April 9, 2020

Connecting with Students in a Virtual Space

As educators, we know that teaching is way more than just delivering content – it’s about the environment you create through rituals and structure, the relationships you build, and the ways you engage with and care for students. With the transition to tele-learning, it can be difficult to imagine how to translate that “special sauce” of the in-person classroom experience to the virtual world.   The important thing to remember is that we are all in this together – doing our best to adapt, learn, and build up our communities in new ways.  

The team at Healthier Generation is here to support you as you adapt to the virtual environment. Below are 5 of my favorite ways to virtually connect and engage with students in ways that support learning and well-being. 


1. Create a routine 

Just like in the classroom, creating structure and predictability in a virtual environment  can positively impact student success and well-being. Start  by communicating to your students what virtual sessions may look like, as well as your expectations for that space. I saw a note from one district reminding students that they need to wear shirts if they are on video – this is an unexpected, yet great expectation to start. When creating a routine, be sure to consider: 

  • Constraints students may be facing: Time, space, and technology constraints may make it challenging to engage all students simultaneously in a live format. For example, students may be sharing computers with siblings or family members during this time. Check-in with students to gain a better understanding of their home situation. And,  consider ways you may be able to record  lessons or present lessons in varying formats so students can engage when they are able to do so. 
  • Movement and breaks: In the classroom, educators often build in a brain break or a fitness break. Keep that routine alive by having students get up and dance or move for a minute.  
  • Co-creating with your students: You can gather insight from students about what they need. In real time, try out different methods for things like group discussion and see what works best. Note that a different method may work with different classes. 

Decide what will work best for you and your students, communicate clearly to families, and provide opportunities for questions and feedback. This will build a sense of safety and stability.  

2. Start with a check-in and affirmation 

Before learning can take place, students need to feel safe, seen, and supported. Consider starting each session with a check-in. You may even want to focus your entire first session together on checking-in. As students share, be sure to affirm and validate what they are feeling, thinking, and experiencing. Some check in ideas include: 

  • Share one word that describes how you are feeling. 
  • Share an animal that represents how you are feeling. 
  • High point, low point, hero moment 
  • What has been going on at home? 
  • What has been on your mind? 
  • What support do you need?  
  • Check your B’s – What are your beliefs? What are you feeling? What are you doing? 


3. Use virtual tools for engagement 

Finding opportunities to interact is key in teaching, and is especially important when we are physically distant from each other. While this may seem like a difficult task in the virtual space, there are simple ways you can make sessions interactive, providing points of connection for students.  Some of my favorite tips: 

  • As the educator, keep yourself on video as much as possible.  
  • Encourage students to engage in the chat box to ask and answer questions. Something as simple as asking students to put an emoji in the chat box if they understand your directions can make them feel heard.  
  • If you are using pre-recorded sessions, include a discussion question where students can email you their response or post to a class discussion board.  
  • Incorporate fun prompts for students to answer - (early grades, upper grades)  
4. Model acceptance of your learning curve  

I cannot stress enough that recognizing that we are all doing our best is incredibly beneficial right now. Just like in the classroom, nothing is going to be perfect, as we are responding in real time to the dynamics and needs of students. Share with your students that you are all adapting and learning together. When your screen inevitably freezes, an activity doesn’t go the way you intended, or you are having an off day, acknowledge it and express that this is all part of the new normal. 

5. Express gratitude 

Gratitude is an important tool for connection and well-being. Build in opportunities to notice and recognize each other and the things around us that provide support and joy. Take time to thank students for showing up—however they are able—and thank yourself for showing up, too.  


Educators, students, and families alike are taking on a whole new skill set to keep our communities both safe and connected. Districts are finding ways to ensure that all students have access to technology and meals. What you are doing is incredible. You are seen and appreciated. Let’s continue to build community as we work together to create our new normal.  

What has your experience been like in the virtual education environment? I’d love to hear from you! Share your insights and tips with me on Twitter at @megangildin


Megan Gildin

Senior National Advisor, Social Emotional Health