Teachers, are you confused about how to go about building student relationships during distance learning?
It’s no secret that positive student relationships are vital for student success and resilience. That’s why we work so hard to make sure we set up and cultivate classroom routines and environment to promote connectedness between students and between students and the classroom teacher.
Building student relationships is not a one-and-done deal. It takes conscious effort (and a bit of a sixth sense sometimes).
It’s super important that all members of my classroom feel like they belong and openly express themselves without fear.
But as I’ve had to make the jump recently to distance learning with my fellow teachers across the globe, I’ve come to realize that it can be difficult to maintain that same level of connection we enjoyed in the classroom.
To help myself and others, I’ve put together some helpful reminders and tips as we all adjust, and I think that these are true for the regular classroom model, as well.
It’s important to be purposeful with our language. This is especially important in a distance learning situation as we post to Classroom, create directions, send emails, etc.
It’s important to use words that “give life” and hope for students, no matter their situations.
Here are some tips to make sure your communications are clear and encouraging.
➡️ Use emoji or bitmoji images to create an encouraging vibe.
➡️ Use appropriate gifs and memes for humor and/or encouragement.
➡️ Break-up your text so that it’s easily scannable.
➡️ Use visuals, text formatting, and font color/highlighting to draw attention to important details.
➡️ If possible create a screencast or audio option for students.
Manage Your Emotions
I’ve reflected that, just as I sometimes find myself allowing one or two students to dictate how I feel for an entire school day, it’s easy to find my vision clouded during distance learning.
We have even less context than before to go off of. There are no nonverbal cues, limited face-to-face communication. Meanwhile, we have other needs that compete for our time and attention while in the home environment.
We may find ourselves feeling frustrated and forgetting to show empathy, a key ingredient in building student relationships.
If students don’t check-in, complete an assignment, follow-through, it’s less about us and more about them. I have students who are taking care of younger siblings while parents work all day, students who are battling mental health issues more than ever before, students who lack executive functioning skills and no longer have the network of supports provided during their school day.
Tip: Learn to control your own emotional triggers and responses. Be kind and realize that academics, though important, are secondary to building student relationships during this time.
Use Affective Statements & Restorative Questions
To build student relationships during distance learning, your language is KEY.
Stay positive and use positive language when communicating with students. Even the most well-meaning of questions can imply that we value compliance over relationships.
So, instead of saying something like “Why didn’t you turn in your assignment?”, we can instead notice and offer.
➡️ “I notice that you did not submit __________ and I’m worried because __________. What can I do to support you right now?”
Let’s break that down a bit. There are two components of notice and offer:
The affective statement
The affective statement is an “I” statement that allows a student to see the impact of a specific behavior. Try combining an observation and a feeling together.
The restorative question
The restorative question seeks to understand vs. to judge. It sends a message of empathy.
➡️ What can I do to support you right now?
➡️ Can you help me to…?
➡️ What are your next steps…?
➡️ How do you see this issue…?
Manage Your Attitude
To continue building student relationships during distance learning, it’s important to remember (and assume) that our students are impacted by a unique set of circumstances. Now, more than ever, we need to check ourselves to ensure that we aren’t unintentionally making students feel like outsiders.
- Are we making an assumption that our students can focus over an extended period of time?
- Are we assuming that our students are in a certain family situation or group?
- Are we making an assumption that our students have access to technology and resources?
Take Action: Stop for a moment and continue my list above by writing down any assumptions that may be impacting your ability to connect with students. You might want to send a quick survey to students asking how comfortable they feel with distance learning, etc.
Create a Safe Environment for Social Interactions
Creating a safe environment for building student relationships during distance learning means that we need to harness the power of technology to encourage students to connect and collaborate.
➡️ You can also use quick polls on Google Classroom or Schoology to build culture and capture student voice. Just be sure not to target indicators of wealth or status in your prompts, i.e. don’t ask about the best vacation a student has ever been on.
➡️ If you’re comfortable, you can use Google Hangouts to check in with students in a synchronous learning session. Alternatively, you can use Google Meet to set-up office hours which can allow students to reach out for support. Simply go to your Google Calendar and create a recurring event. You’ll want to “add conferencing” and click on Hangouts Meet. This will generate a link which you can share with students.
I would encourage you to create a sense of classroom culture in the online space through traditions.
- Have a “game” day once a week.
- Post a meme of the day, trivia question, motivational video or thought-provoking poem, etc. to get some student interaction going.
- Celebrate birthdays and other important events (and non-important days like high-five day!)
- Send “happy mail” to students.
- Take time to celebrate success, whatever that looks like. Host a quick hangout or post a quick Classroom question so that students (and you) can share “good things” of the day or week.
- Involve your pets and/or family members in your teaching.
Maintain Individual Connections
I think that it’s important to make sure to communicate with students not only collectively, but also individually.
This doesn’t have to take a ton of time!
➡️ Try leaving a private comment on an assignment.
➡️ Take the time to make a quick screencast for a struggling student.
➡️ Schedule a Google Hangout if a student has a question that can’t be easily answered in an email.
➡️ Send a positive note of encouragement home to a couple of individual students (and their parents) each day.
I think that building student relationships is the most important focus point for teachers.
Whatever you do to maintain and build those important connections, stay consistent and don’t do too much. We have to take care of ourselves, too, in order to be there for our students.
In the end, students will remember that we cared about them more than a list of poetic devices or how to write an essay. (Well, I hope they remember how to write an essay, too…)
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