Building Classroom Community from a Distance

By Louise Goldberg

Since early spring of 2020, the classroom experience has changed dramatically for students across the country and worldwide. School closings, remote learning, and social distancing have created extraordinary disruptions to the classroom environment and left many feeling isolated and distraught.

Even when schools reopen, many children will continue to stay home and rely on their screens for instruction and social interaction. Those who do attend school may find sparsely populated classrooms with curtailed opportunities for group activities. What was once the hub of their social lives may prove to be an almost empty landscape void of playful encounters such as bus rides, recess, hallway jostling and joking, school lunch, and other once banal occurrences. Who knows when these activities will resume?

Extraordinary amounts of social and emotional learning take place in these unstructured settings. It’s here that many children connect with and make new friends and giggle or holler or otherwise relieve frustration. The social networks that children establish in school often act as a surrogate family and provide some with the motivation to attend school.

Although typical social interactions may not be possible, there are innovative ways to build community within the classroom and provide outlets for relieving anxiety. Teachers need tools for incorporating these kinds of activities into their curricula. The following exercises are adapted from Classroom Yoga Breaks: Brief Exercises to Create Calm (W.W. Norton, 2017).

  1. Benevolent Community

Creating an environment where students feel accepted without being judged sets the stage for deeper, more honest connections with others. You might promote a benevolent community through a simple contract for classroom communication. Teachers may initiate a set of golden rules to be agreed upon by consensus and abided by within the classroom. For example, “respecting privacy” may take the form of avoiding gossip; “choose kind words” would require taking a moment to consider how one’s words might affect another; “just listen” encourages students to attend more completely to someone else when he or she is speaking.

After sharing a few examples, ask your students to suggest their own golden rules for the classroom, inviting them to create an environment where they feel comfortable and heard when they express themselves. Once they form a consensus of those guidelines that they want to implement in their classroom, ask them to write them out for display in their notebooks or on their screens so that they are reminded of them often. By selecting the rules themselves, students are more likely to be invested in these strategies to promote empathy and a more benevolent community.

2. “Something I Like About You”

Connecting with classmates can also be done through a simple game called “Something I Like About You.” In a typical classroom, this would be played in a circle, but physical proximity is not required. One student is selected, and everyone in the class says one positive thing about that individual. If it’s more manageable, this can be done in written form, signed. Then teachers may highlight one or two students each day by selecting a few statements to be read aloud. Or, to abbreviate the game, each student is assigned a number: #1 says one thing they like about #2, #2 does the same for #3, and so on until the last number says something special about #1.

The only parameters are that the comments must be kind, positive, and appropriate for sharing in a group. Students may acknowledge their classmate’s personality, appearance, work habits, etc. Let’s say Mary is the student selected. Others may say that they like her curly hair or the color of her sneakers; they admire her soccer skills; or they may recall the time that she helped with their homework or listened when they were sad. Regardless of what their classmates choose to say, the student who is the subject of the praise is uplifted. It doesn’t matter if their classmates are commenting on their new shoes or their scholastic prowess; it is affirming to be noticed, acknowledged, and appreciated in some positive way.

3. Yoga Breaks

Another outcome of social distancing or online learning is the sense of isolation that many children are experiencing. Loneliness and boredom can contribute to depression and negative self-esteem. Physical separation from others may be necessary, but there’s never been a more important time to help students connect with themselves.

One simple yoga exercise that I often use to help students wake up and reconnect with their bodies is through mindful breathing and movement. Tree Breathing may be practiced standing or seated. Ask the students to press their palms together, thumbs at the sternum. Guide them to breathe in and out a few times in this position. With the next inhalation, ask them to float their hands up toward the ceiling, palms still together; with the exhalation, they return their hands to the starting position. Repeat up to 5 times or for one minute. Watching the fingertips, moving with awareness, and keeping the focus on the breath helps students “collect” and re-center themselves. If you notice students who are anxious or whose attention is drifting, try leading them through a minute or two of Tree Breathing to calm and reengage them before returning to the task at hand.

In addition to opportunities for social engagement, yoga breaks may be incorporated into the school day in just a minute or less to promote self-regulation and a sense of connection to self and others.


Louise Goldberg is the author of Classroom Yoga Breaks: Brief Exercises to Create Calm (2017) and Yoga Therapy for Children with Autism and Special Needs (2013), both published by W.W. Norton. She has been a classroom teacher and yoga educator for children of all ages and abilities. Find her at www.classroomyogabreaks.com.

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