Connecting with Students During A Pandemic

By Ryan McCormick

We are now several months into this pandemic and as schools around the country reopen under new and varied protocols, educators are prioritizing connecting with students and building relationships over all else. However, given new school protocols and practice, building these relationships may seem hard or even impossible.

As I think about connecting with students effectively in a hybrid and/or virtual version of school, I’m reminded of something useful I learned years ago about working with young children called The Five Love Languages. This model, developed by Gary Chapman and Ross Campbell (The Five Love Languages of Children: The Secret to Loving Children Effectively, Chapman and Campbell, 2008) and brought into practical use by Jeanine Fitzgerald in her book The Dance of Interaction – A Guide to Managing Children’s Challenging Behavior (Fitzgerald, 2005) has been a useful tool for working with people of all ages.

The Five Love Languages are essentially different ways in which children show they care and seek connection. Although Fitzgerald’s book focuses on very young children, I’ve found many of these styles relevant to people of all ages. Let’s take a minute to review each style and consider how we may meet the connection needs of our students during this pandemic. Note, some of these will seem easier to adapt than others.

Some people show they care or seek connection through affirmation. This is the student who may ask, “Did I do a good job?” or say “You’re the best teacher ever!” People who connect through affirmations tend to celebrate the efforts of others and in return seek the same appreciation.

In a virtual setting, this may be one of the easier connection styles to accommodate, but it will take an intentional effort, especially for educators whose go to connection style is not affirmation. Look for opportunities to authentically affirm the efforts of students during this challenging transition to a new version of school.

Quality Time
Quality time is about one-to-one time when the teacher spends individual time with a student. This can be challenging with many schools shortening the school week, resulting in time being scarce. However, finding the time is super important and, in my opinion, should be a priority. Integrate some time during one-to-one check-ins with students to simply share stories, tell jokes, play a quick game and show you care beyond academics.

This is the student who frequently asks to help out by organizing books and other classroom supplies, volunteers to help clean up after activities or help other students with work. This style can be challenging in the virtual world but with a little creative thinking can be accomplished. Find ways to include students in the planning process and solicit their ideas and help in planning and preparing for online sessions. The important thing will be to acknowledge their effort and help.

Gift givers are those students who love to give and receive gifts. In fact, it may seem that they like giving more than receiving. This is the student who gives you drawings or brings in little objects like interesting rocks or flowers from recess just for you. Over the years I’ve received many little gifts from students, including drawings, pine cones, sea shells, and little figures. Each one is special and they remind me of the connections to these students; I’ve saved almost all of them.

This can be a challenging one to accomplish in the virtual world; but again, with a little creative thinking, is possible.

Okay, this one was challenging before the pandemic – the student who offers a hug, wants to sit close or in your lap, or hold your hand. Many educators must, by policy or by personal preference, refrain from contacts such as hugs. There’s also the reality that some people are just not comfortable with close physical contact, which is true for me. But regardless, my heart goes out to students whose primary connection style is touch, especially right now as research suggests that children and adults need a minimum of 12 healing touches a day; and furthermore, during stressful times they may need even more.

Honestly, I’m not sure how to meet these needs but I’m eagerly looking forward to the day when we can high five, hug, and be close again. In the meantime, let students know you care and perhaps share a few high fives from a distance or give virtual hugs.

The most important thing we can do is to become more aware of how our students seek to connect, and The Five Love Languages model has been such a valuable tool in my career working with people young and old. Remember, the way in which a person shows love is often the way they feel loved. Becoming more aware of these styles has been the key to developing the authentic connections crucial to helping my students learn.