As Covid-19 transmission risks soar again, concerns about the effects of masking and social distancing on relationships also rise. How do we build rapport with children when they can’t see our faces? What helps children recognize that we respect and care for them while we follow safety guidelines that emphasize keeping our distance?
Fortunately, the last two years of pandemic precautions have taught us much about what enables rapport in group settings. Education professor Daniel Bergman suggests that we lean into the challenge, using it as an opportunity to improve how we interact with kids even when we’re maskless.
The primary non-verbal way that adults and children communicate is through facial expressions. Our eyes play a large part in those expressions. Making eye contact lets children know that we see them. While we don’t want to appear to stare at them, we do want to communicate our pleasure in learning together. Point out how the skin around our eyes crinkles when we’re happy, creating a smile with our eyes. Spend time together making other facial expressions while masked and notice how those emotions are conveyed through our eyes. Create a poster with photos of the same emotions expressed with masks on and off so children have a reference to consult when they’re not sure what someone is communicating.
Another strategy is to exaggerate your communications so they are easier to notice. Instead of a slight head nod, move your head vigorously. If a child says something and you need a moment to reflect before responding, adopt a ‘thinker’ pose so children recognize that you are still engaged. Use big, open gestures to communicate welcome and excitement, such as arms wide or jumping up and down.
Pay attention to how you use your voice as well. Children are sensitive to tone and mask wearing can muffle voices, making it harder for kids to discern how you feel. So listen to yourself when you talk and adjust your volume and tone to fit the emotional connections you are trying to make. Think about tempo, too. If you talk quickly and ask questions without waiting for answers, children get the message that you don’t have time for them to respond. Leaving just 5 seconds of silence communicates that you want to hear their ideas.
Asking open-ended questions also builds rapport. When we start a conversation with “How could…?” or “Why might…?”, we allow children to speculate about possibilities rather than worry about having the right answer. And if we follow up with a request to elaborate – either to the same or another child – we demonstrate the value of communal exploration for discovery and problem-solving. Children realize that they are making important contributions to a shared project.
Perhaps the most important step we can take to build rapport is to acknowledge the challenges. Masks aren’t the only things that get in the way of positive communication and emotional connection. Differing cultural values, personalities, and experiences shape how people interact and create community. Suggest that learning to negotiate these challenges makes sense if we want everyone to feel that they belong.