Relational practice: Behaviour and culture

Written by: Dr Pooky Knightsmith | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

When we put relationships at the heart of all we do in schools then everyone benefits – vulnerable children, their peers, and the adults working with them. Dr Pooky Knightsmith looks at how

Developing a culture where relationships sit at the heart of everything can make a fundamental difference to children’s ability to thrive in school.

The biggest gains will be made with those children who do not have a wealth of trusting relationships outside of school or for whom the day-to-day presents a challenge – but ultimately everyone will benefit from this approach, children and adults.

There are small steps that we can take straight away that will make a difference. Of course, the impact will be felt the most when these strategies are used consistently by all staff, but even a small shift in the right direction will yield results. Here are some simple ideas to try.

See the child

Especially when working with children who have special or additional needs of any kind, we sometimes see their issues, problems or labels rather than seeing them. Remembering that children are first and foremost little people with their own passions, strengths and interests can help us to better relate to them. Consider:

  • What makes them tick, not what makes them tick boxes.
  • Look for their strengths and try to reframe challenges through a more positive lens.
  • Consider how to make them feel seen and heard and like they matter to someone.

Top tip: When holding a meeting about a child, have a photograph of them on the table/screen and start the meeting by briefly talking about their strengths and passions.

Be a safe adult

In order for us to build positive relationships with children, they need to see us as “safe adults” – someone they can rely on, who they know what they can expect from, and who will ensure that their physical and emotional needs are met. Some children readily form positive relationships with adults as they have a bank of positive, transferable skills and experiences. For other children this bank may need building. Remember:

  • Children need calm, consistent adults.
  • Children access their thinking, speaking brains only when they feel safe.
  • Consciously check-in on your breathing and body language – try to convey calm.
  • Use slow-low-low speech to help children feel safe: slow pace, low volume, low pitch.

Top tip: If working with a child who needs frequent reassurance, develop some go-to phrases that you can use for reassurance. Hearing the same phrases at times of distress can be very soothing to a scared child.

Be consistent

Safe adults are consistent – this consistency is something children seek. Knowing what to expect from adults and what adults expect of them makes every situation feel more possible to engage with. When children are uncertain what to expect, a constant nagging worry or curiosity about what might happen next, whether they are doing the right thing or if they might get in trouble, can make it very hard for them to engage more deeply. For example, a child who does not know what to expect in the playground or classroom will less readily engage with learning or play. Remember:

  • Children need to know what to expect from us...
  • ...and what we expect from them.
  • Rules: If you need to be flexible, do it predictably.

Top tip: When looking to develop a consistent approach with a child, start with the 3Cs: convey calm, be consistent in your approach and focus on clear communication.


Relationships are all about connection with one another. This can be the big deep connection that comes through being, doing and talking together or can come from many micro-interactions – a child who feels alone will feel infinitely less so if a trusted adult notices them with a nod or a smile. For children who are struggling, building trust and connection through many micro-interactions and repeated exposure is often easier and more effective initially than trying to build the relationship through long, deep interactions. You could try:

  • Consciously connecting as you move around school – a nod and a smile can make a difference to a child who feels alone.
  • Inviting children to invite you into their world by asking them about their interests.
  • Developing fragile relationships through repeated short exposures and micro-interactions rather than trying to go too deep too soon.

Top tip: Use open questions and a genuine curiosity to build bridges with a child by finding out more about a passion, interest or hobby of theirs.

Enable belonging and pride

We all love to feel part of something – and thinking about how relationships and a sense of belonging run through our entire organisation can make a real difference here. Belonging is about more than just wearing a uniform; it is about feeling a sense of togetherness, shared aspirations and communal joy and pride. You could try:

  • We all need to feel we belong. Use common goals to help foster this feeling.
  • Look for what unites your community, not what divides it.
  • Create “I Can Cycles” using mini-goals and celebrating small wins.

Top tip: Observe the outskirts, notice those who don’t seem to have such a strong sense of belonging and warmly invite those “outsiders” in while noticing what barriers have kept them outside and may need overcoming.

Being vulnerable

Children need human not heroic role-models and will best identify with those adults who model how to manage the challenges of day-to-day life rather than assuming a perfect persona which may feel unobtainable. We can model relationships with others and ourselves and in doing so more humanly, strengthen our relationships with the children and adults around us.

  • Role-model mistakes, problem-solving, self-care and positive self-talk.
  • When things go less well, role-model apologies, curiosity and how to repair ruptures.
  • Consider how much of yourself to bring to work, is the balance right?

Top tip: Children learn a lot from imperfect adults but sometimes they just need someone calm and in control. Consider which adult this child needs you to be in this moment. 

  • Dr Pooky Knightsmith is a passionate ambassador for mental health, wellbeing and PSHE. Her work is backed up both by a PhD in child and adolescent mental health and her own lived experience of PTSD, anorexia, self-harm, anxiety and depression. You can contact Pooky via or follow her on Twitter @PookyH. For her previous articles in Headteacher Update, visit

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