Dr. Stacey Gonzales is an educator, leader, and innovator. She is the owner of SG Creative Connections whose mission is dedicated to designing and fostering greater social connections and emotional supports in both face-to-face and online environments. She has dedicated her career to inspiring others as an enthusiastic, curious, thought-leader in the field of education. She values developing authentic personal and professional relationships built on a strong foundation of trust. She is currently the Director of Curriculum & Instruction at Consolidated High School District 230, an award-winning three high school district in the south suburbs of Chicago. She strives daily to inspire, motivate, and engage leadership teams to ensure all 8,000 high school students are well-prepared for their post-secondary experiences.
When it comes to life during a pandemic, one thing has become a very clear implication for educators: there is a tremendous need for social connection and emotional supports during this complicated time. With an intentional plan and some creative energy, we can design online spaces where social connections thrive and individuals are emotionally supported.
Anxiety levels continue to rise as schools must shift between remote and in-person learning, COVID cases increase, and economic struggles are realized. In the United States, there is also added pressure due to a politically charged atmosphere, outrage over social injustices and inequities, and new research that shows young people with significant increases in anxiety, depression, and suicide.
That said, we must ensure that we are intentional in our design of online learning spaces that provide social connections and emotional supports for both students and staff. Here are a few simple adjustments which can be easily applied during virtual live sessions (i.e. zoom, google meets, etc.) to build socially connected and emotionally supportive online learning spaces.
Have a Welcome Screen Ready
Creating a consistent routine provides structure and sets the intention for your online session from the beginning. As participants are logging in, have a welcome message that encourages participants to build social connections, set up their technology, or provide an agenda for the session. You will want to provide specific instructions and keep the task simple. Having your shared screen projecting to participants when they enter the online meeting room provides clarity and alleviates awkwardness. It also allows the facilitator to connect privately via the chat or support participant needs discreetly before beginning.
Create Collaborative Norms
In order to enhance social interactions and emotional supports when online, it is imperative that participants understand the rules of engagement in online sessions. When participants collaboratively develop norms for online sessions there is a greater sense of trust and risk-taking among participants as well as a greater sense of psychological safety (Garmston, R. J., & Wellman, B.M., 2013; Yamagata-Lynch, 2014).
The process of creating collaborative norms online should include the following: input from all members of the group, review and adjustment of the norms, and agreement of how to enforce the norms.
When creating norms, I use a shared google document with the following questions for participants to unpack their thinking.
- Think of one of the best virtual meetings you’ve attended. What specific things did the facilitator or participants do that worked well?
- Think of an online session that was terrible. What specific things did the facilitator or
participants do or say that didn’t work?
I then facilitate a discussion, using the document with participants’ ideas to create the group’s norms. I make sure to add any that I know will be necessary for my work to be successful. During the discussion I ask questions about what will make an online live session successful. Allowing participants to have ownership of the culture of the online space is crucial to its future success. Some questions might include:
- When should video cameras be turned on?
- How will participants indicate they want to speak?
- How can we ensure that all individuals are heard?
It’s important that after the norms have been developed they are referred to each session, adjustments are made, and participants hold each other accountable to the norms.
Create “Forced Fun”
I used to work for an organization where we would have a yearly team retreat. This usually included team building challenges, scavenger hunts, and other activities. Some in the organization complained about the forced fun; however, I noticed that these individuals were usually the ones most hesitant at first and also most engaged by the middle of the day. The same is true in online sessions. They are awkward at first. There is a low-level of anxiety and cognitive dissonance from staring at 2D images from 16 inches away on a screen as you watch yourself speak on camera.
Short engaging activities can reduce anxiety, build social connections, and help identify participants’ emotional states. A forced fun activity that works equally well with adults and students is a GIF share. I start by having participants go to an online Padlet (similar to an online bulletin board). I ask them to post a GIF that shows how they are currently feeling. This is a fun way for everyone to express themselves, be creative, and have a good laugh. It continues to build a culture of social connections and emotional supports in an online session as well.
I’ve also offered quick rounds of online BINGO. There are simple online generators where you can create boxes with information that will help participants learn a little more about each other in a very non-threatening way. A simple google search for “get to know you bingo” brings up hundreds of ideas. There are also free online apps that allow you to design and build your own online Bingo game. Try it. It’s fun and gets lots of laughs!
When designing online live sessions, it is crucial to thoughtfully consider the various ways to engage participants. Using technology tools to enhance participants connections leads to better communication and outcomes for participants. Establishing an opening routine, setting norms, and designing activities for authentic interaction are some ways to enhance social connections and emotional supports for all participants during an online session.
Assign roles for participants when placing them in breakout rooms. This allows participants to have voice and choice during their online experience.
When discussing difficult topics or sensitive issues, model transparency first as the facilitator. Be honest about what you are experiencing and feeling during this time or about the topic.
Use longer than normal wait time. When asking a question online, it is important to make sure participants know how to respond and have time to respond. Without the context of physical social cues from others, it takes more time for that first brave person to respond. Don’t get anxious, wait for it. Someone will usually share.
Schedule quick five-minute one-on-one sessions. Checking in with others individually connects them to you and builds a greater sense of trust. This has great rewards when the whole group is together online
Don’t Be Afraid to Restart
If something doesn’t go as planned (your internet crashes, the dog spills your coffee, or any other interference), ask for a restart. We are all in this together and the greater we can support each other during this time when going online live may be the only chance in our day to socially connect with others, it is a worthwhile investment to create a meaningful, intentional experience that will leave others walking away feeling uplifted and emotionally supported.