As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, student learning has been significantly impacted across all districts. Some researchers estimate 3 million students have either been absent from or have not been actively participating in remote learning since the beginning of the pandemic. And more than half of public school K-12 teachers say the pandemic resulted in significant gaps in learning for students, both academically and in their social-emotional progress.
It will not be enough to rely on the frequency and timing of the same pedagogical techniques practiced before the pandemic — educators will have to focus on creating a social climate in the classroom that fosters engagement. Decades of research point to engagement as being essential to both student learning and student retention, but students must first feel comfortable with their instructor and classmates before they will risk being engaged.
And this means that when school buildings reopen this fall for in-person instruction, rebuilding relational capacity in classrooms is a must to repair the profound disruptions students have experienced over the past 18 months.
Understanding the importance of relational capacity
Relational capacity can be defined as the amount of trust and level of safety that exists among group members. Classes that are low in relational capacity are teacher-centered, with little dialogue or collaboration among students. When the teacher is doing all the talking, they are doing the heavy lifting; in effect, they are the one doing most of the learning. Classes that are high in relational capacity, on the other hand, are characterized by energy and comfort, where students feel mutual ownership in the expectations and learning within the classroom.
Creating this type of positive social classroom climate is essential for deploying high engagement techniques. Building relational capacity enables educators to harness ideas generated by separate learning groups and empower students to interact with their classmates. Student diversity then becomes an asset, as students develop interpersonal relationships built on tolerance and appreciation of differences.
How to develop classrooms high in relational capacity
Educators and staff must provide safe, welcoming, and inclusive learning environments as they start to rebuild trust and re-engage students. Instructional practices to engage students and promote group cohesiveness can include:
- Inclusive room design: Highlight the interests and backgrounds of students. Ensure the room is inclusive to all students by paying attention to the desk/table arrangement and what is in the visual field of students. Avoid linear rows of individual desks as much as possible; instead, group desks in small clusters of four or have tables with four students.
- Purposeful themes: Create a unit theme or a year-long theme to focus the intent of the class lesson each day. This can help keep students connected to a shared vision and remind them why everyone is there and where they are going.
- Mutual accountability: Collaboratively creating a class mission statement and social contract can enable students to begin feeling a shared responsibility for the success of all of their classmates.
- Whole-class interactions: Activities that involve the entire class — for example, using call-and-response with a short phrase like “College Ready” or specific hand claps to recognize achievement — can build unity and community. Collaborative structures among students increase learning as well, so leverage them to ensure students are also establishing relational capacity among themselves.
- Group events and traditions: Shared experiences are one of the most powerful tools to build relational capacity, and can include daily rituals and traditions or group get-togethers and community service.
Building on a foundation of relational capacity, educators can foster classroom environments that will support all students in recovering from the learning losses of COVID-19. Students will be able to participate in deep inquiry and challenge each other’s thinking, all within a context of trust and safety. And what is perhaps most important after a collective trauma like the pandemic, educators will be able to help disconnected students re-engage with school to create interactive, interdependent learning communities.
For free resources on academic and social support and building relational capacity, visit avidopenaccess.org.
Dr. Aliber Lozano is Vice President of Regions Support at AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination). In his role as Vice President, Aliber oversees the AVID Center Regions and uses a systems approach to maximize efficiencies and effectiveness in all aspects of region support services to AVID partner sites and districts.
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