09/09/2020 by Carney Sandoe Staff |

5 Ways to Build Relationships in the Virtual (and In-person) Classroom

A male teacher giving a lesson in front of a video camera

Education is a social act. Think about a day in the life of a student in a traditional school setting. Parent volunteers welcome students at car circle. Teachers greet and hug kindergartners as they walk into the classroom. Division heads ask students by name how their weekend was and how their soccer tournament went. Grades gather together for weekly assembly to celebrate birthdays and accomplishments.

The interaction and connectivity that take place in a regular classroom are integral to student learning. Teachers motivate students to push themselves to achieve, even if it means working one-on-one and giving a student extra time to ensure they succeed. They hold students accountable for their assignments, behavior, and attendance, teaching them responsibility and good manners. They love, accept, and acknowledge each student unconditionally, giving their whole selves in everything they do.

The relationships that are created as a result of these interactions have profound impacts on students. In the wake of the Coronavirus, education's new reality is now full of Zoom meetings, alternate-day in-person attendance, face masks, limited group activities, and desks spaced six feet apart. Whether school is fully virtual or includes some form of in-person instruction, parents, teachers, and school leaders have valid concerns about whether students will be able to find connection with their teachers and a feeling of belonging among their peers. Research suggests that students with a high sense of belonging are also happier, healthier, and more engaged learners — but can educators promote student belonging in virtual spaces?

Luckily, the answer is yes. Nothing about this school year is ideal, but here are a few ways (and there are many more!) to help foster relationships to make students feel more secure, supported, and loved, whether your classroom is online or in person.

1. Keep it Social

For many students, online and hybrid learning is complicated by the impact of being cut off from their peers — even though many older students might communicate with friends via social media and texting. We are social creatures by nature, so learning is more fun and effective when students have an opportunity to share their learning or thinking with others.

Consider optimal learning conditions and what best supports or mimics practices that would occur in a normal classroom, like small group work, peer-to-peer interaction, and teacher-student engagement. In a virtual classroom, integrate opportunities for students to share through the chat feature, raising their hand (both literally on-screen and using the “raise hand” button found in some virtual platforms), holding up white boards, and in breakout rooms. For students who might be used to spending their classroom time engaging with the students at their table or desk cluster, consider setting up virtual tables or discussion threads with four or five students so they can consistently discuss assignments, ask questions, and stay connected with each other.

If technology poses challenges, pen pals or other paper-and-pen activities are good substitutes that create bonds between students. Phone pals work the same way; students can call each other on the phone several times a week to discuss specific topics or prompts.

In a physical classroom, prioritize opportunities for students to interact at a safe distance. Rethink what might have traditionally been part of the learning experience and consider collaborative (and safe) possibilities. Balance independent work with partner activities when possible so that students are guaranteed some form of social connection as a part of learning every day.

Outside of learning activities, keep students social in other ways by thinking about the bonding opportunities they are missing being at home, spaced apart in a physical classroom, or within a small cohort. Celebrate birthdays, achievements, and holidays. Build dedicated social time into the day for students to “turn and talk” to share what TV shows they are watching, games they are playing, or hobbies they are exploring.

All that being said, while there isn't one single method that's best for everyone in your class, if you can, air on the side of social methods that will engage students, maximize learning, and offer a humanizing approach.

2. Say Hello as Often as You Can

Intentionally connecting with students outside of planned lessons and instruction may require extra effort in the virtual classroom, but it is worthwhile. Maintaining positive connections not only helps students gain the most they can from instruction in a distance learning environment, but it can have a lasting impact when they do finally return to school. Try to make sure your students know you are thinking of them, care for them, and miss them. Short daily hello videos, for example, might be the only time a student sees you on some days. A sense of connection is important to sustain and makes all the difference.

It can be helpful to connect with each student one-on-one at least weekly using the format that makes the most sense based on their resources and needs. For students without internet connectivity, try calling by phone. Rotating through small groups of students each day will make this a more manageable task.

In a socially-distanced classroom, smiles are covered by masks and hugs, high fives, and fist bumps don't happen like they used to. Because educators can't form bonds with their students through visible emotions and appropriate physical gestures, it is important to foster connection with rituals that allow students to transition to learning and the school environment in a way that honors their humanness. Connect with students, even if just by spending more time saying hello and asking about their lives outside of the classroom.

(Bonus tip: Post photos of you without a mask around your classroom and have students bring in unmasked photos of themselves so everyone can see each other fully.)

3. Take Emotional Temperature Checks

Just like their parents and teachers, kids are under a lot of stress — and distance learning and the disruption of their expectations for a normal school year are only exacerbating things. Therefore, routine, everyday check-ins are more important than ever and shouldn’t fall by the wayside. Keep these check-ins quick and simple. Some ways for students to indicate how they are feeling include posting a thumbs up, thumbs sideways, or thumbs down emoji in a chat stream, taking selfies of their thumbs, or sending an emoji that matches their mood.

In a physical classroom, teachers can find a way to check in with students at a safe distance, such as having students draw an emoji on a sticky note on their desks, using a quick gesture, or logging in to a Google doc to post an emoji. Some teachers are also using special forms as a quick, asynchronous way to get students to share how they’re feeling each day.

A neat way to foster connections and empathy among students is to make check-ins part of their homework. Give each student a classmate to connect with, and let them decide how they want to check in — email, text, Zoom, etc. Then have students write and submit a short description of how their partners are doing. In addition to writing about their classmates, writing about themselves is another valuable opportunity for students to process the complex emotions they are feeling as a result of interrupted routines, social isolation, and the challenges of distance learning.

4. Connect in Multiple Ways

In a normal classroom, students are used to seeing, hearing, and talking with their teacher every day. Starting a new school year in an online or hybrid environment can be a difficult change, and students need to feel that their teachers are still “there” for them. Communicating frequently with students can help ease this transition.

To increase student engagement in a virtual setting, communicate in a variety of ways (emails, texts, phone calls, group messaging, photos, video or screen-casting) and allow students to communicate in a way that is comfortable for them. Simulate daily or weekly announcements that students hear over the intercom by recording short video or audio clips and sending them out via email or text. These announcements can include student birthday shout-outs, important resource information, or updates on school news. (For students without access to high-speed internet, try calling by phone instead.) Send postcards or short handwritten notes via snail mail, or weekly newsletters with recordings of you reading a poem, cooking, or conducting a science experiment.

5. Share Gratitude

Gratitude is a powerful tool in any type of classroom. Focusing on gratitude stimulates social and emotional growth in students and helps them develop more satisfaction with life, school, and relationships. When teachers utilize and encourage gratitude, they are modeling one of the most important lessons in life: having a positive attitude, especially towards the aspects of life that challenge us.

There are many ways to incorporate gratitude activities into your virtual or in-person classroom. Some of our favorites include asking students to submit notes of appreciation about their peers, then compiling the notes in a slide deck or on a classroom website to share with students and parents/caregivers; gratitude journals where each day, students write three gratitudes then share their favorite at the end of the week; and taking time after a group lesson, activity, or challenge for students to thank a peer who made a difference during the experience.


The main components of a good relationship such as respect, trust, and support haven't changed. While educators now have to build relationships behind screens and masks, many of the relationship-building strategies they are used to using in a face-to-face environment will transfer to the new learning normal.

What other ways do you build relationships in your classroom, virtual or in-person? Share them in the comments!

Carney Sandoe is an educational recruitment firm that matches teachers, administrators, and coaches with jobs at K-12 private, independent schools. Our job placement service is free for job seekers. Learn more here.

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