By Joyce Gan, Literacy Intervention Teacher at Epworth Literacy

Open communication and active listening are vital for building rapport. Everyone wants to be heard; children are no exception.

When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit our shores, Epworth Literacy programmes moved en masse from bricks to clicks. Teaching and learning migrated from face-to-face interactions to a fully online environment. This transition brought about a new set of challenges for forming meaningful connections between teachers and students. These challenges are further compounded since most of the students had learning difficulties such as dyslexia and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Everyone wants to be heard; students are no exception. In building rapport, it is important to listen. Doing so will allow students to know that their thoughts and feelings are respected. Here, we gather some tips from Epworth Literacy Teachers on forming meaningful connections with students online.

Instead of going straight into the lesson, understand the state of the student by playing games. Starting off on a simple and light-hearted note serves as a gentle nudge to engage students. This can be a kick-start to a fruitful online lesson. With the safety measures and restrictions in place, students may experience stress from being cooped up at home. When students get visibly distressed during online lessons, it will be helpful to prompt and ask them to share about their feelings.

For older students, being able to talk about their day can serve as a form of stress relief. Younger students who might not be able to communicate as effectively can use visual aids like emojis to indicate their mood. This gives a better gauge on the students’ emotional state.

Checking in on students’ wellness can be as simple as asking if they are okay, and if they need a short break. For students who are not able to verbalise their discomfort, prompting them to express themselves with a simple thumbs up or thumbs down would be helpful. Subsequent lesson activities can then be modified to account for their fatigue and

The gap between online and physical lessons can be large. Predictably, students take a longer time to open up online. To bridge this physical barrier, take the time to understand the students’ learning profiles, likes and dislikes, as well as strengths and weaknesses before the commencement of the first session. When students feel like they are understood and know that their needs are met, it eases them into opening up. Be patient, trust takes time to build.

One of the drawbacks of online lessons would be the teachers’ lack of control over their students’ learning environment.

During physical lessons at Epworth Literacy Centre, Teachers have the liberty to organise and set up the classroom based on the students’ interest. The surrounding tools can be used to monitor a student’s attention level, and is also often used to diffuse tension, alleviate anxiety and stress when necessary. However, when conducting online lessons, there will be a few factors that are beyond the teachers’ control. For example, parents or siblings in the same room may be points of distraction or barriers to communication during the lesson.

There may also be students who do not feel comfortable with expressing themselves in the presence of their family members. In order to mitigate this, different components of the lesson can be switched to pique the students’ interest.

Finally, parental involvement and cooperation are crucial for teachers to form meaningful connections with students online. When the transition from physical to online lessons first took place, parents were skeptical; they had their doubts on the effectiveness of the lessons. In order to ensure the continuation of the students’ literacy progress, it is important to dispel the parents’ doubts and apprehension. This can be done by allowing parents to sit in actual online lessons for them to observe how the lesson is conducted online.

Parents are also constantly reminded that children need time to adapt to new learning arrangements. By addressing the parents’ concerns and anxiety, they will be more receptive and cooperative in bringing the best online lesson experience possible for their child. For example, teachers can work closely with parents to create a more conducive learning environment. This increases the likelihood of having a successful online lesson.

Teachers, parents and students must participate actively for an authentic connection to be cultivated. Although teachers will not always be able to relate to their students directly, universal aspects of emotions such as sadness and frustration transcends communication barriers. There is no perfect solution to blend online and physical lessons seamlessly.

As we move forward in this new hybrid landscape of online and physical learning, the tenets of Epworth Literacy’s intervention programmes remain the same – to prioritise the students’ mental well-being first.