Emotionally Connected Learning Is Possible Online. Start With Relationships.

Jul 14, 2020

July is a luminous month that I’ve spent in previous years exploring, traveling, visiting friends and feeling that deep rejuvenation after a busy end of a school year. This time, it’s unsettling, as summer has quietly arrived without the crescendo of pomp and circumstance that comes with graduation. Many of us are still sheltering in place and unable to predict how the future will look. There is no denying the uncertainty we feel, and my work with social-emotional learning and mindfulness leads me to acknowledge the collective fear and vulnerability instead of trying to “move past it” without honoring it.

In my past two decades of remote teaching and learning, I have taught courses to all ages of learners, and a multitude of sizes of classrooms. Over the past four months, during COVID-19, I taught many different mindfulness, technology, storytelling and social-emotional learning programs for different sizes and types of cohorts. What we focus on first, every single time, is relationships. We focus on ways to show care and compassion for each other. The content follows.

Over time, I learned that the number one thing that groups of all ages responded to online was my enthusiasm

I used to approach my remote teaching and leadership concerned that I needed to establish great control in order for the “machine” of online learning to run smoothly. But over time, I learned that the number one thing that groups of all ages responded to online was my enthusiasm. I discovered that I needed to show my own passion and curiosity visibly online, holding meaningful space for connection. Once I learned that my role was not to be the center of the architecture, I could easily hold the frame for my students and collaborators. I infused energy into the conduits of our conversations, and I released some of the control and the need to be in the middle of all that was happening. My presence was felt, but I was not the loudest voice.

The collaboration, cooperation and learning grew from there.

Here are three key insights about digital mediums and remote teaching, and three core research-backed practices that you can use right away to build connection capacity in your community. These are timeless learnings that help us pave the way forward, even in uncertain times.

Key Insights

The number one focus is connection. Participants need to feel connected to you as a facilitator of the learning. Online learning is most effective when everyone belongs. It hinges on relational trust, and your job, in part, is to keep the foundation on safety and inclusion. Start by recognizing everyone by name, and inviting everyone present to put other distractions away. Close email, close other tabs. Show yourself putting your phone away. It takes deliberate, obvious reminders to be conscious about being present for that space and time. All ages are actually craving the explicit invitation to “solotask.” I also start sessions by “grounding” by asking for some silence and by taking a few breaths together.

We all have limits, as humans in physical bodies. Online platforms for synchronous sharing tend to become tiresome (in my own body!) after about 45 minutes. If you use shared webinars for learning, aim for less than an hour together. It serves as your surge of real-time connection, and you can augment your teaching and learning with asynchronously shared research, readings and recordings. And, build in time for stretches and movement.

The questions are often more important (and revealing) than the answers. Design a learning space that encourages open wondering, questioning, and inquiry. Stay open to the surprises that will emerge in discovery. And remember how messy it will get as you move online. Know that having access to technology at home might be hard for your students, who might have limited resources. We need to rethink our assumptions that everyone has access to the internet (with bandwidth to handle video), or private space for talking/listening and being present. As much flexibility and compassion as you can provide will be a benefit.

Core Practices

Use scavenger hunts and check-ins to start sessions. Make sure the group is comfortable with how to use the online forum for discussion. Give a quick check-in prompt, such as a word to describe their day, or a color to represent how they feel right now, and have them practice muting and unmuting themselves in a quick round of speaking and sharing. (Finding those buttons is the scavenger hunt.) Encourage students to show their screen to increase the sense of connection.

Begin building in meaningful storytelling. You could try my “Extraordinary in the Ordinary” icebreaker: This is a quick group exercise for the beginning of a synchronous online class. Before the meeting, tell students they will each have 30 seconds to share about something ordinary they have at home that has an extraordinary significance to them. As they share, you can use a visible countdown timer to help keep your session timing on track. Encourage them to use the 30-second story as an opportunity to reveal something about themselves that we wouldn’t otherwise know. (For example, I showed a pen from Belgium, and talked about my time teaching in Brussels.) It’s a way to get to know each other a little better, to connect and to spark curiosity.

Take turns with students leading the discussion. Invite students to lead parts of the discussion by playing separate roles. You decide how complex to make this, taking cues from students. Involving them in creating questions for how to address the material is one way to start.

These techniques and tools infuse creative mindful elements, giving learning personal context and meaning. We’re using this current state of disruption to cultivate curiosity and kindness, even in the face of our fear and anxiety, sculpting something vibrant in its vulnerability.

During these past few months of change, my response has been to focus on practices for connection, sustenance and renewal. I’ve also indulged in space and quiet, letting myself be silent when I need to be. I have invited others to try “Just 3 Breaths to Reconnect,” a brief mindfulness exercise, to help us move through this time without clenching. Remember, we are serving our communities even more effectively when we are taking care of ourselves in the process. It’s a time to focus on collective capacity, awareness and vulnerability, and we’re stronger when we’re connected by courage and compassion.


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