Topic 4: Building positive relationships

Print Topic Colourful Aboriginal artwork with interconnected circles and dots

This topic aims to strengthen your understanding of the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and apply this knowledge to build relationships and better address the learning needs of Indigenous students in urban, rural and remote communities.

Get StartedExplore the concepts, activities and assessment tasks below or use the Get Started button to work through the content in the suggested sequence.

Image: Aboriginal art, Flickr,

Interacting with others

The ways in which we interact with others reflects choice; we can position ourselves in relation to others.
We can position ourselves in ways that invite respect, curiosity and connection. We can also position ourselves in ways that invite judgement, disconnection, and disapproval. The stance we take has profound effects on the relationship and is shaped by our values and conceptual assumptions (Madsen 1999). High importance should be given to building and maintaining positive and caring relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and their parents or caregivers. School staff and personnel can reflect this by demonstrating through their actions that they value a positive, caring and respectful relationship with Indigenous students, parents and families.

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Madsen, W 2007, Collaborative therapy with multi-stressed families, 2nd edn, Guilford Press, New York.
Image: Kids playing with marbles. Photo by Tup Wanders Source: {{cc-by-sa-2.0}}

School, home and community partnerships

Developing and maintaining genuine home–school partnerships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parents and caregivers is essential for a supportive school environment which aims for improved educational outcomes. Many educators talk of the importance of ‘high expectation relationships’ between educators and parents/caregivers (Sarra 2011; Fanshawe 1999). According to DEEWR (2011), research indicates that family and community–school partnerships benefit the school, the student and the family. Benefits to students are improvements in:
  • self esteem
  • engagement in learning
  • participation in more challenging subjects.
  • [English] literacy and numeracy outcomes
  • attendance
  • completion of homework
  • behaviour at home and school
  • connection to school and learning
Such partnerships rely on educational leadership and the involvement of key support people such as the relevant education officers supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education and local community groups providing advice about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education.
Schools and early childhood education providers that work in partnership with families and communities can better support the education of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. These partnerships can establish a collective commitment to hold high expectations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people … . Evidence shows that children who are expected to achieve at school and who have high expectations of themselves are more likely to succeed.’ (MCEEDYA 2011)


Strengthening family and community engagement in student learning resource %20engagement%20in%20student%20learning%20resource.pdf Family - School Partnerships Framework: A guide for schools and families Sustainable school and community partnerships: A research study

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Fanshawe, J 1989, 'Personal characteristics of effective teachers of adolescent Aborigines', The Aboriginal Child at School, vol. 17, no. 4, pp. 35–48. Ministerial Council for Education, Early Childhood Development and Youth Affairs (MCEEDYA) 2011, The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Action Plan 2010–2014, MCEEDYA, Education Services Australia, Carlton South, Victoria, viewed 30 August 2016 <>. Sarra, C 2011, Time for a High-Expectations relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia, viewed 30 August 2016, <>.

Collaboration and reconciliation

Collaborative learning strategies give students the tools and experiences to build positive peer relationships and work together to achieve a desired goal.
Every two years, Reconciliation Australia organises a national research study, known as the Australian Reconciliation Barometer, that measures the progress of reconciliation between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous Australians. According to the 2014 Reconciliation Barometer (PDF file), interaction between Indigenous and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is low. The value of personal, collaborative interaction is highlighted by the fact that, ‘When people learn about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and cultures through personal experience or education, they are more likely to believe the relationship is very important compared to when people learn from the media.’ (Reconciliation Australia 2014) Research suggests that using structured collaborative approaches with students from diverse backgrounds, in which all members are have a key role in achieving the set learning goals and are valued for their contributions such as the Community of Inquiry approach and the Jigsaw Classroom, are effective in reducing racism.

Collaborative strategies and approaches

A ‘Community of Inquiry’ is a group of people – students, teachers, colleagues - who use discussion to engage in deep thinking, explore big ideas, and grapple with the challenges and possibilities of a puzzling concept, idea or circumstance (Museum of Victoria n.d.). Nussbaum (2010) argues that engagement in such a democratic forum helps to promote equality, given that Socratic inquiry is not concerned with determining the status of the speaker; rather, every person is considered equal as it is the strength of the reasons that is of the utmost importance. Of course, power positions exist in the community of inquiry between members (through differences in, for example, class, gender, race) and between the teacher and students (Murris & Haynes 2012). A commitment to openness which takes into account differences between and among people such as that provided by Kohli (1995) is more likely to ensure equality. The discussion generally follows a process in which students reflect on the questions raised and respond to one another, putting forward their view and associated reasons as they collaboratively try to make progress in answering the questions. As described by Lipman (2003) ‘a community of inquiry attempts to follow the inquiry where it leads rather than be penned in by the boundary lines of existing disciplines’. The facilitator’s role is crucial in that they must support the discussion process by asking for clarification and reasons, asking further questions, summarizing and evaluating points made, as well as helping the students to do so, and assisting students in deciding how the next discussion should begin. This is quite different from the dialogue dominated by a process of recitation.

The Jigsaw Classroom

Similarly, research on the use of Aronson’s Jigsaw approach has shown it to promote learning, motivation and a reduction in racial conflict in school children. Importantly, one of the central tenets of  the jigsaw classroom is equality of each participant; ‘Just as in a jigsaw puzzle, each piece — each student's part — is essential for the completion and full understanding of the final product.’ (Social Psychology network 2016).

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Haynes, J & Murris, K 2012, Picturebooks, pedagogy, and philosophy, NY Routledge, New York. Kohli, W (ed.) 1995, Critical Conversations in Philosophy of Education, Routledge, New York. Lipman, M 2003, Thinking in Education, 2nd edn, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. Museum Victoria, Conducting a Community of Inquiry, viewed 30 August 2016, <>. National Science Foundation, Social Psychology Network, viewed 30 August 2016, <>. Nussbaum, M & Eldon and Anne Foote Trust Philanthropy Collection 2010, Not for profit : why democracy needs the humanities, Princeton University Press, New Jersey. Reconciliation Australia, Reconciliation Australia, viewed 30 August 2016, <>.
 Image: Logo from the Jigsaw Classroom website,


Suggested readings for Topic 4: Building positive relationships
Aboriginal Services Branch 2009, Working with Aboriginal people and communities: A practice resource, NSW Department of Community Services, viewed 30 August 2016  < documents/working_with_aboriginal.pdf> Colbung, M & Glover, A 1996, 'In Partnership with Aboriginal Children', in M Fleer (ed), Conversations about Teaching and Learning in Early Childhood Settings, Australian Early Childhood Association, Watson, ACT. Harrison, L, Goldfeld, S, Metcalfe, E & Moore, T & Closing the Gap Clearinghouse 2012, Early learning programs that promote children’s developmental and educational outcomes, Canberra, ACT, viewed 30 August 2016, <>. [Available online and cites Michael Colbung's work in Early Childhood Education] Martin, K & Mirraboopa, B 2003, 'Ways of knowing, being and doing: A theoretical framework and methods for indigenous and indigenist re‐search', Journal of Australian Studies, vol. 27, no. 76, pp. 203–214, viewed 30 August 2016, <>. Phillips, J & Lampert, J 2005, Introductory Indigenous Studies in Education, Pearson Education Australia, Frenchs Forest, NSW.  [Chapter 11 talks about power and relationships] Rogers, J 2015, 'Education: heart business', in K Price (ed), Knowledge of life: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia, CUP, Melbourne.

The National Apology

Activity: Discuss the National Apology to the Stolen Generations.
Read the National Apology and discuss the following questions:
  • Do you believe that the promises and hope of that day have since been fulfilled?
  • What unfinished business remains?
  • Do you think the National Apology went far enough?
  • Should it also have addressed other difficult issues apart from The Stolen Generations?
  • Should it have extended financial compensation to victims of dispossession?
Activity questions contributed by Curtin University

Developing strong relationships

Activity: Build stronger relationships with students and peers.
Use this activity to get to know your lecturer/tutor and peers. Spend about 5 minutes completing the following statements about yourself to share with your lecturer and peers. Do not share anything that you don’t feel comfortable with the group knowing about you.
  • Name...
  • Tea or coffee...
  • Sweet or savoury…
  • I live ...
  • I work as...
  • If I could go anywhere in the world it would be ...
  • Don’t you ever wonder...
  • A moment that changed my life...
  • At school I...
  • Sundays are for...
  • When I was a child I wanted...
  • My family’s/partner’s/children’s response to me coming to uni…
  • I want to be a teacher because…

Prepare your own ‘Getting to Know Me’ resource to take into schools

One way to start the process of building positive relationships with the students, their families and carers and the community is to share a little about yourself with them. Your task is to prepare a resource that you will use in a school which will help students and families get to know you. You may like to develop a PowerPoint slide, a poster, a booklet or website that could provide a link within your class or school newsletter.

Getting to know the students and their family

One way to get to know more about your students and their family is ask students to share their family tree with you and the class (Note: it does not need to be set out as a tree structure. Also, it is best to consult with your Aboriginal Education Officer before introducing this activity). Understanding family groups will also help you understand your community, which will help you know your students better. Colonisation has had an enormous impact on the capacity of Aboriginal and Torres Islander peoples to live and operate with in their traditional nations, clans and family groups.

Traditional family connections

You might find that some families in your school community use the terms in the diagram below whereas other families do not. Remember that there is diversity within Aboriginal and Torres Islander family structures.

Kukatja Pattern of Life - from Tjarany Roughtail

Kukatja Pattern of Life diagram Image courtesy of Magabala Books, Broome, Western Australia

Kinship relationships

Draw your family tree using the Aboriginal kinship terms provided in Kukatja Pattern of Life, showing differences between English and Aboriginal kinship terms.
From the University of Sydney - another example of family relationships to consider.
Reflect on what this might mean for working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families.
Aboriginal Kinship Presentation: Skin Names Uni of Sydney kinship module video first screen

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Greene, G & Tramacchi, J 1992, Tjarany Roughtail, Magabala Books, Broome, WA.
Image: Student in Class, Flickr,

Introduce your school community

Activity: Get to know your school community.
When you are new to a community you could do a walk or drive around the community to get a feel for it. It will also help you get to the resources and organisations within the community that you may like to access. For junior primary children you could adapt or jointly construct an adaption of the book I Went Walking by walking around your community with your class. Using the basic structure and photographs from either your university community, your own community or a school community that you know you will be going on your next practical experience, produce an adaption of a book such as I Went Walking. Present your digital, hard copy or animated resource to your university class.

Kandos: A school community example

I went walking around Kandos. What did you see? I saw the Coomber Mellon Mountain Ranges. Photo of park with mountain in background I went walking around Kandos. What did you see? I saw the swimming pool. Photo of swimming pool  
I went walking around Kandos. What did you see? I saw the community centre. Photo of Community Centre I went walking around Kandos. What did you see? I saw the old red brick post office. Photo of Post Office
I went walking around Kandos. What did you see? I saw the primary school and high school. Photo of primary and high schools I went walking around Kandos. What did you see? I saw the preschool across the road from the primary school and high school. Photo of pre-school
I went walking around Kandos. What did you see? I saw the football oval where they also have Little Athletics in summer. Girl running on football oval I went walking around Kandos. What did you see? I saw the Mountain View bakery. Photo of bakery shopfront
I went walking around Kandos. What did you see? I saw the Cementa Arts building. Photo of old building I went walking around Kandos. What did you see? I saw the library. Photo of library entrance

Community presentation for older students

For older children you could develop a song using a hip hop style such as the following Wadeye school community video.


Williams, S 1989, I went walking, Omnibus, Norwood, SA.

Relationship building activities

Activity: Explore relationships through images.
Choose a series of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander photos and images (including landscapes and Indigenous Art).
  1. Out of the series, select two images that:
    • you like best; and
    • that resonate with yourself and best reflect your own family background.
  2. Have a group discussion on the importance of relationships in learning.
Google image search  
Image: Flickr, Angela Thomas,

High expectations relationships

Activity: Reflect upon the kinds of relationships you want to develop with Indigenous students.


Think back to your experience at school - was it affected in anyway (positively or negatively) by the relationships you had with teachers? If we look at the Aboriginal students’ perceptions of teachers, one study from WA has showed that a majority students surveyed respected their teachers although they believed that a portion of their teachers don’t respect them as individuals.

High expectations relationship

Watch the video below and consider your responses to the following questions:
  • Do you think Aboriginal students of your generation were taught with a sense of personal warmth and demandingness?
  • Whose responsibility is it to develop relationships? Why?
  • How could you show the kids that you care?
Stronger Smarter: What is a High Expectations Relationship - Dalby SHS

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Image: From 'Stronger Smarter: What is a High Expectations Relationship' video

Know your students

Activity: Make time to get to know your students.
Making time for you to get to know each of your students and for them to get to know you is an important step in the process of building positive relationships in a supportive classroom. Stereotypes and labelling can unfairly distort our expectations of our students, and research has shown this to have significant effects on student achievement and success at school.

Activity 1

Form groups ( you could use the Jigsaw strategy for this activity). Each group can be given one of the following summaries of the work of the educational researchers Rosenthal and Jacobs in the 1960s to read:
  1. In your group list the key point/s from Rosenthal and Jacobs on a big piece of paper.
  2. Each group should report back to the class at least one key point (repeat until all points have been covered).
  3. Groups then discuss what this means for them and their practice as educators.
Repeat this process by choosing one chapter from the following summary on the work of John Hattie (there are nine chapters) and if you have time each group could discuss and share their response to the Discussion Questions for their chapter on page 10: Detailed version: Short version:

Dr Chris Sarra on Indigenous education

Activity 2

In groups develop an informative and entertaining presentation for your class on one area of relevant research on the role of educators within a supportive classroom, and which includes a short reflection on your own take home message/s for educators.
Image: Extract from cover of John Hattie's book Visible Learning for Teachers

Reconciliation and young children

Activity: Explore reconciliation with young children.
Review this video clip of Early Childhood teacher, Adam Duncan, speaking about exploring reconciliation with young children.
Part 2 of 2;
After viewing the video clip, discuss the following questions with your class:
  1. Adam suggests that there are still many avenues that remain unexplored in terms of engaging with culture, and engaging with the history of Australia, largely because teaching and learning about these things is often seen as “difficult” and “uncomfortable.” What do you think some of these unexplored avenues might be, and how can removing “otherness” through a focus on humanity help to lessen the discomfort?
  2. Is the concept of reconciliation ‘too advanced’ for young children, and ‘something to be pursued later on?’ Discuss through drawing on Adam’s explanations.
  3. Adam speaks about the importance of fostering a more holistic and balanced view of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia in education. What do you think he means by this?
  4. What does Adam identify as the benefits of this more holistic and balanced approach to embedding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives in the curriculum?
  5. What are some things all early learning services and schools can do to promote an understanding of reconciliation among all children?
  6. Adam expresses that, to him, reconciliation is about embracing our differences. What is your personal vision of reconciliation?
  7. What are some things you could do to support your vision of reconciliation in the classroom? Brainstorm and discuss.
Image: Still from 'Exploring Reconciliation in early childhood practice Part 2 of 2' video

Collaborative classrooms

Activity: Explore the Community of Inquiry approach to learning.


A Community of Inquiry can be described as:

a group of people – students, teachers, colleagues - who use discussion to engage in deep thinking, explore big ideas, and grapple with the challenges and possibilities in a puzzling concept, idea or circumstance' (Museum Victoria n.d.)

This form of community of inquiry was developed by Matthew Lipman and is a part of the Philosophy for Children approach to education. Lipman (2003) argued that a community of inquiry is characterised by; ‘non adversarial deliberations, shared cognitions, the cultivation of literacy and philosophical imagination and the encouragement of deep reading, and the enjoyment of dialogical texts’ (Lipman 2003). Moreover, Lipman’s account of a community of inquiry  includes the following features: inclusiveness, participation, shared cognition, face-to face relationships, the quest for meaning, feelings of social solidarity, deliberation, impartiality, modelling, thinking for oneself, challenging as a procedure, reasonableness, the reading, the questioning and the discussion (Lipman 2003). The core business of Philosophy for Children for Lipman, was to promote the improvement of three aspects of thinking: critical, creative and caring (Lipman 2003). Typically, a community of inquiry involves a group of students sitting together in a circle facing one another, the teacher amongst them as both facilitator and co-inquirer.


Watch this clip of school children participating in a Community of Inquiry:
Read the following guidelines for conducting a Community of Inquiry: Unfortunately the Museum Victoria content is no longer available; replacement content is pending (June 2018).

Group discussion

Discuss the following questions with your own class Community of Inquiry (CoI) using the guidelines above:
  • What is a Community of Inquiry?
  • How is it different to a ‘traditional’ classroom?
  • What are the benefits of using a Community of Inquiry as described in the resources above?
  • How might using a Community of Inquiry approach support reconciliation (now and in the future)?
    • Consider both the content (big questions and topics) and pedagogy (using CoI).

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Lipman, M 2003, Thinking in Education, Cambridge University Press, New York. Museum Victoria, Conducting a Community of Inquiry, viewed 30 August 2016, <>.

Professional experience

Assessment objectives

  • Gather evidence on your relationships when you are on professional experience.
  • Provide a 500 word professional reflection on your experiences (including what you found challenging and rewarding) in applying the listed characteristics of effective culturally appropriate and responsive relationships. The professional reflection contains your responses to Section C of Assessment guides.


Bishop, et al. (2003) argue that culturally appropriate and responsive teachers of Māori students demonstrate the following understandings which they have called the Effective Teaching Profile:
  • They  reject deficit theorising as a means of explaining Māori students’ educational achievement levels; and
  • They know and understand how to bring about change in Māori students’ educational achievement and are professionally committed to doing so.
These understandings can be observed in the following ways, summarised as follows:
  1. They care for the students as culturally-located human beings above all else.
  2. They care for the performance of their students.
  3. They are able to create a secure, well-managed learning environment.
  4. They are able to engage in effective teaching interactions with Māori students as Māori.
  5. They can use strategies that promote effective teaching interactions and relationships with their learners.
  6. They promote, monitor and reflect on outcomes that in turn lead to improvements in educational achievement for Māori students.


Assessment guides

  1. Read the section on the Effective Teaching Profile (pages 96-116) of the report which describes each characteristic in detail. In this book, the researchers designed an observational tool which corresponds with the understandings and characteristics outlined in the Effective Teaching Profile. (Bishop, et al. 2003)Assessment
  2. The observational tool can also be used by you as a way of reflecting on the evidence of effective relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in your class whilst on professional experience.
  3. Whilst on your professional experience choose a time or series of times that you will reflect on your ability to develop effective culturally appropriate and responsive relationships.
  4. Provide examples/evidence for each for the following aspects in the Observational Guide.
  5. For every negative response to the six-point categories suggest an action to develop culturally responsive relationships in your professional experience context.

Observational guide

  1. Caring for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students: evidence of caring for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students as (culturally located) individuals.
  2. Caring for the performance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students: evidence of having high expectations for the learning performance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.
  3. Behaviour expectations: evidence of having high expectations for the behaviour expectations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.
  4. Management of the classroom: evidence of providing a well-managed learning environment.
  5. Culturally appropriate context: evidence of providing culturally appropriate learning context for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.
  6. Culturally responsive context: evidence of providing a context where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students can bring their own cultural experiences to their learning.


Berryman M, Bishop R 2011, 'The Te Kotahitanga observation tool: Development, use, reliability and validity', Waikato Journal of Education, vol. 16, no. 3, pp. 81–94. Bishop, R, Berryman, M, Tiakiwai, S, and Richardson, C 2003, Te Kotahitanga:The Experiences of Year 9 and 10 Māori Students in Mainstream Classrooms, Ministry of Education, Wellington.
Image: Public Domain

What is culturally responsive teaching?

Assessment objective

Develop a resource to demonstrate your understandings of the importance of developing relationships.


Choose one of the following options:
  1. Select a medium of your choice (see the video example below and discuss your choice with your lecturer) to demonstrate your understandings of the importance of developing relationships with your students.
  2. Utilise the content from the 3Rs materials, the elements of culturally responsive teaching provided by Bishop,, (2003)(refer to Professional Experience assessment) and your own desktop research to answer the question ‘What does culturally responsive teaching for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australian students involve?’.
  3. Provide a list of references to support what you have developed.
View this (somewhat amusing) YouTube clip about culturally responsive teaching
Image: Screenshot taken from YouTube video 'Culturally responsive teaching'

Topic review

Building positive relationships

This topic aims to strengthen your understanding of the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and apply this knowledge to build relationships. Building positive relationships allows you to better address the learning needs of Indigenous students in urban, rural and remote communities.

Questions for review:

  • What did you find to be the most challenging aspect of this topic? Why/ What could you do to better prepare yourself to build positive relationships as a beginning teacher?
  • What do you see the relationship between reconciliation and building positive relationships?
  • What are some strategies to build positive relationships that you will take into your next professional placement?

Choose one Focus Area of the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers where you could apply the knowledge and skills you have gained from Topic 4, such as:

7.3 Engage with the parents/carers

Understand strategies for working effectively, sensitively and confidentially with parents/carers. (Graduate level)Professional knowledge

Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (Graduate teachers)

Congratulations! You have now completed all topics in Module 2.