Classroom Relationships – Do They Matter?

4 Strategies to Building Relationships in the (Virtual) Classroom

You have that one student: the one who, when they’re absent, the classroom dynamics change completely for the better.

Maybe it’s that one student who is an eye roller, who always has a comment,or who just never really engages.

Could be your classroom is filled with disrespectful behavior; toward you and/or toward peers.

You could have a classroom full of under-performers or maybe this year is just a year of low performers.

What do these daily problems have in common?

Each one represents a break down in the relationship between the teacher and the students.

Read that again. 

Each one represents a break down in the relationship between the teacher and the students.


It might be a break down in a relationship with one student.

Or maybe with almost the entire class.

Or maybe it’s like this every year….

Who is responsible to establish relationships in the classroom?

Yeah, that would be the job of the adult in the room.

What about that virtual learning experience?

It might be a little different….   Or is it?

That one student might be the one who never shows up or doesn’t turn their video on.

Or the one who stares at the screen in such a way you KNOW they aren’t looking at you.

How engaged are they?

Do they ask questions you answered during the “lesson?”


To be clear, there are many things that are strong indicators of our relationships with our students.

Research repeatedly shows how relationships are directly linked to creating safe learning environments, learner engagement, student performance, and quality classroom management. 

The beginning of the school year is historically the time when those relationships are built, supported, and cemented. Most schools that support social emotional learning, resilience, and equitable education require teachers to take time in the first month to establish their teacher-student, peer, and staff-family relationships. 

There are activities, tried and true, that support doing just that. They range from creating classroom guidelines to introducing self-reflection and self-regulation. We incorporate self-portraits, sharing opportunities, and lay the foundations for positive social and academic interactions.

What is also true is that establishing trusting, healthy relationships with students also decreases challenging behaviors, contributing to increased success in classroom management. 

Trusting, healthy relationships include the following, agreed and acted on by both individuals:

Most of these should look familiar - they are components of creating a safe learning environment (click here for the blog where we discussed the sense of safety). It is crucial that one feels safe for the establishment of trusting, healthy relationships. Not surprisingly, consistent use and application of the components listed above is how trust is built. Consistency is also what leads to a healthy relationship.

But what about virtual learning?

What about remote learning (used here to describe distance learning with little or no technology)?

How do we create those relationships in a virtual environment or where there is little to no personal interaction?

Some things don’t change, though how we do it might be a little different. Here are four techniques we can use to begin to establish, nurture, and cement relationships.

Learn Their Names

This sounds simple. However, particularly in diverse areas, knowing how to pronounce the first and last name of each student is a sign of respect and establishment of trust. There are fun ways to do this both in person, virtually, and even remotely without technology. Consider phonetics, pictographs, and creative self-representation.

Establish Classroom Guidelines or Group Norms

Establishing clear boundaries and expectations that are agreed upon is the first and most important order of business. This can be done in a virtual setting by engaging the learners in the process. When they help to establish the guidelines and norms, they have more buy in. Using break out rooms, white boards, chats, or even paper and pencil, all learners can participate in the establishing of the foundations.

For those students who don’t have access to technology, we can begin with written dialog, being sure we are writing to their level. In some cases, audio files may be accessible, even short videos. Consider all your options in the first conversations you have with the student and family. One recommendation I make in rural areas is to look into whether iPods or texting on phones is accessible. In some cases, it may simply be writing and paper. Handwriting is always more personal than print, remember!

Talk About The Relevant Elephant

This is the technique of being sure to address what is obvious and – usually - awkward, uncomfortable, or unclear. A great example is related to using video in a virtual classroom. Some students may not be comfortable with their environment or even with their own “reflection” on video. 

There are things we can do to address it.

Other relevant elephants might be current events, sudden protocol changes, etc. Consider how to be supportive and respectful in your questions and discussion.

For remote learners, in addition to some of the above, might include things like whether they can read your writing, how not having access to technology impacts the situation, and the challenges of staying current and in touch.

Accountability Partners

This is the opportunity to create social opportunities inside and outside of the learning environment. Accountability partners can be those who check in with each other to:

One great technology resource for this is flipgrid. For remote learners, accountability can be done with phone calls or socially distanced meet ups.

This is the beginning of the conversation about creating meaningful relationships for our new, COVID classrooms. I’m sure you have other ideas and I WOULD LOVE TO HEAR THEM! Drop me a line or better still….

Join us on September 15, 2020 at 11 AM PST for our next episode of our Live Virtual Education Series: 4 Strategies to Build Relationships in the (Virtual) Classroom that Help AVOID Challenging Behaviors. 

(Yes, we will be exploring and experiencing additional ways to create, nurture, and cement trusting, healthy relationships with and between our students.)

See you there!