Tools & Guides

Building Responsive Relationships Remotely

Insights from our Community Conversations:

Science tells us that responsive relationships—like those with serve and return interactions—between children and adults, adults and other adults, and children and other children help buffer us against the effects of ongoing stress. These relationships act as a core building block for resilience and help us navigate life’s ups and downs.

How do we maintain and promote responsive relationships during the coronavirus pandemic? While stay-at-home measures during the pandemic are helping slow the spread of the virus, protect our health, and protect our hospitals, it’s important to connect virtually to support children, families, and care providers of all kinds.

In the Spring and Fall of 2020, we hosted a series of conversations with members of our Frontiers of Innovation community. Through these conversations, members shared their stories of innovation and resilience as they sought to maintain services to families and innovate not only overnight, but sometimes by the minute! Below are some tips they provided that may help you navigate remote interactions during this time.

The content on this page is a synthesis of key themes and practical tips that emerged from this leading edge of the field. We appreciate that they are just-in-time ideas, and we plan to check back in on these topics periodically as the context we are all working in remains quite fluid and dynamic.
  1. Meet families where they are

    The starting point for a relationship is meeting families where they are. This is especially important for families that are dealing with the compounding effects of the pandemic, structural racism, and poverty. Create time and space for families to tell you what they need, and engage with them in ways that are familiar to them.


    • Take advantage of technologies already known to families. Are those you serve more comfortable with Facebook Messenger? Whatsapp? A phone call?
    • Send physical resource kits to families to supplement digital resources. During the pandemic, some organizations pivoted to providing those they serve with basic needs—sending physical items like groceries, diapers, or other essentials. These kits not only help families feel supported and decrease their sources of stress, they also provide an opportunity to build relationships with them remotely.
    • Use a ‘mood meter’ to reduce burn-out. Here’s one example of a mood meter app. If families identify they are in a particular section of the spectrum, don’t overload them.
    • Acknowledge and address the disconnect from resources that families were already experiencing pre-pandemic. For example, families living in areas known as “food deserts” already had a tougher time accessing fresh fruits and vegetables, and this became even more challenging during the pandemic. Acknowledging this reality is the first step, but see if your organization can go further by addressing these needs.
  2. Focus on shared humanity and learning together

    While our interactions with families may be digital at the moment, above all they need to be human. Create time and space to connect as humans amidst a global pandemic. You can build trust with families remotely by checking in and through warm interactions. Additionally, it’s okay to acknowledge the learning curve—you are all learning to work in a new way together; there will be bumps, but you will figure it out together. When we treat those we serve as learning partners, an important power shift occurs. Whether you work with caregivers, early childhood educators, or someone else, this shift can leave them feeling empowered enough to express what they need and drive the conversation.


    • Be a learning partner and make it explicit that you are learning together.
    • Find opportunities to include the parent voice in decision-making.
    • Find ways to express empathy from a distance:
      • exaggerate the tone of your voice
      • express with your eyes (if wearing a mask)
      • use non-verbal cues, such as head nodding
    • Reflect on the ways in which connecting with others virtually is different, and invite families to share their successes and learnings.
    • Allocate time for your staff to check in with their families.
  3. Embrace that virtual is different

    Connecting virtually is not necessarily better or worse, it’s just different. While some things won’t work virtually, other things will work better. Be patient and recognize that this work requires empathy, flexibility, and creativity.


    • Don’t try to replicate all of your in-person strategies in the virtual world. Use this as an opportunity to think outside the box and try strategies that couldn’t be done in person. For example, maybe as part of your training, you always wanted to show caregivers a video, but the room was too big, the lighting was off, etc., now is your chance to test it out!
    • Remember that your strategy will look different, so take the time to engage in fast-cycle iterations as you test, learn, and iterate.

    Do you have ideas on how to build responsive relationships remotely?
    Share them on social media and tag the Center!

    Twitter: @Harvard Center
    Facebook: @CenterDevelopingChild
    Instagram: @developingchildharvard
    LinkedIn: Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University

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