Connecting at school: The importance of a caring adult

As readers of this blog know, our son has moved from an intimate elementary school setting to a large middle school, and his move – and what I’ve heard from a few friends about their own kids’ experiences at other schools – got me thinking about the research around a strategy that can make or break a child’s experience in a new and larger school: Connecting at school with a caring adult.

Personalization is the name given to a set of strategies that schools and districts use to foster a sense of connectedness with their students – connectedness to the school and the people there – and as this policy brief states, at “the heart of these efforts is a desire to create more positive and caring relationships between students and adults responsible for teaching and mentoring them.” Why is this kind of relationship important to students? In their 2004 paper Adena Klem and James Connell state that studies “show students with caring and supportive interpersonal relationships in school report more positive academic attitudes and values, and more satisfaction with school. These students also are more engaged academically.”

A variety of strategies are used to develop this kind of relationship, such as advisory periods, team teaching arrangements, and looping, when the same students have the same teacher over two or more years. Interestingly, though, kids can sniff out a fake a mile away: Research suggests that a formal structure such as a weekly advisory period does not have the kind of impact on students as “informal, improvised, and, therefore, more authentic” encounters with students. As Larry McClure, Susan Yonezawa, and Makeba Jones write, students can distinguish “between the lived experiences of personalization versus the more formal structure of advisory programs.”

In my last high school teaching position, when I oversaw the students that created the school’s newspaper, I remember very fondly the gang that would gather in my classroom after school to discuss, debate, write, and edit the articles for each issue. Yes, it was a sort of formal setting – these students had signed up for this group and showed up in my room on an assigned day – but it tended to have a more organic feel to it, as kids came and went, as I was pulled over here or over there to discuss article ideas, as the student editor-in-chief would halt the chaotic proceedings from time to time to check the pulse of her team. I developed strong relationships with several of the young people that worked on the newspaper, and I credit the setting for this happening, as we moved out of the formal classroom setting and into one that was still intellectually engaging but far more informal.

But how does a school or district help teachers and other school personnel nurture these kinds of relationships, since planning for them seems to fly in the face of what means the most to kids? Again McClure, Yonezawa, and Jones write that, in their research, they “were struck repeatedly by the teachers’ lack of confidence and desire for assistance regarding developing mentoring skills. Although not every teacher felt this way, many believed that they had been trained to teach a particular content area, not children, necessarily. And they had little time, resources, or energy to receive and really learn from mentorship training.” The authors go on to write that school and district policies “should advocate that teachers work on personalization content in a professional learning community and be provided on-going” school-level support.

So, parents, a good question to ask your kid: Is there an adult at school that you trust and has taken an interest in your work and success at school? And a question to ask the principal or even someone from the school district: What’s being done at the school – what strategies are in place – to personalize that environment for each kid? And how does the school or district help teachers connect with their charges – in a manner that is authentic? I know that it’s not an easy proposition – to create a system of support for students that they do not feel is a system – but no doubt schools that are effective in this realm have cultures based on this very issue, with that urgency to connect with young people just a natural part of the day-to-day. No doubt that is what effective school principals and teachers are working on, the school’s culture, and not just the schedule and curriculum for advisory.

I got the photograph from here.

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