Care for Your Students During Self-Paced Virtual Learning

Learn strategies to support your students’ social and emotional needs during online virtual learning.

Grades K-12 17 min Resource by:
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In a virtual learning environment, social and emotional learning (SEL) needs that have always been present may become amplified, and new needs may also emerge.

Teachers and students are now separated by time and space, so normal support systems are likely being disrupted. Students may feel isolated from their peers and disappointed to be missing out on milestone events, like Spirit Week, prom, and graduation. Though they may not always admit it, they also miss their teachers and the familiarity of a school routine. Likewise, teachers will be removed from their regular interaction with students, and they may also feel disconnected from their support networks of systems, colleagues, and friends.

Although these challenges exist, there are strategies and opportunities that can help us meet SEL needs in a virtual learning environment. In short, we can address many SEL needs by being connected and empowered.


Teaching and learning is grounded in relationships; this is the foundation of nearly everything that happens in our classrooms, and this is often the bond that keeps students (and teachers) coming back. In times of distance learning, staying connected is more important than ever, and while it may look a little different, there are ways to establish and maintain relationships while we are physically apart.

A safe and trusting virtual community doesn’t just happen by chance. It must be intentionally established and cultivated for it to thrive. Once you have established your online community, you are not finished. You still need to consciously work on maintaining both your classroom community and the personal connections you have created with your students.

Be intentional about finding opportunities to connect on both an academic as well as personal level. In fact, maintaining that personal connection is one of the best ways to keep your students coming back. If students feel connected to you and your classroom, they will not only work harder academically, but they will also be healthier personally.

10 Community-Building Strategies for Self-Paced Remote Learning

You can begin to establish community even before the first day by sending a personal welcome to each student before class begins. Be sure to set a positive and inviting tone and include parents on the communication. You may also want to post a welcome message in your online classroom to greet students when they first arrive. Ideally, make this a short video greeting at the top of your main page.

Your community will thrive only if students feel safe. As with your face-to-face classroom, be sure to set up clear protocols and expectations at the start of your online experience. The Heart and Brain Feedback protocol is one great example. In addition to this strategy, consider getting input from your students, so they have a voice in designing this. Ownership can lead to more buy-in. Of course, you should always model the behavior you wish to see in your students. This might be the most powerful strategy of all. You can also provide sentence stems to help guide students as they get started communicating online.

These introductions and mixers may come in many formats. They can be video introductions, class discussion posts, individual slides on a collaborative slideshow (Download PowerPoint Template), posts to a virtual bulletin board, partner interviews, and more. The key is to provide safe and inviting ways for students to share about themselves and to get to know their classmates and teacher. And yes, you should be an active part of your online community and participate as well. Let your students get to know you!

Ideas for mixer prompts include:

  • Introduce yourself to the class.
  • Respond to a question of the day.
  • What is your favorite _____?
  • Make a prediction.
  • Ask a question and have others respond.
  • Ask a “Would you rather…?” question. (“Would you rather _____ or _____?”)
  • Reply to a silly prompt to make fun connections. (“If I were a superhero, I’d want to be _____.”)
  • Respond as a character in a story.
  • Convert campfire games into video responses.
  • Tell a telephone story.
  • Share something for which you are grateful.

When you begin your self-paced class, you will need to teach your students how to function in a digital classroom. It’s good practice to make the first week or so about learning processes and tools, and this is a perfect time for community building. Have students practice using the tools and processes of your course with community-building prompts (rather than academic content). For example, when learning to use online discussions, have students introduce themselves and reply to others using your established protocols. When learning to submit online assignments to the teacher, have them send a message to you about their needs and how they learn best. This lets them learn a process while also connecting with you more personally and giving you valuable insights.

As the teacher, you have the most influential voice in the classroom, and your students want to hear from you. Your students will want (and need) to get to know you, so be sure to let them see who you are by participating in class mixers, but also consider posting a daily video of yourself introducing the lesson of the day. By seeing your face and hearing your voice, students will feel more connected. Here are some ways you can connect on a regular basis with your students:

  • Daily teacher video messages (greeting, sharing, overview, reminders)
  • Video lessons (screencast with your voice)
  • Daily read-aloud
  • Individual text or video feedback on assignments
  • Individual email messages to each student once per week
  • An email or phone call to those students who have not engaged online
  • Virtual office hours for one-on-one conversations
  • Live video meetings, including full-class and small-group sessions

Find a way to make a personal connection each day (or at least each week). Although students are coming in and out of the learning space at different times, you can engage them asynchronously. Consider posting a daily prompt for students to answer (a class question of the day or an icebreaker to start a lesson). This gives your academic space a social and friendly dimension. You may also want to consider a “How are you feeling today?” prompt. This can alert you to students who you may need to reach out to individually. Public questions for the class can be posted as discussions, form submissions, Padlet posts, Flip (Tips) recordings, or quick online polls. Prompts about personal feelings could be sent via a private poll or online form.

Think of this like the bulletin board in your physical classroom. It’s a place for you to post as the teacher, but you can also empower students to share in this space, too. It’s perfect for celebrating birthdays, holidays, and student accomplishments. Students can be encouraged to post items that represent themselves; this is a great way to personalize an online learning space. Think about ways you can make this a fun, engaging space.

This is similar to a parking lot poster that you would use in your classroom. It’s a place for students to post questions or share ideas with their teacher and classmates. One common format is to post an ongoing discussion thread at the top of your online course. Students can pose questions or offer responses to their classmates and their teacher. If you don’t have access to a discussion tool, you could link a collaborative document with editing rights for anyone in the class. An online form can work, as well, but this would probably be a private conversation between the student and teacher since students won’t have access to the submissions. If this online form option is used, teachers can set up email notifications, so they get alerted when a new submission is entered.

Community building can happen in small chunks of time, even as short as a minute or two. Consider weaving these into your materials, like you would for a brain break. Brain breaks might work better in a synchronous video meeting while virtual energizers could be used to start out an asynchronous lesson. This can also be a great way to combine an academic activity with personal connections. Students can post their responses to a discussion, a digital form, a collaborative document, or even a word cloud generator.

Think of this as a gradual release of responsibility in an online classroom. While you will likely start with mostly teacher-led activities early on, you will want to transition to partner and group activities once your students get more comfortable in the online learning space. Consider pairing students up for peer-review or small-project work. Group sizes can gradually be expanded until students can work on collaborative projects using collaborative tools and documents. As you do this, be sure to build in individual accountability, as well as group interdependence, and be thoughtful about how you group your students. This is a great way for students to develop collaborative work skills while staying socially connected to their peers.


No one likes to feel helpless or out of control, and when things become uncertain, our need for control often increases. Being able to control something when things are changing can bring a sense of calm and empowerment. While distance learning, there are strategies we can use to empower students and families in helping them regain a sense of control.

Create consistency and routine

The more you can make the distance learning experience predictable for your students, the more control they will feel over their experience. If students clearly understand expectations, know how to communicate with their teacher when necessary, and feel confident navigating their learning spaces, they can channel their energy on learning.

However, if students don’t understand what to do or where to find what they need, they can become frustrated and feel less empowered. Not being able to access online materials is much like not knowing where to find your next classroom in a school building. This can cause students to feel defeated and to disengage. A great starting point is to make sure that all students can answer these three key questions:

  • What am I supposed to do?
  • Where do I find what I need?
  • How will my teachers and I communicate?

Offer voice and choice

One of the most empowering things we can do for our students is to give them voice and choice in their learning experience. This allows teachers to differentiate the learning experience for each student while also giving students ownership in their learning. This feeling of empowerment can lead to a sense of self-worth and increased motivation. Consider how you might offer your students voice and choice in these key areas.

Can the student choose their own topic when completing an activity? For example, is the topic of a research project flexible? Can the student either choose from a list or come up with their own topic that fits into the assignment parameters? Can you divide up the parts of a lesson by student interest and then jigsaw the content through student projects or digital presentations?

Because the learning is self-paced, this may already be inherent in the lesson. However, consider pacing when setting up your activities. If students are locked into too many micro-deadlines, it may feel robotic and restrictive. Milestones and key deadlines are definitely still important, but can you provide flexibility along the way? One simple example is to provide video lessons. This allows students to pause, back up, replay, and view at double speed.

Can students choose from several options and select a learning path that works best for them? This might include selecting an option from a choice board or deciding from a list of options. Sometimes, the choice of path may include the learning format, such as choosing between watching a video, reading a text, or researching on their own. Another popular way to offer a different path is to host an optional live teaching session through a video-conferencing app. This can function as an alternate way to receive content or as a supplement to the asynchronous work.

While there are disadvantages of not having students meet together in one classroom, there are also new possibilities available to us because students are learning in their own personal spaces. Consider new opportunities that are now available to your students in these flexible learning spaces. Students can interview family members, conduct an authentic demonstration speech, find examples of learning in their own homes, set up a personal video studio in their basement, do a science experiment in the backyard, and more.

The asynchronous nature of distance learning provides students with tremendous flexibility as to when they learn. This can be very empowering for students, but they may also need some guidance. Consider offering daily suggestions or checklists to keep students on track. Also, consider posting links to live video classes that students can watch at a later time if they cannot attend the live session. Perhaps, you can even post weekly expectations that give students the flexibility as to which days they complete their work (as long as it’s done by Friday).

Tests don’t work the same in a self-paced learning environment, and they are not always the most authentic measurement of learning anyway. Distance learning gives us a chance to redefine this part of learning and offer students voice and choice in how they show us what they know. This can be incredibly empowering and a great way to differentiate learning through an authentic demonstration of understanding. There are many alternate formats that could be used for assessment, including the following.

  • Record a speech.
  • Make a podcast.
  • Record a performance.
  • Build a model.
  • Write a paper.
  • Create a multimedia presentation.
  • Design a website.
  • Video record your explanation.
  • Design an infographic.
  • Video conference with the teacher (one-on-one).

Provide coping strategies

Despite all of our best efforts, students will run into roadblocks and get confused or frustrated. One way we can help with this is to give them some coping strategies. This may not only help them with our current class experience, but it may also empower them with skills they can use throughout their lifetimes. Here are a few examples:

  • Provide support contacts.
    • Do your students know how and when they can reach out to you for help?
    • Give them clear directions. (“I will answer emails between 9:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m., Monday through Friday.”)
    • Consider pairing students up with study buddies.
  • Provide virtual calming corners.
    • Listen to relaxing sounds.
    • View a visual relaxation video.
  • Provide online for mindfulness activities, such as the following:

Extend Your Learning

If you want to explore further, here are some related articles about connecting virtually: