Building a Sense of Belonging With Students

by Sudipti Kumar | Director of Research

As a follow-up to our recent piece that compiled tips for educators on building and nurturing relationships with students online, we wanted to dive deep on concrete and practical ideas to get to know your students.

Below, we have compiled some strategies that can work well in the online context and are crowdsourcing more to add to this list based on what educators are planning and doing for the first few weeks and months of school. Please share with us ways you plan to get to know your students, either via Twitter @EXPLOElevate or email at

Utilizing Video Software Features

Popular video software platforms such as Zoom have some built-in features that educators can utilize to get to know their students. The examples below are based on Zoom, but there are similar features in Google Meet or WebEx. 

See All of Your Students. If possible, ensure that your Zoom browser allows you to see all participants in one screen during “gallery view”. Zoom allows for up to 49 participants to be seen on one screen and it can be a game changer to not have to scroll to the next window to see everyone. Directions on how to ensure you can see all of your students at the same time are available here

Have Fun With Naming. As a start to each online class session, educators can rely on the “participant name” feature for quick responses to questions and to serve as an interactive icebreaker. For example, students could start each class renaming themselves with their one-two word answer to a question posed by the teacher. Opportunities to put students in small breakout groups to discuss their responses and build rapport with one another is an added way to build community across the class. 

Get Comfortable With Using the “Waiting Room”. We have mentioned this idea before but it bears repeating since it’s simple to do but could provide tremendous value: using the virtual waiting room feature and admitting students one by one, especially on the first few days of school, can allow the teacher to have an individual touchpoint with each student just as if he or she was standing by the door saying hello. 

Incorporate Cool Ed-Tech 

There is quite a bit of ed-tech out there that can help teachers in all aspects of online teaching and learning. In fact, the sheer amount of apps and resources can feel overwhelming. The below examples are a few that hold promise specifically when teachers are trying to get to know students and build rapport. 

Create Inviting Online Spaces. In order for students to open up, share, and feel part of their classroom community, creating a visually appealing online space could be helpful so students feel part of something even while they are at home. Some teachers use virtual bitmoji classrooms as a way to build that space. This how-to can be a helpful resource if you want to personalize your online space. Older students could also create their virtual bitmoji learning space and share with each other and the teacher, which could be an incredible way to learn about students with an equity lens, since it doesn’t focus on their current physical environment, but rather the one that they think best represents them. 

Digital Pinboards as Virtual Bulletin Boards. Use a digital pinboard via tools such as Padlet where students can each individually write about their hopes and dreams for the school year and then have it be aggregated in one place for all to see. This teacher’s Padlet site shows an example of students’ hopes and dreams as well as the teacher’s individual responses to each student. 

New Apps to Keep in Touch. While this app (Together) is designed for long-distance grandparents and parents to stay in touch with young children, we have heard some schools using it as a way for teachers to connect with their youngest students. Where it is being used, all students in the class are downloading it, and then the teacher is playing games with each of their students and also having individual interactive moments. (Many thanks to Ana Brunson from Columbia Grammar & Prep for telling us about this app!) 

Design Meaningful Activities to Promote Connection

Many activities that teachers do to get to know their students in-person could be adapted for the online context. We have seen virtual bingo and online scavenger hunts as popular getting to know you games. Other ideas for getting to know you activities are shared below.  

Have Students Create Virtual Lockers. To learn more about individual students, one idea we loved is having each one create their own “virtual locker” or “cubby”. While this may work more easily for older students, it could be adapted for the younger set and/or completed with parental support. This blog post provides a great guide on how this educator plans to start the school year virtually. Her “virtual locker” idea is listed at #4, complete with tips on how to implement this within the classroom and with resources that can be accessed for free in her digital resource library. 

Learn About How Students View the World. If students feel comfortable and are able, they could share photos (with just their teacher or the whole class) of interesting things they see in their environment during an outdoor break. For example, some students may take photos of trees, others of animals, and yet others of cars. What the student focuses on and why he or she appreciates that photo can help further illuminate who that student is in a fairly simple way, as well as incorporate time away from the screen. 

Take Mindful Connection Breaks. While designing lessons including slide shows, videos, or other content for students, mindfully include pauses for students. The research on brain breaks is plentiful, and can be even more pressing as students try to navigate new classes and content, particularly in the online context. If teachers are offering a synchronous lesson, the pause could mean that students take a few minutes to respond to an icebreaker question or a quick poll that is unrelated to the content. It could also mean that students turn off their video for an actual break and the teacher creates a quick breakout room with 1-2 students to check-in. 

Please help us add to this list! We aim to add strategies weekly so this can be a resource for educators whether they teach online, in a hybrid environment, or in-person.