Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Tips to Create a Warmer, More Engaging Online Classroom

Your emotional state influences how well students learn. Here are tips to incorporate a restorative approach to your online teaching.

May 29, 2020
Aleksandr Davydov / Alamy Stock Photo

Given the amount of time we’re spending teaching online—and thinking about the upcoming school year—any small steps we can take to make our virtual classrooms more relational, engaging, and supportive are important. While teachers and students benefit from restorative practices as an alternative to exclusionary discipline practices, they thrive when restorative principles are applied holistically to everything we do in schools—from how we deliver our lessons to the everyday connections we make with our students. In fact, lasting whole-school change requires that we shift from doing restorative to actually being restorative. But what does this look like and sound like in an online class?

Covid-19 has brought with it a greater need for this restorative and trauma-informed approach. Even a short pause for a check-in goes a long way to settle the elevated stress levels and experiences of isolation, and this leads to more learning. Here are some simple tips that create a more relational, stress-reducing, and engaging online learning environment for both you and your students.

Prepare a Warm Space

Specialists in the fields of social neuroscience and trauma-informed practices confirm what we know to be true: Students are more open to learning when they are emotionally and physically regulated, feel connected to others, and have opportunities for meaningful engagement.

Your physical presence, warmly represented, provides key support to your students, so maintain eye contact and talk in a relaxed, friendly tone. Set up your physical space so that your face is easily visible and warmly lit. Remember—online learning inherently feels less personal than your physical classroom, so intentionally share something from your life, like photos of your family or pets, a favorite painting, or items that represent your interests or hobbies.

When giving a lesson online, avoid relying too much on slides and videos—they help focus student attention on the material, but too much time away from human faces will drain energy and engagement and undermine the sense of connectedness you are trying to build.

Check In With Your Students Regularly

A restorative approach is much more than a non-punitive way to respond to harm; it is a process for building a positive classroom culture that starts at the beginning of the year. One class activity central to this approach is collaboratively developing a class ethos or set of guidelines. It helps establish some relational trust and expectations for how you and your class want to be together as a learning community.

When you start a lesson online, don’t jump right in—take a few moments to slow down with a few mindful breaths and set the right tone for the class by sharing a positive message, such as an inspiring quote, song, or video. Survey your students often on what they need to feel engaged and connected. Provide ways for them to give anonymous feedback and to be heard. Perhaps they’d like to share an item from home that means something to them, or they need more thinking time before jumping into a discussion.

Build in frequent opportunities for engagement during your lesson by asking for thumbs up, thumbs down, or one-word answers in your meeting’s chat window, for example. Pause and ask students to check in with how they are feeling, and let them provide a silent gesture or signal that reflects how they are doing. Check-ins do not need to be long to be effective. 

At the end of your lesson, close with a reflection activity—students can talk about a few goals they want to accomplish or share a few words of appreciation in the chat for something or someone in their lives.

Remember: Anxiety Is Contagious

Your calm, grounded state has a lot more influence on your students than you know. Offer co-regulation through your online presence by slowing down, pausing between sentences, smiling, and being mindful of your anxiety level. Before a lesson, take a few minutes to relax and center yourself. If you’re distracted during your lesson, students will pick up on that, so have everything you need ready. Struggling to find files, links, or browser tabs can cause your stress level to rise, which students will feel and mirror. Close any programs that you won’t be using, and print out your agenda so that you don’t need to frantically search for it on your screen.

Your students may be feeling higher anxiety levels, so be transparent about your process, acknowledge how challenging these times are, and remind them that their feelings are shared by many others. If you are feeling stressed, share that as objectively as possible. Just name it and tell your students what you are doing to support yourself. They need to know you are human and hear what strategies you are using, but they also need you to be a positive model and co-regulator.

Focus on the Positive

Finally, take some to reflect on and leverage the positive aspects of our new “normal.” Many teachers report an increased degree of connection with parents, students, and each other. Support meetings for students can be easier to schedule online. Parent-teacher conferences are seeing greater participation. School leaders are prioritizing social and emotional wellness. As Margaret Wheatley wrote, “It is possible to prepare for the future without knowing what it will be. The primary way to prepare for the unknown is to attend to the quality of our relationships, to how well we know and trust one another.”

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Online Learning
  • Student Engagement

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