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What's the Plus?

Building Authentic Relationships With My Pre-Kindergarteners Through the Screen

By Margi Bhansali

On the first day of the fall semester, I logged on to meet a group of 15 new children. I saw confusion and apprehension among the 4- and 5-year-olds on my screens. I smiled widely and in the most cheerful voice I could muster, said: “Welcome to school! I’m your teacher, Mrs. Bhansali.”

The first day of school is usually filled with so many emotions―excitement, nervousness, and hope. This year was different; I was mostly feeling sadness. With virtual learning, I would be missing the opportunity to develop the in-person relationships with my students, the hugs and the high-fives. I would miss those “ah-ha” looks and proud smiles when my students got a concept they were struggling with.

When I think about the power of relationships, Qu’Aliyah comes to mind. Qu’Aliyah’s first day of school last year was difficult for her. She cried for hours and I had to hold her so she wouldn’t run out of the classroom. As I worked to get to know her, Qu’Aliyah slowly began to warm up. The crying went down to one hour, then 30 minutes, then 10 minutes, until one day she ran in, gave me a big hug, and joined in her morning work with the other students. Qu’Aliyah’s growth was only possible because I got to know her and established a personal relationship with her. Such relationships are built slowly over time, especially during unstructured play time and conversations during meals.

So when I looked at the faces on my screen on the first day of school, I knew that I would have to build those authentic opportunities very differently this year. I was apprehensive about just how this would work without the children and families walking through our actual classroom doors. I worried that with the forecast of a second COVID-19 wave, along with the cold and flu season, I would be doing virtual teaching for the long haul. So how do I build these important relationships through the screen?

A few things I’m doing have helped. First, I have had individual virtual meetings with families and students. I’ve already noticed that when families have a chance to ask questions and talk, they are more likely to be involved in their child’s learning. I hear Dashawn, along with his grandmother, asking and answering questions about trees as we make our own “All About Trees” book together. I’m also creating monthly at-home learning packets for families. Those five minutes of face-to-face interaction when families pick up their packets go a long way. As I explain what I’m sending home, they can see what we’re doing, giving them a deeper understanding of what their child is learning. Dariana’s mom brought her iPad to school during one of these meetings and I was able to show her how to upload photos and videos of her completed activities.

I also focus daily on relationship-building activities. Our meetings are filled with games, show-and-tell, and songs that involve the children and their lives. Even something as simple as teaching a letter can turn into a “getting to know you” activity when you tell students to find something in their homes that begin with that letter.

Building relationships through a screen is hard, but the results are worth it. In the few short weeks since we’ve started school, I’ve noticed that the children are more excited to log on. Just like in the classroom, they want to tell me what’s going on in their lives. I’ve even gotten my first birthday party invitation for the year ―and that is a big win because it means the relationships with my students are blossoming as they should.

Margi Bhansali is a pre-kindergarten teacher at Brunson Math & Science Specialty Elementary School in the Chicago Public Schools. She is a Teach Plus Illinois Early Childhood Educator Fellow.




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