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Beyond Icebreakers: Building Student Connectedness

Icebreakers and getting-to-know-you activities are wonderful for the first days of school. They help teachers get to know new students, and help students get to know new classmates. These positive activities work their magic at the individual, person-to-person level.

But what happens when students leave the classroom? Students need to form bonds with not only their classmates, but with the school at large. Educators who follow the research literature know that the concept of student connectedness has important implications for student achievement and graduation. They also know that to result in maximum effectiveness, connectedness-building efforts must happen at the school-wide or systemic level.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) fact sheet on Fostering Student Connectedness, “School connectedness is the belief held by students that the adults and peers in their school care about their learning as well as about them as individuals.” Students who feel connected to school tend to attend regularly and earn better grades and scores. They are also more likely to graduate and less likely to engage in risk behaviors such as substance use and violence. For more information, see School Connectedness: Improving Students’ Lives.

The major research organization Search Institute concludes much the same thing, emphasizing that a caring school climate, a young person’s sense of bonding or attachment to school, and his/her positive relationships with non-parent adults are all essential "developmental assets" for future success in relationships and in life. School connectedness is particularly important for students who are “different” from the social norm. These kids may feel isolated or even unsafe, so schools need to work especially hard to make sure they feel supported and included.

How can educators help create these optimal conditions? Following are some practical ideas for building student connectedness throughout the school year.

  1. Encourage school staff to serve as role models.
    No, educators are not parents, but with all the time kids spend in school, wouldn’t it be a shame for them to miss the opportunity to exert a positive influence? Survey students and make sure each one can name an adult (whether teaching or non-teaching staff) to whom s/he would go if s/he had a problem or concern. Bring in community mentors to work one-on-one with kids. Make sure staff are setting a good example by acting respectfully toward each other and modeling peaceful conflict resolution.

    Related resources
    Creating an Anti-Bullying Environment: What Your School May be Missing
    Start a High-Quality Youth Mentoring Program
    The ABCs of School-Based Mentoring
  2. Integrate social-emotional learning alongside academics.
    Rest assured, if a school invests in improving its climate and culture, standardized test scores are likely to improve rather than decline. Provide evidence-based instruction in life skills. Help students manage their time and their stress levels. Teach them what to do if they experience or witness bullying. Mix up cliques and make sure different groups of kids know and respect each other.

    Related resources
    Mixing it Up to Make New Friends
    Lesson Plan Booster: How Can Students Help a Bullied Peer?
    Saving Kids From Stress
    Benefits of Social and Emotional Learning
    Sample State Standards for Social/Emotional Learning
  3. Let students act like grown-ups.
    Not surprisingly, when we let kids try out adult roles, this leads to them being more successful as adults. Give students a say in developing school rules and policies. Train them to help mediate peer disputes. Teach them public speaking and debate skills. Ask students when they feel most successful at school, and try to create those optimal conditions often. Encourage kids to provide respectful, constructive feedback on teachers and assignments.

    Related resources
    Striving to Make Peer Mediation More Effective
    Debates in the Classroom: Resources
    Integrate Speaking Skills Into Classroom Instruction
  4. Help kids engage with the real world.
    Provide internship, service learning and project-based learning opportunities. Guide them in conducting real research. Get students involved in helping others—altruism and generosity are important needs, yet these often go unmet in a school setting. Let them help solve community problems. Help them tune into and analyze current world events. Encourage them to meaningfully connect with people who are different from them.

    Related resources
    Read About It: Service Learning
    A Service Learning Lesson Plan
    Community Service in Action
    Twenty-Five Great Ideas for Teaching Current Events
    Youth Action Research
  5. Use misbehavior as an opportunity to teach positive behavior.
    Avoid simply doling out one-size-fits-all punishments. Frequent suspensions are associated with high risk of student dropout; try restorative justice instead. Analyze discipline data to identify students with a large number of incidents— then provide support, find out what these kids are good at, get them involved in using these skills to help others, and find creative ways for them to experience social and academic success.

    Related resources
    Classroom Management Archive
    Creating a Climate for Learning: Effective Classroom Management Techniques
    Classroom Problem Solver
    Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports
    Toolkit on Alternatives to Out-of-School Suspension
    Zero Tolerance, Zero Evidence: An Analysis of School Disciplinary Practice


Article by Celine Provini, EducationWorld Editor
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