Managing Change: Building positive relationships in a virtual world

Good schools have always known the fundamental importance of building positive relationships in order to create successful learning environments. But relationships are much easier to build when face-to-face than in the online world, so how can schools keep their communities connected if remote learning is still the only option?

Relationships – the key to happiness and resilience

Throughout history, human beings have long known the importance of relationships for our wellbeing and quality of life. Harvard University have been carrying out one of the most comprehensive studies of human flourishing in a longitudinal study called The Harvard Study of Adult Development. Their research shows clearly that close relationships, more than any other factor, are what keep people fulfilled throughout their lives. But relationships aren’t just about making us happier, they help build our resilience, especially in childhood. Public Health Wales researched children who were growing up with ‘adverse childhood experiences’ (ACEs). An ACE could be experiencing a significant bereavement, parental separation, or growing up in a home with domestic violence. Sadly, the more ACEs a child grows up with, the greater the risk of them developing a mental illness as they get older. However, the research showed that if children had a relationships with at least one safe, trusted adult, and supportive friends, they were 50% less likely to develop poor mental health in adulthood. Relationships help buffer us against stress and help us bounce back from adversity.

Wellbeing underpins learning and life-long success

The reason we should take wellbeing seriously as educators is because happier students really do learn better and this sets them up for life. A systematic review called The Impact of Pupil Behaviour and Wellbeing on Educational Outcomes showed that children with higher levels of wellbeing generally perform better academically. And relationship building is a core part of boosting student wellbeing because a sense of belonging is crucial for learning. More important than test scores, it turns out that how happy a child is at school may determine how satisfied they grow up to be as adults. In a London School of Economics study called What Predicts A Successful Life? Professor Richard Layard and colleagues demonstrated that a child’s emotional health was the strongest predictor of adult life satisfaction. In fact, it was significantly more important than all the qualifications a person ever obtains in terms of predicting their life satisfaction in adulthood. Layard’s research suggests that teachers have a major impact on children’s happiness whilst at school.

Challenges for staying connected in an online world

The challenge for many schools now is ensuing positive relationships are being built and students’ wellbeing is being developed when they’re not physically in the same building. Students will be missing out on those vital social aspects of school – the general buzz of school life, the making and maintaining of friendships, the camaraderie of studying for and taking exams together, playing sports as part of a team. And teachers will be missing the ability to see students every day, to check in with them and spot those early signs that maybe something isn’t quite right with a student and needs further investigation.

Education expert and psychology professor, Sue Roffey, talks about the importance of ‘micro moments’ in schools for building wellbeing. It is the chats in the corridor, the conversations on break duty – these moments matter to teachers and students. Richard Morgan, Head of Sixth Form at The Perse School in Cambridge, said, “It is hard for students when they are away from the daily social interactions that they get at school. I also think that the little things, which could be resolved by a quick chat, can become bigger worries that are harder to unpick.” There is no doubt that keeping this sense of connection and community going is harder when in virtual classrooms than real ones.

Practical ideas to build relationships and foster wellbeing online

Here are some solutions to help build a sense of belonging in a remote learning environment:

  1. Regular class check-ins: Introduce daily form time online. Teachers and students log on together at the same time each day to check in and say hello.
  2. Online assemblies: Assemblies bring a school community together so continue with these where possible. Share achievements, give out certificates and rewards, and remind students that they are part of something bigger than themselves.
  3.  1:1 catch-ups: It’s possible for individuals to go unnoticed in whole-class check-ins so encourage form and subject teachers to periodically arrange video calls with students one-to-one. Students will appreciate the focused attention.
  4. Make online school time fun:  Laughter and fun are a great antidote to stress and tension and that’s as important for your staff as your students. Lead by example and bring some laughter into your online engagement.  
  5. Introduce extra-curricular challenges: Introduce opportunities for your students to collaborate and be creative through extra-curricular challenges.
  6. Ensure accessibility: Children who do not have appropriate devices to fully access their learning and school engagement will feel isolated. Communicate with parents to understand the devices that are being used at home and identify students who may need hardware support to fully engage.
  7. Ensure tech support is readily available for staff: Teachers need to know they have skilled tech support accessible when they need it. Make sure your tech team are providing out-of-hours service support and are fully responsive to requests.
  8. Ensure staff have access to counselling: Your teachers are under much more pressure than normal and expatriate staff may be feeling the impact of restricted travel home. Take time to talk with your staff, and ensure they have experts they can reach out to for wellbeing support and counselling.

Adrian Bethune is the founder of www.teachappy.co.uk and the lead author of the Oxford International Curriculum for Wellbeing www.oxfordinternationalcurriculum.com.

Adapted from a feature in the October 2020 issue of International School Leader Magazine.

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