Here’s What The Science Says About Building Trust With New Students

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Our students’ trust is something we treasure when held, and when absent, can lead to a unique kind of suffering.

There are no tricks to earning trust. Nor are there any quick-fix solutions that will endear students to us, their brand-new teachers, in a matter of moments.

But by understanding that the daily reality of trust in the classroom — the sharing of stories, feelings of safety, gestures of dependability — are the result of neurons firing and chemicals releasing behind the eyes and under the skin of our students — we can take care to highlight and refine those gestures, habits, words and actions that form the building blocks of trust.

What is trust?

Here’s a useful definition we found:

Trust can be defined as the willingness or intention to make oneself vulnerable to the actions of others even with limited ability to influence these actions – and seen as a significant coordination mechanism in social cooperation and leadership

More simply put, trust is a matter of safety. Are you someone that students can be vulnerable with? Will your guidance or direction be harmful or beneficial?

From your new students’ perspective, they’re absolutely right to not trust you immediately. You’re a brand-new person. You’re bigger than them. They don’t know what to expect from you.

But from this first impression we can start the long journey to trust; and if you want your class to succeed, it’s vital that you do.

What are the benefits of trust?

We’ve all seen what happens when trust breaks down. There are refusals to cooperate, heightened sensitivities, tantrums (and that’s just from adults).

The main benefits of trust are:

  • Stimulated productivity (students will work harder for you)
  • Engagement in critical situations (students will react for you in important situations)
  • Increased altruism and extra-role behaviour (students will display more positive behaviour and take on more responsibility)

Over the course of the year, these benefits can pay huge dividends with their results, their wellbeing and, most importantly, in shaping them to be better people.

To gain these benefits, it’s important to nurture and encourage trust building, and to do that, you have to understand the chemistry underneath it all.

What are the chemicals of trust?

You might have heard of it before – oxytocin – or the happiness or reward chemical.

To determine this, researchers carried out an experiment in the form of a game:

There are 2 players who have no face-to-face contact, but they’re both aware of the rules of the game.

Player 1 gets $10. They can choose to give some, all, or none of the money to Player 2.

If the money is sent, it is tripled as it is sent to Player 2.

Player 2 can then choose to send as much as they want (including nothing) back to Player 1.

To see what extent oxytocin played, some participants were given a nasal spray of oxytocin, while others were given a placebo.

Here’s what they found:

  • The subjects who took oxytocin sent 17% more money.
  • Twice as many subjects who received oxytocin sent all their money.
  • Those with the highest oxytocin levels who received money returned most of it back.
  • Where people were shown greater trust, their brain released more oxytocin.

Further, when they removed the human element and made monetary transfers random, there was no similar reaction in oxytocin levels — basically, this can only be triggered by other people.

So only one question remains: how can we use this information practically with our students?

Download fun icebreaker activities

The four elements of trust building

Again, there are no quick solutions or shortcuts; only habits, actions and behaviours you can exhibit that will inspire the release of oxytocin and therefore the building blocks of trust.

Essentially, there are four main elements that help foster trust: Benevolence, Integrity, Competence and Predictability.

Benevolence

‘Are you a kind teacher?’

When interacting and managing your class, your students will be on the lookout for any signs you might be mean-spirited or badly tempered, as well as if you are kind, gentle and forgiving.

This can start simply by smiling and can get more challenging and harder as your students misbehave or your energy depletes (we’re only human after all!).

Some other simple ways to show you’re genuine and kind are:

  • Get to know your students and the lives they live. Take a genuine interest in each student, find out about a like or interest that you can talk to them about. For example, if a student is a keen horse rider, ask them about how they’re getting on and whether they have any competitions coming up.
  • Actively listen to students. A teacher who actively listens to students is listening for the meaning behind what students are saying, then checks in with them to make sure they’ve understood properly. This affirms students’ dignity and helps develop a trusting relationship between teachers and students.
  • Ask students for feedback. Choose any topic and have the students write down, in a couple of sentences, what confuses or concerns them most about the topic. By considering their feedback, you are showing students that you value their opinions and experiences. It also creates a classroom culture where students feel safe to ask questions and take chances, which will help them grow academically.
  • Show them you’re human as well. Sensitively share information about yourself. If you have a pet cat or love a certain type of music, share this information as it projects you as a human and not just as a teacher.

Integrity

‘Are you a fair teacher?’

This is about how you practise your ethics; how you reward positive behaviours and mitigate negative ones.

While each of us rewards and mitigates in different ways, it’s important that our reactions are proportional — students, especially young students — can be sensitive to whether something is fair.

Ways to show your integrity include:

  • Students expect a teacher to treat everyone in the class equally. Very few teachers intentionally favour certain students, but it’s probably impossible not to like some students more than others. Differences in liking may foster differences in interactions, such as allowing certain students to dominate discussions. Even subtle differences in how students are treated may lead students to perceive partiality where none exists. To avoid those perceptions, carefully monitor your behaviour and interactions with all students.
  • Everyone has the same rules. Exceptions may be made for unusual circumstances, but positive social interaction is pretty much the same for everyone.
  • Random selection. When selecting students to either participate in question and answer or to help out in the classroom, always do it by random draw, and keep track of who you have called upon. Help a struggling student individually.
  • Collaborate with students on projects and let them help to make classroom decisions.

Competence

‘Can you do what you’re supposed to be able to do?’

We have expectations of everyone; a bus driver should have a driving permit, a dog should be able to bark, and a teacher should be able to teach (and perform a lot of other stuff they didn’t prepare us for when studying).

Seeing you confident, in control and being able to draw on knowledge shows your students that you’re competent. This is especially important when we don’t have the answers or the experience to deal with situations that arise (again, only human).

To show competence when you don’t feel it, you can:

  • Be well organised. Create well-developed lesson plans, an organised classroom and clear expectations for all students. Be prepared every day. Make sure that all of your materials are gathered ahead of time.
  • Good subject knowledge. On the whole, teachers have a good general knowledge that encompasses a wealth of subject matter. But we are only human and there will be times where you are less confident with a topic or subject. Take advice from colleagues or do some background reading to cover your own misconceptions. This will take any anxiety away from teaching the topic and will provide a more confident learning experience.

Predictability

‘Do you act with consistency?’

Predictability might be death for comedians, but for teachers, it’s a core part of trust.

Your students want a reasonable understanding of what to expect from you. Let’s go back to integrity as an example: if a certain misbehaviour is worth a stern glance on one day, it should be for the next day.

If you decide to raise your voice or keep the class back during lunch, then your students won’t be able to develop a safe framework to learn in.

To keep yourself consistent, you can:

  • Routines and timetables. Create structured routines and timetables from the start, sharing these with your students so they are aware of them. Where possible, stick to the timetables and routines you create, not only will this help with organisation but will allow the students to know what to expect. On the off chance these routines need to change, explain the changes to students with as much notice as possible, so not to cause too much disruption.
  • Be predictable. Whether it’s the way you gain your class’s attention or the order in which a lesson is taught, maintain this throughout. Students will become accustomed to the procedures for different things and will seek comfort in your predictable behaviours.
  • Preparation for change. If a change in routine, the end of term or even the end of school year is on the horizon, prepare your students for this. The more time they have to get used to the thought of a change, the less anxiety it will cause when the change actually occurs.

Need help developing trust with students?

We’ve got you covered. Check out the Secret sauce to developing positive student teacher relationships or download your pick of our teacher favourite classroom resources:

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Download printable activities, worksheets, engagement resources and more

Explore resources

Sources

Trust After Just 45 Seconds? An Experimental Vignette Study of How Leader Behavior and Emotional States Influence Immediate Trust in Strangers – Frontiers.org

The Neurobiology of Trust – Brain Science

Friend or Foe? A Psychological Perspective on Trust – Kellog.northwestern.edu

Trust in the brain – EMBO Reports

Psychological Foundations of Trust – Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16(5), 264–268

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