For children, friendships are means to be forged through tactile moments and experiences. Little children build forts together, chase one another on a playground, and play make-believe together. Older children hang out and listen to music, play basketball, or even attend events and concerts together. As we continue to keep our children and teachers safe from COVID-19 by minimizing in-person interactions and facilitating remote or hybrid learning models, children are missing vital opportunities to bond and form friendships.

If there is anything that we have already learned from the pandemic, it’s that we are all capable of thinking outside the box and doing amazing things. We are adaptable and resilient, which is why teachers can help their students to make connections among peers, even in remote environments. By incorporating the strategies that follow into your lesson plans, you can act as a bridge between the online space and the real world so that when the pandemic ends, your students have created sustainable connections and friendships.

Set up Breakout Groups

Online teaching models allow students to focus on their teacher’s lessons and process new information. You already know that one of the best ways to reinforce classroom lectures is to enable students to practice what you’ve taught. Many online conferencing tools, such as Zoom and Google Classroom, allow classroom leaders to construct virtual breakout rooms. In these digital environments teachers can assign small groups of students or pairs to their own virtual space where they can only see and interact with one another. Use breakout rooms to simulate small group work and allow students to get to know one another a little better. Even though they’re not in the same physical space, they can still laugh together and learn together, which will help them form connections that will transcend online to in-person.

Encourage Study Groups

Encourage students to coordinate with one another outside of dedicated classroom time to create small, online study groups. The study group model is particularly valuable for middle school and high school students who need to learn complex concepts and prepare for standardized tests. Since students may be hesitant to form study groups with peers with whom they are not already connected, reach out to parents and encourage them to help facilitate the sessions. You can offer to connect interested parents so that they can coordinate their children’s schedules. Another idea for remote students is to encourage them to “eat” lunch together. They can chat and socialize while they have their lunches. This might be especially helpful for students whose parents are working during their allotted lunch time and are eating alone.

Form a Student-Run Book Club

Book clubs offer a safe space for peers to share ideas, share a laugh, and think deeply about the lessons that our favorite stories teach us. They also allow students who may not already be friends to come together over their mutual love of reading. Encourage student’s to start a book club that meets virtually every month. Encourage your students to attend at least one session. Share the club’s schedule with parents and ask them to encourage their child to attend, even if they have not previously shown a passion for reading. Allow the students to vote on the books you read so they feel the club exists for their interests and not that it is an extension of their regular reading assignments. Hold large group discussions and set up occasional breakout groups where more reticent students will feel comfortable speaking up and sharing their ideas—with their new friends.

Foster Social-Emotional Learning

As we wind down on our months of necessitated remote learning, teachers must continue to foster the types of interpersonal interactions among peers that teach the social-emotional learning (SEL) skills they need to develop at every age. To further support teachers’ SEL curriculum, PLS Classes offers Social-Emotional Learning: Essential to Student Success, a remote learning course that focuses on the importance of supporting academics with SEL. Participants explore the five areas of social-emotional learning: self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, social awareness, and relationship skills. Many of these concepts are especially applicable to our current learning environment.

Photo by Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

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