t have a connection with them we may be wasting a lot of our time and energy. That means we must make connecting to a student’s heart the most important thing we do with them.

Some people are natural at connecting with kids. They just seem to know what to do and can easily build relationships with students. It. Others may need to put more effort into it. Connecting with students is an attitude and a skill that can be learned and developed. We go through training here at MHS and learn a lot of valuable and helpful information in being a houseparent and running a student home. But sometimes it seems we assume everyone knows how to connect with students.

Another difficult factor when we arrive at MHS is most (if not all) houseparents start as flex. We are in a home just a few days before moving on. I remember emailing Danny Silk asking him if there was a way around connecting because of the lack time and he said, “No, you have to connect somehow to be effective and make a difference.”

So, after a lot of thought and years of experience, I’ve learned some secrets that speed up the time it takes to initiate a solid connection. Some have to do with how you present yourself and some are ways you can intentionally connect with students. This is not a comprehensive list of how to connect with kids (I am working on that), but ways you can speed up connecting with students when you only have a limited amount of time.

Being: Presenting Yourself ~ We make a decision if we initially like someone or not in the first 10 seconds of meeting them. Often this is unconscious and we are unable to verbalize why we feel one way or another. This is just how it is. How you present yourself when you meet a student for the first time sets the tone or trajectory for your relationship with that student for good or bad, positive or negative. It is adjustable, but that takes a lot more time and interaction we don’t have in a flex role. We want them to see us at our best when it comes to our attitude and the feelings/energy we give off. Here are some things to think about before even opening our mouths:

  • Be real and authentic ~ Kids see through masks and don’t trust adults who are attempting to be someone they are not. It’s not about being cool or like them, it’s about being true to yourself. It earns their respect when they see you are comfortable and confident with who you are.
  • It’s not about if they like you…it’s about if you like them ~ If you have a heart for kids and honestly care about them, they can feel it. Feelings are contagious and when you warm up and smile at an individual, they are more likely to return that feeling and want to connect with you. An attitude of unconditional love is a powerful force that will draw them into wanting a relationship with you.
  • Give off a calm, assertive energy ~ While Cesar Milan, the Dog Whisperer, is known for giving advice for working with dog owners, some of his ideas work well in general life. He says, “To establish yourself as the pack leader, you must project calm, assertive energy.” This very powerful way to present yourself causes students to feel safe and willing to follow your lead. It’s presenting yourself with caring confidence by your non-verbals, tone of voice, and energy when interacting with them.

Doing: Interacting with Them ~ There are some things you can do that cause students to trust you and feel like you really do care about them. As sayings go, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” and “Relationships are built at the speed of trust.” Deep relationships usually take a lot of time, but here are some suggestions that guarantee speeding up connections:

  • Play the right music in the van ~ Often, the initial interaction you will have with students is in the van picking them up from school. One of the most powerful connecting tools I used was having the right music to play in the van. If you have some positive rap, hip-hop, or dance music that kids like, it builds an instant bridge with them. They think to themselves, “WOW, either this adult likes what I like or has taken the time to learn what I like and is willing to listen to it. They must be pretty cool.” Always have either a few CDs or a playlist on your phone to put on for that initial 10-minute van introduction. Just be sure it’s their style. You’ll be amazed what happens.
  • Ask questions about them ~ When someone asks you what you think or what you like, it’s about you. When houseparent honestly want to know about a student, that student feels valued and important. Wanting to know them as a unique individual is a huge part in connecting. We don’t have to know about them to do the basics of our job as houseparents, but when we do, they know it’s not about the job; it’s about them. Learning about their favorites, what they like to do, their families and friends, how they are doing in school, what they like/dislike about being at MHS, and if you can get them to talk about their struggles and areas they need help with, you have a powerful way to connect by possibly helping them meet a need.
  • Ask for advice ~ I would do this often with homes we flexed in or when we had a new group of students coming to our student home. It’s not necessarily about learning new things, which does happen more than you would think, it’s also about them having influence your life in some little way. When you treat them with respect and want to know what they think (about how houseparents can do a better job or whatever), they feel like they are making a valuable contribution in your life. Here are some questions that work well:
    – As a houseparent, what are the most important things I need to know?
    – What do I need to do to earn a student’s trust?
    – What should I watch for in students who want to pull one over on me?
    – What is the best way for me to connect with you?
    – What advice would you have for me as a houseparent?
    – If you could change one rule here, what would you change and why?
  • Listen for information to understand ~ Being heard is foundational for being known and understood. Regardless of the situation and honesty (or lack thereof) taking place, it’s critical that you listen respectfully. I know kids lie and that needs dealt with accordingly, but a quick destroyer of connection is assuming what happened and giving a consequence either without hearing them or, even worse, if they didn’t do what they are being consequenced for. Becoming good at this takes skill gained through experience, so I would just say be sure and gather as much information you can before making a humble decision. Also, if those who are involved feel heard by you, you have a better chance of them listening.
  • Give unconditional love and respect ~ The only person you can control is yourself (on a good day). That’s why our commitment to love and respect everyone must be unconditional. Regardless how a student treats me, I will always respond in a way that communicates honor and value for both them and myself. When you model the behavior you expect, it gives them an example and target and they feel out of place if their behavior is not getting the response they were hoping for. Power struggles are a losing battle for those in authority. It’s about creating an environment of respect and inviting them to join you.
  • Make them laugh ~ Humor breaks down invisible walls and builds friendships faster than serious conversation alone. It’s an invitation to focus on the positive and when you get someone’s face looking happy, he or she begins feeling the same way. It’s very difficult to dislike someone who can make you laugh.

Develop your own authentic style and use it when the appropriate situations arise. Life should be as fun as possible. Oh, and make sure that you’re truly funny because you want them laughing with you, not at you.
So, these good starting points will make a big difference in how students relate with you. Connections are harder to build than they are to destroy. When issues and conflicts arise (which they will) ~ prioritize the connection! Be intentional in how you interact with and respond. Don’t neglect or overlook the issue, but deal with the conflict in a way that strengthens your connection. Always communicate that you care about them and will do what’s best for them even if they don’t fully understand or agree in the moment. Show empathy when they make a poor choice. Come alongside them as they learn from their many mistakes and begin the process of making better choices in the future. Celebrate their successes and earn their trust as their mentor for the limited time you have with them whether it’s a few hours or a few years. It’s their relationship with you that they will treasure and make a difference in their lives. Make connecting with each student a priority in all you do.

{Photo via Visualhunt.com}

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