Relationship-based Education, Community-Building, and Social Distancing

The Challenges of Reimagining Schools

In times of a global economic recession, Dr. Jeff Beedy, a philosopher, visionary, humanist and true educator, provides the framework, guidelines, rationale and tools for a new global “investment.” It is an investment that can last over time and space. An investment on character development, civic engagement and human potential… Jeff’ s work and recommendations will last over time and space — since they blend the universality of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle’s pedagogy, philosophy and ontology — revive ancient Olympia’s values of holistic human development and civic engagement — merge this with the theoretical foundations of the greatest moral and human development theorist of our days…

Alexis Lyris, PhD, Sport-for Development and Peace. Georgetown University

“No significant learning ever took place without a significant relationship.”

James Comer


This article outlines the importance of relationships and community in shaping a person and their environment for growth and learning. Communities where people are known, needed, cared for, and have an opportunity to shape their lives in profound ways. Throughout my career, I have led schools around the world built on relationship-based learning. It has been my professional experience that systems of learning focused on the power of relationships and their ability to teach students critical skills are fundamentally more effective in creating well rounded and developed individuals. In 2002, during my tenure at a private high school in New England, we were awarded the National Character Award. However, in light of the current issues facing our society we must re-evaluate how we used relationship-based pedagogy when we are called to practice social distancing in hopes of eradicating or limiting the growing impact of the pandemic, COVID-19. Social distancing is the anthesis of relationship-based education. Relationship-based learning holds that we need community, and more specifically, each other to learn. The process of learning acquisition in this model is based on interactive relationships. Many schools who value dialogue employ educational models such as the Harkness Method and Outward Bound, which have this as a central component. As a result, we, as educators, must be mindful of the value of solving conflict through dialogue as we reimagine how our new model of education will look.

“There’s no substitute for synchronous, in-person conversation and education,” he said. “That’s what education is founded on — you are together and sharing the learning process.

Governor Andrew Cuomo

In light of all that has occurred over the last few months since this pandemic began to spread, it has become evident that social distancing is key in attempting to make enough of an impact that we can safely reopen our schools and our country up once again. It is easy to suppose that separating children during recreational hours will be easy. We could separate them by having fewer students in the classroom or perhaps just have larger rooms to keep distance between them. We could propose having students attend school in the summer, which may not be so manageable. Students could attend school in shifts. We might even consider temporarily suspending athletic programs to allow for a more flexible academic schedule. Regardless of the route we choose, social distancing and learning are both necessary. The purpose of this paper is to discuss the potentiality of achieving both without compromising our safety or our educational standards.

To reiterate, as we prepare to restructure our schools in response to the Covid-19, we are potentially setting ourselves up for a socio-emotional void down the road.

As we begin to consider how we will redesign our schools, we are unintentionally diminishing one of the biggest sources of our learning and socialization, community and relationships. This is what this article is about, understanding the importance of relationships and community in the learning process. I have led international, day, boarding, and Montessori schools around the globe. It is the same everywhere, all learning takes place within a specific community reliant on various relationships: teacher-student, student-student, students-parental figures, students-other peers and mentors.

As we move through the initial stages of redesign we need to keep the idea of relationships and connectedness in the equation.

As we strive to assure that math and science content is delivered effectively, we also want create opportunities for children to enjoy meaningful relationships with their peers, teachers, coaches, and other employees even if the location of engagement is now in our homes. Currently, our children are in the acute phase of relation-deprivation. By next fall, our kids will be chronically affected by the lack of genuine interactive relationships and group play such as organized youth sports.

Experience with Relationship-based Learning

Over the last 40 years, my family and I have lived in boarding school environments with the distinct mission of developing good people through fostering positive and meaningful relationships — in the classroom, in the dorms, on field trips, and through sports. During my years studying at Harvard, cognitive developmental psychologists Lawrence Kohlberg, Carol Gilligan, Robert Selman, and Sesame Street Founder, Gerald Lesser were my peers. We studied the great works of Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates. All of these philosophers had one thing in common — they believed that dialogue, relationships, and discourse development are at the center of all learning. I was fortunate to teach for Pulitzer Prize winner, Dr. Robert Coles where the central theme was relationships, peer-to-peer.

As an educator, I became interested in educational programs such as Outward Bound and Project Adventure. I led two Montessori Schools whose mission was fostering the development of a meaningful relationship between the teacher and student. These educational models and programs are all built on relationships. Without relationships they simply do not work.

My hope is that this article will help us, as a community, recognize the value of the work teachers, parents, and boards are engaged in and help foster a conversation on how we can get this right before the start of school. The challenge is enormous and immediate. In addition, I hope this article serves as a reminder that relationships are at the core of the learning process as we adjust the academic structure and buildings of the schools our children attend.

Child Development

When we talk about child development we very rarely consider developing the whole child. We often assume that is what we mean as educators but developing the whole child requires an intentionality I never knew about until my first year at Harvard. During one class one of my professors was drawing an illustration of the concept of whole child. He began by drawing a flower with each petal representing different areas of a child’s life. These areas included the psychological, the social, the physical, the emotional, the spiritual, and the moral domain of the child’s development.

The simple diagram depicted the different domains of the child. I would learn later that these domains, although separate, overlap and influence each other in significant ways. I was fortunate enough to study with the great moral psychologists at Harvard, but it was not until I lived in a boarding school that I began to understand how each of these separate domains are connected to real life learning.

Develop the Whole Child within a Whole Community

As a headmaster of a New England boarding school, I realized the above diagram was only half of the total whole child equation.

We knew that as educators we develop the whole child within the whole community through fostering meaningful relationships.

The whole child pedagogy is an interactive model that includes not just relationships in the classroom but also in sports, in dormitory life, in performing arts, on field trips, in the dining hall and all interactions within the community. We soon added another side to represent the whole community.


The idea of the whole child living within a school environment created a new model of understanding for the role of relationships in the developing the whole child. Our approach served as an operational guide for developing the whole person within the whole community. The Total Human Development Model is an overarching, whole-community template influenced by the cognitive-developmental and constructivist approach to education (i.e. John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Kurt Hahn, Lawrence Kohlberg, Dr. Robert Selman, Gerald Lesser, Carol Gilligan, Maria Montessori, Howard Gardner)

This relationship-based approach gained national recognition when New Hampton School in New Hampshire was chosen as the only private secondary boarding school in America to win the National Character Educational Award in 2002.

In 2010, as the founding head the first boarding school in the Global Education City on Jeju Island, South Korea, I used THD as the underlying framework as we built a successful international school.

Importance of the whole community in the learning process

Early in my tenure as a boarding school head, I asked Dr. Robert Coles if he would come speak to our school about moral communities, their purpose and value. Dr. Coles said he would when we integrated our maintenance and janitorial staff as part of the life of the school. Years later we would have a student, a cook, and head of maintenance speak at our graduation as part of our way of including every member of our community in the process of teaching and learning. Dr. Coles decided then he would come speak to a group of educators at our institution. Dr. Coles came to my home and spoke to the community about their role in the development of these children.

A healthy sense of community will be defined as the degree to which people are known, needed, cared for, and have the opportunity to shape their environment (Schaps, Watson et al. 1996, p. 43).

The question we need to ask in the reimagining process is how do we preserve these relationship-based components as we restructure the educational experience?

The school environment provides a rare and powerful opportunity to connect and relate to children through important developmental epochs in their lives. Developing such a culture requires a plan and a vision, but the people make it happen. It will be the coaches on the field, the teachers in the classroom and dorm masters in the residential halls. The leader’s role is to coordinate the people around these sets of principles, always offering an aligned vision for the future.

When we consider a school, we can imagine the role that respectful relationships play in the overall learning process.

There is an organic connection between an individual or psychological performance, and the socio-moral makeup of a community.

A strong community, as defined by a team of people with collective and shared understandings and standards, learning, working, and living together, while mindful of common goals, requires a determined mission, vision, and plan.

As we reimagine our schools for the post-pandemic, we need to keep the idea of learning through relationships. There is no question we need to adapt to accommodate the need for social distancing and changes in schedules but as we do that, we need to think through how to keep and promote the human element of learning. If we don’t think critically about how we execute these changes we will be setting ourselves up for a world where children struggle with how to relate or solve conflict.

In addition to teaching content in science and math we need to design schools that promote relationship-based learning which will be a challenge as we also engage in social distancing.

As we restructure schools, we need an overarching vision and plan for evaluating all human relationships, academic curriculum, programs, policies and procedures. In addition, the plan must include a vision for co-curricular activities such as advising programs, athletics and school life. This is accomplished across the whole community including in classrooms, and on the playing fields.


While these trying times are far from over it is critical that we recognize the need for well thought out planning and theory informed decisions. As such, the next few articles in this publication will focus around the concerns surrounding the COVID 19 pandemic and the state of our education system. First, we will review the state of our education system and the impact that COVID 19 has had on our ability to learn and teach effectively. Second, we will explain the theory of relationship-based learning by exploiting the five integrated components and their critical importance to education and development of the whole child. Third, we will discuss the ways in which this pedagogical framework informs the way we learn. Finally, we will attempt to apply the theory and propose the ways in which it can positively impact our current situation. I look forward to sharing my experience and knowledge with my fellow educators and scholars so that we as a community can make the right decisions for our future.



​Dr. Beedy is a leader in the field of child development. At Harvard, he studied with psychologists Lawrence Kohlberg and Pulitzer Prize winner Dr. Robert Coles

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