Building rapport in online learning spaces.

Rapport building; Verb, is defined as – Creating a relation or connection, especially one that is harmonious or sympathetic with another person. In a facilitator-Student relation, it is more like a tool to construct trust and comfort in that space in-between. A facilitator-student rapport is a vital, but sometimes underappreciated, aspect of Facilitation/Teaching. A good rapport not just instills a positive environment in the classroom, but smoothens the flow of the SEL curriculum. At the same time, facilitators may also enjoy increased classroom participation. 

With a transition from face-to-face facilitation to Online Synchronous and asynchronous facilitation  ( Know More ), a lot has changed. It has also been a limitation to the old ways of rapport building in the physical space. As facilitators, building rapport in our new normal is difficult when you don’t have the in-person body cues that can help you better engage and feel connected to the students, teachers, or caregivers.

To understand the online process of co-constructing rapport, let us have a quick look at some of the essential factors that form the base for Rapport between two individuals. 

  • Harmony; it is a state of agreement and peaceful existence. A good rapport ensures this harmonious bond for lesser friction of tensions to exist. 
  • Trust; in the words of Stephen Brookfield made in his 1990 book, The Skillful Teacher: Trust between the facilitator and students is the affective glue that binds educational relationships together. Not trusting teachers has several consequences for students. They are unwilling to submit themselves to the perilous uncertainties of new learning. They avoid risk. They keep their most deeply felt concerns private. They view with a cynical reserve the exhortations and instructions of teachers. 
  • Bond; the ultimate connection that is built over time between a student and an instructor, is that beautiful feeling of friendship where fun and learning can collide and coexist. In an authoritarian teaching style, this bond is difficult to form. 

We have to keep these requirements in mind while carrying our work to an online space. With the goal in our mind, of ‘inculcating SEL competencies’ in the young hearts of students, the synergy which will be created would matter the most. We must also remember as facilitators, that rapport is not built in a day, with a single act, it rather is a continuous process demanding Consistency

Some tips that are useful for building rapport online: 

1) Learn to call your students by name. And fortunately, online platforms like Zoom and Google meet display participants’ names, hence it won’t be a problem even if names don’t come easily to you. Hearing someone call our name can quickly grab our attention towards the speaker and hence it is that first step towards the bond we desire. 

Last year I was facilitating a new school group. Calling their names has helped me to remember them and when they are absent I often ask other students about them. There have been times when students have called me and informed me why they have not joined the last class.

2) If you have time, log in to the class early or stay late on the zoom/google meet session – and chat with your students, ask questions about how they are doing, or let them talk to their friends at that time.   

Many times when I have entered the session early, students have told me about what they have been doing the last week or the drawing they have done. This has encouraged students to join early and students remind each other to join the class.

3) Co-construct norms. The classroom norms must not be enforced or just told to them, take suggestions and each one’s consent while designing norms.  Refer to this blog for more information. 

In a session with 9th grade, me and a co facilitator gave students the chance to make norms for themselves and to our surprise, the quality of the norms created was spellbinding. Some of the norms created that day are, ‘listening is very important and so we must listen very nicely to what someone is talking about’

‘ we must not privately chat in the zoom chat box while the session is going on, as didi and bhaiya(facilitators) will feel bad if they get to know.’

‘ we should not keep our cameras off and disengage like play games or watch tv’ 

4) Interact more, lecture less – emphasize active learning. As in an online platform, it is easy to switch off our cameras and get distracted quickly. A lecture can be an easy way out. 

In a session on decision making. I had to explain to them the process of decision making. An activity that I had planned was asking students to plan an online party. In this session I remember all students speaking, calling out each other to give ideas. This session was full of interaction and students remember it well.

5) Learn something about your students’ interests, hobbies, and aspirations. And more importantly, try to remember it. We can also make notes online for our aid, but a student feels valued when we know more about them and also remember it.   

In a rapport-building session with grade 6, we had asked students about their favorite modalities to learn; and the responses included dancing, singing, drawing and many more. In one of the succeeding sessions, halfway across the class we saw students’ energy levels go down and so we announced that, we know some of you ( taking their names ) love dancing, so would you like to dance now? And instantly the cameras were put on with a big smile and a loud yes!

6) Emotional Check-ins are a must. As it can be difficult to really understand the facial gestures and expressions of students, emotional check-ins during the session, at the beginning or in the middle or towards the end of the session can be an insight provider for that class’s energy. 

7) Ask students, if they are getting bored, or would like an energizer in between and also take their suggestions/requests seriously. The use of energizers like a dance routine like (ram sam sam) can work with all age groups. 

8) keep your camera/video on at all times. Since proper eye contact is not a possibility in the online space, keeping our video on at all times and smiling throughout the session can be encouraging for students to participate. 

9) Have contextual information about the students. This can mean that we as teachers and facilitators try to understand a bit about their backgrounds, where do they come from, what strengths and weaknesses do their communities possess and anything that interests you. We can try gathering it  from the students themselves or our fellow facilitators/teachers if they have any discrete insights. This gives a greater understanding of how this journey of rapport can be made smooth. The facilitator’s personal examples and experiences can also be shared in this space. 

10)And lastly, Being honest is crucial.  Although, there is a possibility that it may not come to us organically right from the first of our sessions, and it might feel as if we are trying to fake this process. But that is completely fine, as long as we honestly intend to establish rapport with students. Over time, honesty in this relation shall emerge inevitably with our constant well-intended efforts. With honesty and positivity, self-efficacy and positive self-worth can be eventually inculcated. 

Building rapport online can be slightly more challenging, but when done well, it can generate a sense of belongingness for many students who are experiencing disconnection and lack of authentic relationships in these forced digital learning times.


Bio: Pallavi Bais has completed her Masters in Counselling Psychology from Carmel College, Goa. She has worked as a Mental Health counsellor MYwellnessHub and as a resource person with SmartEdu, Goa. Currently, she works with children, teachers and parents in Mumbai’s municipal schools on their social-emotional development as an Apni Shala Fellow. She finds reading and watching documentaries as her hideout. 

Akash Gaikwad is a Programme facilitator with Apni Shala. He has 3 years of experience in facilitation with grade 4th to 9th  students.

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