Imagine this scenario: a star 5th grader is forced to stay home from school but continue learning. She’s accustomed to earning teachers’ praise and loves being the center of attention when she demonstrates her knowledge at the board. What happens when these special moments evaporate? She’ll probably turn to her parents for recognition. But they may be too busy maintaining their careers, managing a new kind of household routine, and caring for her younger siblings.
Or picture a freshman in high school. His behavioral challenges make distance learning extremely hard on his parents. They’ve always depended on his dedicated teachers to support his continued success. Now, stranded at home with minimal student-teacher communication, he’s acting out again and neglecting his studies. His teachers have 119 other freshmen who also demand their attention. What can his parents do?
Students out of school are in a tough position—just think of how we feel as adults. Whether it's caused by an injury, relocation, or a crisis like COVID-19, the longer it lasts, the harder it can be for them to adapt to the new normal afterward and the harder it is for them to continue feeling motivated outside the classroom.
This is the situation we find ourselves in today. Students everywhere are going through what researchers call an adverse childhood experience. They may feel lonely, abandoned by schools, angry about losing their spotlight—and the list goes on. In these circumstances, teachers everywhere are struggling to maintain meaningful connections with students. With some imagination and thoughtful consideration, it can be done. Here are a few factors to consider as you plan your interaction with your students.
Communication Medium Matters
Not every student responds well to email, nor should we expect 1st graders to have a Gmail account. Consider your students’ preferred form of communication. Maybe that means communicating through video chat, a phone call, or TikTok just to check in and let them know you’re there for them.
Connect Beyond the Content
There’s a time to assign work and give instruction; there’s also a time to hear how your students are doing and let them vent a little. Genuine conversations are an important part of socioemotional learning. Without this kind of connection, you are just a taskmaster—not the teacher you were to them in the classroom.
Check In Frequently but Not Obsessively
The frequency of your communication is largely based on what you have to say. Survey your students to find a good time to reach out. Ease them into their new way of communicating with you, and don’t go overboard. We all need time to adjust to our new (hopefully short-lived) normal, and that includes various communication modes and timelines.
Differentiate as Much as Possible
Distance learning is an ideal time to differentiate and pivot to problem-based learning. Support social learning by dividing your class into small groups and assigning each one projects based on their interests or academic weaknesses. Worksheets and lectures may still be effective, but students won’t be engaged if they are just watching videos or stuck on mute and unable to interact during a virtual lesson.
Incorporating all of these suggestions at one time might be overload. Instead, pick one or two. As you adapt, go for more. Be open to improving, but remember that no one expects mastery today. While keeping the learning momentum going and maintaining some familiar structure in your students’ day are important, the actions that will matter most in the long run will be the ones that reduce your students’ stress and help you connect with them personally. Your efforts to do this will ease their experience now and ultimately smooth their transition back to the classroom.