By LeAnn Nickelsen, M.Ed.
Much of our nation is meeting, learning, communicating, and planning virtually within the educational realm. We all know the power of building trusting, positive relationships that support one another on the journey of life. Research has confirmed for years that positive, trusting relationships among educators, students, and parents are critical for a positive learning culture. For example:
- Good relationships can mitigate the negative effects that stress can cause (Miller-Lewis LR, et. al., 2014).
- All learning is emotional and contextual. Emotion has a strong influence on whether or not students put forth attention and motivate themselves to want to learn. Our relationships change our students’ chemistry or states of mind for learning. In fact, emotion facilitates encoding and helps retrieval of information to go smoothly. The more positive the culture, the more learning can occur (Tyng, C., Amin, H., Saad, M., and Malik, A., 2017).
- Positive, caring relationships between the teacher and students could increase student effort and engagement (Redding, 2013) and increase resiliency (Stride & Cutcher, 2015).
- Strong, trusting relationships increase student achievement. A recent meta-analysis of hundreds of studies suggests a 1.5-year achievement gain – that is an effect size of .75 (Hattie, 2009). In other words, strong relationships increase our academic achievement.
- One research study found that when teachers had a 2-minute personal conversation every day for 10 days in a row with a perennially disruptive student, that student had an 85% improvement in his/her behavior and found that the behavior of all other students in that classroom improved too (Wlodkowski, 1983).
I think we could all agree that taking the time and energy to connect with each of our students should be top priority every single year, and especially when meeting via a screen – this year! But can we build trusting relationships via a screen? We all know that we can read someone’s nonverbals better and even “feel their energy” when we are physically present with someone. And yet, if we have to, we can build positive, trusting relationships virtually.
Since 93% of our communication is non-verbal components (posture, gestures, muscle tension, facial expressions, pitch, volume, inflection, and pace) and the other 7% is verbal components (the actual words) we can conclude that YES, we can communicate and build positive relationships via technology tools. Yet, like many long-distance relationships, virtual learning is prone to assumptions and misinterpretations that can break down the trust. You’ll need to ensure the following happen during your virtual connections to build trust among one another:
- Video on so nonverbals can be read more easily (and yet have some grace with this idea, too)
- Moments of transparency (check-ins, expressive writing, share times, etc.)
- Goal setting celebrations and revisions (recognition and praise)
- Empathy Time (opportunities to get into others’ shoes; practice assuming the best in everyone)
- Risk-taking opportunities (vulnerability)
- Opportunities to show dependability, consistency, and congruency
- Messages that say “we” and not “I”
In fact, researchers Takeuchi & Stevens suggest that relationships absolutely can be built via technology (2011)! Using a process called Joint Media Engagement (JME), an actively involved adult (in our case, the teacher) directly participates in the child’s “virtual world,” discussing the learnings, emotions, opportunities, and outcomes of the media in the virtual environment. Consistently engaging in this way not only builds strong educational outcomes, it builds strong emotional and relational outcomes as well!
So now that you have read a summary of the research about positive relationship building and learned a few tips about how to build trust virtually, let me ask you: Can YOU (an educator) build positive, trusting relationships with your students, virtually? What must be in place for this to happen? Below are two big ideas that have many tangible applications that you can use tomorrow!
Big Idea #1: Plan for Connection
Consider these three layers of building relationships with your students. These three layers take some time to build but will bring about the most beautiful student agency, which is one of the most powerful ways to intrinsically motivate students. The ideas below are just samplings (I have over a dozen tangible activities to build each layer) from my workshop on building positive relationships virtually.
Here are some ideas for each layer:
- Who are your family members? Pets?
- What are your strengths, interests, favorite ______, best/worst subject, friends, etc.?
- If you had a whole weekend off, what would you like to do?
- Would you prefer to ____ or _____? Why?
Write a couple of paragraphs about YOUR LIFE! Yes, be transparent and start with: “What I wish my students knew about me is…” Then ask them to write a response: “What I wish my teacher knew about me is…” For younger students, this could be done by drawing pictures and then telling each other about the drawings.
Create a mindmap about yourself and share it with your students. Then ask them to create one about themselves using yours as an exemplar. (Technology tools for creating mindmaps: Popplet, Coggle, Mindmeister.)
Go get my Learning Profile Freebie that has tons of ready-to-go templates that you can use to get to know your students better. You can place the templates into your Google Docs or just deliver your chosen tools via packet.
- What do you think your friends and family see as your best quality? Why?
- Describe a time that was difficult for you. How did you deal with it?
- What makes you ______ (emotion) and how do you usually respond when you are feeling ______? (angry, joyful, sad, happy, etc.)
Open up your classrooms with GO Moments (GO = Gratitude and Optimism). Each student and you share what you are grateful for and what you’re looking forward to.
Give students opportunities to engage in expressive writing each day. Share a question/prompt that will allow students to engage in valuable, relaxed writing time. This time allows the brain to deeply think about an important experience – to extrapolate meaning from this experience, to organize the thinking about it, and to ultimately determine what went well, what could improve, and how to move forward.
Check out these prompts to get you started. They are easy to use and ready to go. Just make sure you give your students choices about which prompt they feel safe writing about. Also, allow them to ask you to read it or not to read it.
- What are you learning well? Struggling with? What is your plan to close that gap?
- What is one goal that you have for yourself and why? How will you celebrate yourself when you achieve this goal?
- What is your Plan B if you don’t reach this goal?
- What problems do you see in our school/classroom that we can solve? How might you go about solving these problems?
Engage your students’ voices by asking for their input on how they are doing, how the learning is going, and what could improve by inviting them to take a survey. You can design on your own through Survey Monkey, Google Forms, or use one of these prepared surveys:
Invite them to contribute to your lesson plans, Criteria for Success for projects and products, and to help solve the real problems in your community and school.
BONUS: These Three Relationship-Building Layers work just as well with your teammates as with your students! They’re an incredibly effective way to build Collective Teacher Efficacy (CTE). Check out this article to learn more about CTE!
Big Idea #2: Plan for Positivity
We must design learning environments where students want to show up – where their emotions are connected to the learning experience. An emotionally connected learning experience feels like: “This will be fun and exciting, so I will invest my time and energy into showing up.” We can build emotional punctuation in our virtual classrooms every day by adding some of these fun, positive buy-in tools:
- Create a positive daily routine so students know just what to expect: a clear, consistent, high-impact learning schedule. Ensure student input helped create this schedule. Remember, more student voice = more student buy-in!
- Avoid overstimulation and give them brain breaks. Include a few high-impact, strong engagement tools that will achieve your goals and students are familiar with. Use some of your in-person techniques that you know work too: Anchor Charts and other strong visuals; mini video clips that reinforce the learning; vocabulary instruction (Padlet and Flipgrid); humor and storytelling; and including opportunities for students to display/share their work. Brain Breaks will be needed often during virtual learning (1. Look away from screen every 20 minutes – look outside, look up, look down the hall, etc. – to give the eyes a break. 2. Run in place, jumping jacks, high knees, etc. 3. Use technology tools like: GoNoodle, ClassFit4Kids, PBS Kids, Funbrain, Dance with Debbie Allen on Instagram, Lunch Doodles with Mo Willems, Zumba for Kids videos).
- Promote relevance by sharing the goal of the lesson, why it’s important to them now and in the future, how the lesson connects to something about them (culture, interest, favorite, etc.).
- Play music and greet them by name as they enter the virtual classroom.
- Build their anticipation by telling them the day before a “cliff hanging” learning target and activity that will occur the next day.
- Plan for small group breakout sessions that hold all students accountable to solve a problem or complete a relevant task.
- Listen like crazy, ask questions, and respect your students’ voices in each lesson!
- Show up excited to see them and with fun planned! Our mood enhances the positivity or dampens it!
- Conduct “Check-Ins” at the beginning of the lesson and end of the lesson. Even simply asking, “How are you doing?” is better than nothing! Take it a step further and ensure that you take action on what they share – that you end those check-in times with hope and gratitude. Here are two incredible examples: one for middle school and another for elementary.
Rich Relationships have never been more important than they are now! Learn how to become even more purposeful with them by doing these things:
- Invite LeAnn (firstname.lastname@example.org) to train your school/district virtually or in-person with her new Motivation Series that includes: relationship building, building virtual lesson plans that engage and motivate, empowering students with more choices and voice opportunities, engaging with student self-assessment, and using power feedback to move students forward faster.
- My book Teaching with the Instructional Cha-Chas: Four Steps to Making Learning Stick is still selling like crazy! Did I tell you that each activity has the best technology tools that support the strategy? That’s right – the strategies and tools in the book can still be used virtually to DOUBLE the speed of learning!
- Tap into my friend and colleague Dr. Jenny Severson’s brand new book, The Educator’s 180-Day Gratitude Turnaround, that will change your mindset.
- Feeling fearful lately? Read my friend and colleague Shauna King’s new digital book: fearLESS: A 21 Day Devotional to Feed Your Faith.
Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.
Miller-Lewis, L. R., Sawyer, A. C., Searle, A. K., Mittinty, M. N., Sawyer, M. G., & Lynch, J. W. (2014). Student-teacher relationship trajectories and mental health problems in young children. BMC Psychology, 2(1). doi:10.1186/s40359-014-0027-2
Redding, S. (2013). Through the Student’s Eyes: A Perspective on Personalized Learning and Practice Guide for Teachers (pp. 1-38, Rep.). Philadelphia, PA: Temple University.
Stride, Y., & Cutcher, A. (2015). Manifesting Resilience in the Secondary School: An Investigation of the Relationship Dynamic in Visual Arts Classrooms. International Journal of Education & the Arts, 16(11).
Takeuchi, L. & Stevens, R. (2011). The new coviewing: Designing for learning through joint media engagement.
Tyng, C. M., Amin, H. U., Saad, M. N., & Malik, A. S. (2017). The Influences of Emotion on Learning and Memory. Frontiers in Psychology, 8. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01454
Wlodkowski, R. (1983). Motivational Opportunities for Successful Teaching. Phoenix, AZ: Universal Dimensions.