Connecting with Learners in a COVID-19 World

Philip Bowman
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Connecting with Learners in a COVID-19 World

September 1, 2020 | Ecological Systems Theory, Psychology

By Philip Bowman, founder of the MARIO Framework

In-person, remote learning, hybrid. 

Whichever COVID-inspired school model you are participating in this year, the road to that decision was undoubtedly slow, ambiguous, and frustrating. 


Because you likely had no control over the decision, and it still may change as the school year progresses. Plus you probably have concerns of your own. Will I be safe? Will my students be safe? How will this affect my students’ ability to learn? How will this affect my ability to teach and scaffold? How will I foster a sense of community and care in my new, possibly virtual, classroom structure? 

If the uncertainty around this time has been hard to process for us, step into the shoes of your learners, and imagine how they must be feeling. 

It is well documented that extreme and traumatic events lead to an increase in anxiety and fear, among other mental health crises. And emerging research shows that COVID-19 has been no different. It is no surprise that there has been an increase in loneliness and depression given that social distancing and quarantine measures have been taken around the world. 

Social and emotional competencies are protective factors for stressful situations. So how can we, as educators, help to guide and support our students’ social and emotional capacities during this uncertain time? 

Students of all ages rely on the stability that the school structure provides through scheduled days, classes, routines, and activities. Most are concerned about the implications of last year’s abrupt disturbance in their learning process and how it will affect this year. 

Each day brings the opportunity for their structure to change drastically or partially, particularly as we head into the fall and flu season. Whatever type of learning they are about to participate in, it is new and likely clouded in ambiguity. 

Knowing that social and emotional competencies develop over time, let’s explore a recent study focusing on secondary education. Education students and their professors reflected on and explained the implications of the sudden changes caused by COVID-19 in regard to their learning. 

One student said, “Next year we are supposed to start teaching, but we are not sure at all if this is possible. We’re experiencing huge distress and fear . . . Will the fact that we’re missing field-based days affect that? Is the college settling these issues with the authorities so that this can be solved?” 

One professor shared that “they felt that the challenges that they are facing are too complicated . . . some even asked to quit their learning because they felt that they are unable to meet the expectations.” 

Professors quickly reacted to provide social and emotional support to their students: 

“I had to stop everything and listen, let them know that we see them and their difficulties.” 

“I had to establish a relationship and reduce stress. I focused on this far more than I had planned” 

The professors and students were able to overcome the challenges of their semester by engaging in one-to-one conversations. Evidence has shown that, regardless of their age or skill level, introducing one-to-one conversations into the in-person or virtual classroom structures will help students be more self-aware, self-regulated, and self-directed in and outside of the classroom. 

Mirroring will generally occur when educators take the time to engage individually with each learner. The learner will begin to reflect the social and emotional strength of the educator, as well as strengthen the connections in their brain as they engage in conversation. 

These conversations are an opportunity for educators to model healthy behaviors and lead the student through the complex and challenging new school setup. 

If you approach our “new normal” through constructivist theory, one-to-one conversations with learners allow them to build real-world meaning and context around their new school structure. These conversations lead them to understand and internalize the changes to this school year in a way that feels manageable to them. 

Additionally, encouraging one-to-one conversations frees the student from any outside pressure and, through the safety of confidentiality, they can speak their mind freely and build a growth mindset through the bonded teacher-student relationship that is naturally formed. 

As educators, we know the importance of a positive teacher-student relationship for student success. Empowering students to discuss their thoughts, feelings, and progress inside and outside the classroom will only serve to strengthen the relationship and act as a launching pad for individual student success. 

Stop worrying about your student’s ability to transition into this school year. 

Start having one-to-one conversations with your students and begin the journey of social and emotional growth. 

Your grateful colleague and friend, 

Philip Bowman 


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