Building Relationships Online

This post is part of a series of articles, blog posts, and short briefs produced by EXPLO Elevate focused on supporting schools’ virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

by Sudipti Kumar | Director of Research

Research has shown that time spent building relationships with students (both student-to-teacher and student-to-student) at the start of the school year pays dividends throughout the year.

A 2016 systematic review of 46 published studies found that higher quality teacher-student relationships were associated with increased engagement in school as measured on a variety of domains including improved psychological engagement and academic performance, and fewer disruptive behaviors.

This is likely not new or surprising information for educators. Yet in this moment, teachers are naturally concerned around the “how” of building relationships with their students in a way that they may never have been in the past—particularly if they are beginning the year in an online or hybrid environment where some or all students will not be face-to-face. Unlike when schools shut down in March, in the new school year teachers won’t have the benefit of months of in-classroom time with their students before they were forced to switch to remote. 

We have pored over dozens of available resources on building relationships with students in an online context. Below is a set of suggestions based on these articles and blog posts as well as links to the most relevant ones we found—we hope they provide some actionable and practical advice for educators as they plan for the first few weeks of school.

Getting to Know Your Students/Starting the School Year

  • Set up an easy-to-use system for getting to know your students. This 2016 Cult of Pedagogy article about setting up a “4-Part System for Getting to Know Your Students” is not written about building relationships in remote learning environments specifically. However, Gonzalez has broken the process down into four digestible parts (1. Break the Ice, 2. Take Inventory, 3. Store Your Data, 4. Do Regular Check-ups) and it is a solid system to use whether students are face-to-face or virtual. We love the student inventory idea in particular—in our Agile Course Design workshop we use the term Empathy Interviews for the same concept. Gonzalez also has great examples of inventories broken down by age group.
  • “Humanize” your virtual classroom. This piece shares principles and practices teachers can employ to humanize their learning spaces—that is, create a space where students are known, valued, respected and safe whether that be in the face to face setting or online. To humanize online learning spaces, the article summarizes Michelle Pacansky-Brock’s “Pocket PD Guide” on “Humanizing Online Teaching and Learning”. The three grounding principles: “cultivate our human presence”, “identify high opportunity students” and “be warm demanders” are discussed in-depth with examples.
  • Focus on creating and tracking “Moments of Genuine Connection”. In this piece, Stuart lays out some grounding principles and specific practices educators can frame their relationship-building strategies around when starting the school year online. One of my favorites is Practice #2: the importance of creating “Moments of Genuine Connection” with your students (or MGC’s). Stuart includes a thorough description of what MGC’s are and examples of educators who practiced using them in the online space. One example he shares: “When Stacey from Wisconsin held her class Zoom sessions in Spring 2020, she used the Waiting Room feature to slowly bring students into the main class session. As she brought students in, she’d attempt an MGC with each one — 30 seconds apiece. She was the first to admit that this wasn’t perfect — it’s easiest to do MGCs when you’re one-on-one with a child — but it was the best fit for her remote teaching situation at the time.”
  • Maximize the use of technology that can foster relationship-building. In this blog post about planning for the first week of remote school, examples of how teachers are operationalizing virtual activities to build community are shared. In one example, a teacher is using Flipgrid and Schoology to have students working at virtual stations alone and together during the first few days to get to know her and each other. The benefit is that students are practicing their tech skills as well as bonding. 

Building Community and Maintaining Relationships Over the Course of the Year

  • Minimize transactional distance through regular check-ins. In this article, Cindy Miller provides a reminder that minimizing transactional distance between the teacher and student is heavily skewed toward effort on the part of the educator. In the remote space, teachers can’t expect their students to come to them if they are frustrated, bored, or experiencing other challenges. One way to set up a sustaining check-in process is shared by educator Mari Venturino. She has a daily google form students complete as a warm-up activity. Venturino used this strategy during face to face instruction but it can easily be adapted for online learning.
  • Incorporate students as facilitators and leaders of the class. While this blog post is focused on universities moving online during the start of the pandemic, the suggestions are universal and hold value for educators as they look towards the fall as well. In particular, Donavan’s suggestion around having each class managed by different student “discussion leaders” who lead the conversation and encourage conversation, is one that can promote community, equity, and student-leadership.
  • Set (and revisit) class norms. This set of suggestions from the Harvard Graduate School of Education includes the importance of establishing norms and revisiting them regularly. In particular, hybrid environments will require a specific set of norms so online and face-to-face students understand how they will communicate, collaborate, and share materials.
  • Ensure students have appropriate social capital. It is critical for students to have someone on the ground during distance learning who can continue to provide support throughout the fall. For schools, measuring their student’s social capital will hold significant value. We have shared this Relationship Mapping Strategy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Caring Common Project in previous blog posts, but it is truly a treasure of a resource. The tool allows administrators to look at each individual student and plot the connections between these students and other adults in the school. Given that distance learning can require significant support for students beyond just the educators in the virtual “building”, this strategy can be adapted to measure student’s social connections beyond the school as well. 

If you have additional resources on building relationships with students in an online or hybrid context, please share them with us at We would love to keep adding to this list.