We all know the value of building relationships with kids. I would say that is the key to all of our other efforts in schools. Recently I thought about this as I was watching a news report of yet another recent school tragedy, this time involving a student in Pennsylvania. One common theme that seems to surface is that the student(s) carrying out these acts are often described as “loners”; not appearing to be connected to school, not engaged with the school community. I know this isn’t the case 100% of the time, but it is the majority.
In an article published by ASCD, Robert Blum shares this frightening statistic from Klem and Connell (2004):
By high school, as many as 40 to 60 percent of all students—urban, suburban, and rural—are chronically disengaged from school. (p. 262)
We need to start early! We build relationships with kids—but are they building relationships with others? Are they engaged around, within, and through the school? Here are just a few ideas I wanted to share as we continue the important dialogue about student engagement and relationships:
Developing Resiliency. Adversity and hardships present themselves to all at one time or another, and those who have a strong sense of resiliency have tools to help them deal with and overcome challenges that arise in their lives. Having character programs in school is one avenue toward this. School and classroom culture that promotes problem solving and highlight things like grit and tenacity really align well with this. Supportive, caring adults who watch for and respond to struggles by providing a support network help kids develop a sense of resiliency as well. To further our message of support, we sometimes play a song during our school wide weekly assemblies called “Lean On Me” (Video Above), and the entire school community sings along. The lyrics are important reminders for our young kiddos:
“Lean on me, when you’re not strong. And I’ll be your friend. I’ll help you carry on”.
Creating Opportunities For Relationships. Extracurricular activities provide ways to develop and highlight student strengths, build confidence and nurturing a feeling of involvement. As well, student clubs are a great way for kids to seek out those with common interests and develop relationships with peers whom they may not have contact with in their classroom settings. Making connections. Whether we are talking about clubs, classroom activities, after-school programs or elective offerings, variety is important. Getting to know students as individuals and engaging in casual conversations, even a quick 5 minute interaction in the hall between passing periods or by chatting them up at lunch, we can evaluate needs and interests and provide a greater variety of opportunities for student involvement.
Family Engagement. This can have many facets. Inviting families into the school, arranging and hosting after school events, harnessing social media to reach out to parents and encourage their partnership, the possibilities are many for making family connections. And when families are connected, it’s likely their child will also feel a connection. If you have limited attendance at after hours events, consider how your staff might bring the activity to them. We have a “Reading Posse” that periodically drives through neighborhoods in our community to “catch kids reading” and hand out books to kids. We advertise the locations and times so that families know when and where we will be. I think this is a great way to engage with the community and build connections. It doesn’t always have to take place at school (effectively excluding those who may not be able to come due to family obligations, work or transportation issues).
Team Togetherness. In small schools, everyone knows everyone else. But in larger environments, and even within small schools, some students can still feel invisible. One way for us to help promote a sense of belonging is to create teams within schools, and special identifiers for those teams. For example, some grade levels have their own shirts, or slogans, or a particular experience that is reserved only for that grade level (at my school, 4th graders always put on the Poetry Slam). These milestone events are a way to create something special about each grade level, and the students who are part of it can feel a sense of purpose and belonging – even through something small like their team shirt. Don’t we all feel connected to our favorite sports team when we wear their gear? They become “our team” and we proudly identify. We can do the same in school.
Peer Groups. I like the idea of peer mediation groups who help students work through differences or difficulties. Leadership clubs are also a great way to develop school ambassadors who can then reach out to other kids. When my daughter was a new student at a junior high in my current district, she was welcomed by a group of students who were the designated “welcoming committee” on campus. This really helped her feel like she belonged and navigate a new school and system. She also had immediate “friends” who were glad she was there, and introduced her to other students and potential friends. This was a huge benefit! It’s a very good way of getting kids connected and plugged in—from their first day of arrival.
Mentoring. Community connections are important in helping students feel a sense of belonging. Bringing in adults to act as mentors and having groups like Watch Dogs are some ways of introducing students to other adults who they can make connections with. Here is a video about that program:
Teachers who mentor students who are not their own is another way we can reach out to kids. Administrators and support staff play a huge role in providing another pathway for students to connect with someone. I know for a fact there are things my principal knows about a kid or two in my own class that I was not even aware of, because that student felt a special connection there and shared something with her. It takes a village!
These are just a few of the ways we can help kids feel connected, contributing, and valued. We all need to feel a sense of belonging. What other ideas do you have for engaging kids and helping them avoid isolation? What creative ways has your school found for doing this? Please share!
My thoughts and prayers go out to the community of Murrysville, PA.