How to Build Authentic Relationships in the Virtual Classroom

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During this unusual season of uncertainty and unrest, the anticipation and drive with which educators typically get ready to go back to school might feel more like anxiety and dread. Will we be teaching in-person, hybrid, virtually, or all the above? And though those of us going back virtually may be equipped with the technology to teach virtually, how can we create those caring connections through a computer screen so that our students feel secure and loved? 

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If you want to cultivate relationships that will outlast the digital divide, an emphasis on building strong relationships and healthy connections will help us flourish regardless of how our instruction is delivered. Implement these actionable strategies into your teaching to help build relationships with your young learners and see what develops. 

Strategy 1: Partner with Parents

In all of your frantic thinking and planning for “how” you’ll manage a new year, let’s not forget what lies at the core of any school year: our partnerships with families and students. If teaching virtually, you’ll need their support now more than ever. As you build and nurture partnerships with parents, remember that:

  • First impressions matter. Take an intentional amount of time in planning your first interactions with your new families. Think about what you’ll say to make them feel confident in your ability to care for their child.  Make it clear that you love what you do and can’t wait for your chance to guide their little one through a new school year. 
  • Be their “DREAM” Teacher. It is every parent’s dream for their child to have a teacher that loves them and has their best interest at heart. You can support this idea by expressing your passion in words or in messages home. Deann Gibson, a teacher in Kentucky, asks families to write a personal letter about their child each year to better understand their perspective of their child. This simple strategy furthers the idea that she is concerned about their child on a deeper level. 
  • Early Support = Long-Term Success. Many of our families are struggling (just as Teachers) to find guidance in Virtual Learning. Be adamant in providing comfort, guidance and support from the very beginning. Keep in mind that families are doing something completely new and out of their comfort-zone. Instructional videos, home-school resources and informative literature (like our Parent Partnerships Handbook which has a FREE Spanish Version) will give them the knowledge they need to get through this dynamic.
  • Provide clear, consistent communication. We are more likely to know, like, and trust someone who keeps us informed and is consistent in providing information. Decide early on how you’ll communicate with your families, whether through a weekly newsletter, class text-messaging, or social media platform. Post consistently (same day each week or time each day) and provide additional support when needed. 

Strategy 2: Create a climate of security.  

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Whether in the classroom or in a Zoom conference call, your students need to feel secure in their environment before they can make connections with you or their classmates. For younger students who have little experience in this setting, this requires planning and intention on your part. The climate of your classroom relies heavily on your expectations and your initial interactions with students. You can make students feel secure by keeping these key concepts in mind. 

  • Set clear expectations. Explicitly introducing, practicing and enforcing your classroom expectations will help students understand what you expect of them and give them comfort in the choices they make. 
  • Applaud risks. Rewarding students for taking risks and getting out of their comfort zone will demonstrate to our little ones that no matter what they do, we love and support them. 
  • Be SILLY. Being silly is a great way to build trust with our young learners. Smile constantly, say silly things, dance and play to help students begin to know, like and trust you. 
  • Recognize their individuality. In the early stages of your school year, provide ample opportunity for students to get to know each other and celebrate each child’s individuality. This will nurture the idea that each student is an important piece of your classroom puzzle. Make “About Me” books, do a simple interest inventory or have a “Show & Tell” day to engage students in learning about each other. 

Strategy 3: Nurture empathy by fostering emotional literacy. 

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Empathy is the ability to step into another’s shoes to experience and feel with someone, to imagine what they’re going through, how they’re feeling, and what they might need. We know from experience that when empathy increases, bullying behaviors decrease. Without empathy, connections are shaky and relationships suffer. 

It’s our need for empathy that punctuates the purpose of building emotional literacy. We must help our students understand and name their emotions , embrace and make friends with the feelings, and learn how to use that emotional energy as fuel, so that they’re able to process feelings as they come and go. We can help make that happen through intentional modeling, direct instruction, and lots of practice.

  • Model it: How we as caregivers process, manage, and express our feelings matters. If we yell when we get angry, guess what children learn to do with their anger? Instead, explain what you’re feeling and what you need: “I’m feeling really angry right now and I’m going to need a timeout so that I can cool down before talking about this.”  This will provide your children with a healthy example of how self-regulation looks, sounds, and feels.
  • Teach it: Intentionally teach feelings by validating that all feelings are important and then practicing how faces and bodies look through each of the emotions. Dialogue with your children: This is my happy face; what does your happy face look/feel like? These are my stressed-out shoulders; what do your stressed-out shoulders look/feel like? These are my angry hands; what do your angry hands look/feel like? 
  • Practice it: Setting aside routine times to practice expressing emotions will be key to fostering self-regulation. Role-play with students how they’ll feel in certain situations, check-in on how characters in the books they’re reading and shows they’re watching are feeling, and ask students directly how they themselves are feeling. Once we understand, embrace, and know our own feelings, empathy will more organically and fluently elevate, stretch, and grow.

Use the Emotion Pops, songs, stories, and relational strategies and activities in the Virtual Classroom Survival Guide to help strengthen not only emotional literacy but also healthy relationships within your school family.    

Strategy 4: Utilize purposeful play to engage and connect. 

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Think back to your happiest childhood memories; was play involved? Being purposeful in play helps grow children’s intellectual and social development. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) notes these elements to essential and meaningful play.

  • Children make their own decisions. When children choose how to play, they experience the freedom in making choices.
  • Children are intrinsically motivated. This play impulse is stronger than their desire to eat or sleep. This desire to play helps teach children to learn self-control.
  • Children become immersed in the moment. Children become so engaged in the moment because they are in a safe environment to keep exploring and navigating.
  • Play is spontaneous, not scripted. Play is often totally not planned. When things change, it helps develop flexibility and decision-making .
  • Play is enjoyable. Play always has an emotional response attached to it.

In meaningful play, children are active participants. Play is what pulls together the logical and creative parts of the brain. Children build their mental and emotional muscles as they create imaginative worlds that have rules through the terms of play. When children look back at their childhood, we want them to remember how the joy of playing made them feel, but how do we play virtually? 

Plan engaging games and memory-making activities; use the cheers or move with the Brain Breaks in the Virtual Classroom Survival Guide. Make students feel special by celebrating birthdays, holidays, and special occasions. Be creative by using wigs, props, or rewards. Because children want to feel your joy and be an active part of it, we’ve included a Just For Fun section in our eBook.

5: Keep on singing!

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The world keeps changing, but children are the same. They LOVE to sing, dance, and have fun with their friends. Music is magic because it’s the perfect way to nurture the whole child – physically, emotionally, socially, and intellectually.  Singing builds a strong bond between teachers and their students as they smile and play together. Above all, through music and movement, ALL children can feel successful.

According to accumulating brain research, music is one of the most powerful learning tools. Here are five great reasons to sing with children:

  • Music is multi-sensory. The more senses you get going to the brain, the more likely the message will get there.
  • If children are exposed to concepts while singing, it is easier for them to learn when formally introduced.
  • Children are able to use their imaginations and create pictures in their brains when they sing.  
  • Repetition is a key to learning. It is much more fun to repeat songs than worksheets!
  • Singing and dancing relieve stress and oxygenate the brain.

The Virtual Classroom Survival Guide

Still looking for comfort and guidance in the Virtual Classroom? Consider the Virtual Classroom Survival Guide, a resource designed by passionate experts with one realization in mind: we simply cannot do this alone! In this Guide, you’ll find innovative ideas for creating lasting relationships and connecting by heart to help you not only survive, but also thrive through this unprecedented and surreal time in education. Harvest our strategies and enjoy making them your own as you foster relationships, play, and grow alongside our littlest learners. Here’s to making this new school year our best one ever.   

About the Authors

This Guide is rooted in the love and gratitude that four passionate educators hold in their hearts for teachers everywhere. And though, just like you, each of them is relatively new to navigating remote teaching, co-authors Dr. Jean Feldman, Barbara Gruener, Laura Buoanadonna, and Toni Mullins collectively bring over a century of classroom experience and expertise to this cross-country collaboration to enrich your virtual classroom experience.      

virtual classroom survival guide authors

Teacher Friend, Check In!

What are your go-to strategies to encourage and nurture student relationships? How can these be adapted to fit the Virtual Classroom? Tell us in the comments below! We can’t wait to read the knowledge and wisdom you’ll share!

Until we meet again, go make a DIFFERENCE, Teacher Friend!

teacher toni

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