How to help pupils feel connected in lockdown

The enforced social distancing needn’t mean that students lose their sense of community and belonging, says Rebecca Mace, based on research she has conducted with Dr Pip Bennett
8th May 2020, 6:03am


How to help pupils feel connected in lockdown
Coronavirus: How To Keep Pupils Feeling Connected & Maintain A Sense Of Belonging In School Shutdown

Schools offer much more than just opportunities for knowledge acquisition. 

Ask someone what they remember about school and the reply will often be centred around the sense of how they felt cared for (or not), whether they belonged (or not) and the friendships formed (or not), rather than anything to do with quadratic equations. 

The danger that lies in the necessary retreat to online learning in the face of coronavirus is that pupils find themselves in a situation where they are simply expected to absorb reams of information. 

Some pupils may struggle to remain visible due to problems with connectivity and issues with hardware, others may feel less able to ask for help, and this is exacerbated by teachers having fewer natural points of interaction with pupils.

Not all pupils are able to communicate their needs easily and the technology involved adds a layer of complexity to the situation.

Coronavirus: Maintaining pupils' sense of belonging

And so it is worth considering which activities might have the most impact in terms of care and belonging.

1. Sociability

To date, schools have used computer-based learning in ways that have been geared towards completing tasks by coordinating activities and sharing information. 

Although emotional support and friendship sometimes accompany these activities, they are rarely the focus or part of the intended learning objective. 

This mattered less in day-to-day school life as there were many interactions with a wide variety of people. 

Now this has changed, schemes of work should seek to involve sociability, emotional support and belonging as learning objectives as these will be important ends in themselves as social isolation continues. 

Clearly it is important that they accompany the exchange of information/acquisition of knowledge, as would usually be the case. Online classrooms are at their best when they can create a feeling of a group of people learning together. 

2. Group activities

An emphasis on group activities, with cooperative and collaborative learning, is key, stressing that the educational process occurs through the active participation of pupils and teachers in an online environment that facilitates peer interaction, evaluation and cooperation.

This can take the form of seminars, debates, group projects, role-playing exercises and the sharing of solutions to problems. 

3. School events

Some schools have taken the move to live-stream assemblies and whole-school events for students to access. These are also recorded so that those overseas or those sharing a device with a sibling can participate asynchronously. 

Other schools are continuing to offer both teacher and pupil wellbeing initiatives such as yoga, cafe time for meeting, chatting and support, and music groups such as informal choirs. 

4. Virtual playtime

Some schools are offering virtual playtime for their pupils: live chatrooms at breaktime give pupils a chance to enjoy one another's company. This is important as it continues to offer the chance for people who may not be in each other's circle of friends to encounter one another socially. 

There is a danger that cliques may form or people only surround themselves with people like them; learning to "rub along" with and tolerate the variety of people attending a school has many social benefits, therefore continuing to socialise with this variety of people as well as learn alongside them is particularly important. It will also prove hugely important when coming back into normal schooling again. 

5. Belonging

The sense of belonging that was provided by attending school each day may have come as a surprise to some pupils who were unaware that they needed it or even felt it until access was removed.

Something as simple as having a photograph of the physical building or classroom to see when they log in can go a small way towards addressing some of this loss. 

6. Timetabling

Some schools are helping pupils to retain their sense of belonging by having a full timetable. This might include morning registration, all lessons and then extracurricular clubs after school. Some schools have ensured that pupils are also attending tutor time. 

Checking in with pupils should not be sacrificed on the altar of a full timetable. Some lessons, for example, could be prerecorded and then shared with parallel classes within a department in order to help with this.

Many schools have instinctively recognised that a sense of belonging is an important feature of school life and have tried to reflect this in their online activities.

These are unprecedented times, but technology is being used in creative ways to ensure some kind of fusion between online and offline positive school experiences.

This article is part of wider research being conducted into (online) belonging and care in education, by Dr Pip Bennett and Rebecca Mace, at University College London

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