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3 Steps for Schools to Use Relationships as a ‘Prevention Strategy’

Fostering strong connections within a school community can be a key prevention measure for many key challenges, including students’ mental health struggles, academic decline, and absenteeism.

But those connections don’t necessarily happen by chance. Schools need to be intentional about building positive, lasting relationships between teachers and students and among students themselves, said Robert Balfanz, the director of the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education.

“When kids are connected to school they come more often, they do better in school, they also have better physical and mental health and engage in fewer risky behaviors,” said Balfanz, who also works with schools on connectedness strategies through an initiative called the GRAD Partnership. “Before you even start worrying about early warning indicators, do upfront work on building relationships and connection, because that’s your best prevention strategy.”

Balfanz, alongside two educators, shared strategies for how schools can lean on relationships to fight chronic absenteeism, poor academic performance, and behavioral disruptions in a May 23 online panel discussion hosted by Education Week.

Carrie White, a 2nd-grade teacher and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports coach at Yates Elementary School in Schenectady, N.Y., said social-emotional learning has been the key to transforming the climate at her school into an environment where students and staff feel safe, cared for, and connected. Griselda Esparza, an assistant principal at Thomas Kelly College Preparatory in Chicago, spoke about how her school’s program to get freshmen connected has led to positive outcomes at a key time in students’ educational careers.

The three panelists agreed on common strategies schools can rely on to ensure they’re building positive relationships, and they discussed ways to secure staff buy-in and involve parents and caregivers.

“The hard conversations have to happen with your students, with staff, with admin.,” White said. “Things are never going to get better or change or shift if we all just brush it to the side.”

Infusing social-emotional learning and connecting freshmen

Social-emotional learning at Yates started with the school transitioning to a trauma-informed model that’s focused on preventing misbehavior by addressing its root causes. The school then adopted a social-emotional curriculum that it has since embedded throughout the school day—rather than limited to a specific class period—through talking circles, mindfulness assemblies, and a schoolwide motto that characterizes how students and staff should govern themselves: “choose kind.”

The 300-student school now has a culture and climate through which students and staff in the building feel safe, student misbehavior is quickly managed, and teachers are highly connected to each other, to their students, and to the broader school community.

Securing buy-in from teachers and other school staff represented a massive part of that work, White said.

The school did that by not just focusing on helping students develop the skills to navigate difficult life experiences, but also ensuring that teachers knew administrators valued their own mental and physical well-being, White said.

“The self-care for teachers and allowing them to feel comfortable with this work was a really big shift for us to allow for this work to really blossom in the building so that students feel like their teachers care about them,” White said. “When we practice our own self-care and mindfulness and SEL, our students see that, too.”

In the process, teachers have become more attentive to their students and what they need. They can easily spot when a student might be struggling more than usual or might need some extra attention, White said.

At Kelly, getting staff on board was also central to the school’s freshmen connection work, Esparza said. It was important not to force staff who weren’t ready to embrace it to do something they weren’t prepared for, she said.

In a survey at the start of this undertaking, the school found that students felt teachers didn’t care about them, that classes were boring, and that they didn’t think what they were learning was relevant to what they wanted to do in life.

That prompted the 1,700-student school to employ a series of efforts to get freshmen connected early on, and keep them on track to graduate.

The school now surveys students quarterly on their school experience; has students participate in a “Freshman Cafe” in the spring in which they sit one-on-one with a school staff member to discuss how the school year has gone; hosts a “Freshman Fiesta” at the beginning of the year where newly arriving students have the chance to meet teachers; and has held community-building activities run by college mentors through a “Freshman Connection” program.

Key to getting staff invested in the program was starting small and meeting teachers where they were, Esparza said. The school has a freshmen success team that works with teachers and other staff to see how the freshmen programs are going and help teachers navigate them.

“There were teachers that [felt] more comfortable, [and we teamed] them up with people that weren’t so comfortable,” Esparza said. School leaders became comfortable with “being OK with not everybody doing exactly the same thing and some taking baby steps.”

Kelly’s approach of having a coordinating team dedicated to the work is effective in making sure staff get on board, Balfanz said.

“It’s often good to start with a coalition of the willing, especially in relationship work,” he said. “You cannot mandate relationships. That will be the killer.”

Enlisting parents and caregivers as partners

It’s also necessary that schools bring students’ parents and caregivers into relationship-building initiatives, Balfanz said.

“There’s a subset of parents that didn’t have good school experiences, so they may not be excited to just run back to school,” he said. “We have to acknowledge that and create ways that they feel welcome.”

Building strong relationships with students’ families can transform outcomes, especially with absenteeism.

At Kelly, parent engagement sessions hosted both in person and virtually have been a central part of the freshmen connection initiatives, Esparza said.

“We provide sessions where we talk about the importance of what freshman year is, the transition, all of that,” Esparza said. “We want to make sure that our families feel connected to our school, and if that means they can’t be in person, they know there’s the option of joining us virtually.”

The school also provides workshops for parents on topics related to their students’ high school experiences.

At Yates, which serves students in prekindergarten through 5th grade, social media has been key in connecting parents to what’s happening at school. The school sends parents photos of student assemblies, classroom lessons, and other activities, White said.

Relationship audits, interest inventories, extracurricular expansion

White and Esparza have both been fortunate to have ample administrative support for the work they’re spearheading. But school leaders don’t need to immediately have that kind of support to start building relationships, Balfanz said.

There are three key steps schools can employ immediately without having to change budgets or devote significant staff time, Balfanz said.

First, he said, schools can do a “relationship audit” by having grade-level teachers come together in a meeting and giving each of them two kinds of stickers and the roster of students in their grades. Teachers can place one sticker by the students they know merely by name and the other by students with whom they have a deeper connection; they might know their stories.

“See which kids have no stickers: Those are the kids you’ve got to build relationships with,” Balfanz said.

As a next step, schools can undertake what Balfanz calls an “interest inventory,” through which schools ask both staff and students to list their hobbies and interests, whether Anime, biking, basketball, or something else. Similar interests can serve as a starting point for relationships.

“You can’t just tell people to make a relationship,” Balfanz said. “You have to connect on something. You’ll find unexpected pairings of a teacher and a kid that both like Anime, or two kids that haven’t talked to each other but both like knitting.”

Finally, schools can think creatively about how to expand participation in extra-curricular activities, Balfanz said.

If the “interest inventory” reveals that a handful of students enjoy puzzles, then the school can help students start a puzzle club.

Or, if there’s a lot of student interest in athletic teams, the school can create opportunities outside of athletic roles so more students can participate. Students who aren’t on the field can serve as team photographers, videographers, or statisticians, giving them an opportunity to be involved and a group to which they can feel connected.

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