Less than half of middle and high school students say they have an adult at school they can turn to. It’s up to all of us to make sure they have the connections that foster well-being.
In the wake of the pandemic, schools are investing billions in federal funding to accelerate learning and support students’ well-being. As a parent and a trained researcher who has studied the science of learning and human development, I know that these goals are intertwined. Children need to feel safe and secure to thrive in the classroom and beyond. That starts by making sure they have strong connections to educators who know them as individuals.
Learning is fundamentally a social process, and a growing body of research shows that supportive teacher-student relationships have a profound impact on how students feel about school, and in turn, on their performance in the classroom. Students with strong connections to their teachers are more likely to develop positive social and emotional competencies, feel more engaged in school, and perform better academically. Put simply, students are motivated to do their best when they know someone believes in them and cares about their success.
I saw this firsthand as a middle school teacher in the Bronx. I wanted to create a classroom culture grounded in trust and mutual respect, so I made sure to set aside time to connect and build community. One year, we ended every week playing board games together. I discovered the more I invested in building relationships with my students, the more invested they became in the work we did together. We wanted to be our best for each other.
There are lots of ways that schools put relationships first—from setting aside time for teachers to prioritize connection with students, to adopting technology tools like Along, which help teachers and students create meaningful relationships. Developed by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and educators at Gradient Learning, Along was built on the belief that when teachers and students connect one-on-one, students feel seen and known. A recent Gradient Learning survey found that more than three-quarters of teachers believe that building stronger teacher-student connections is a highly effective way to boost student engagement.
The more I invested in building relationships with my students, the more invested they became in the work we did together. We wanted to be our best for each other.
Parents also have a role to play, and there are steps we can take to make sure our kids have access to the kind of supportive relationships that can make a big difference.
1. Talk to your kids about who they trust at school.
Students can benefit from strong connections with any adult in their school, including teachers, coaches, classroom aides and support staff.
It isn’t just about who kids like or who is the most fun. Kids benefit when adults understand their strengths, struggles and goals for growth. Researchers at the Search Institute identified five dimensions of developmental relationships—the kind of connections that make a powerful difference for kids: express care, challenge growth, provide support, share power and expand possibilities.
This framework can help you dig deeper and identify the educators who are making a difference for your child. Who celebrates their accomplishments? Who pushes them to go further? Who helps them solve problems? Who advocates for them? Who inspires them to see possibilities for their future?
2. Be proactive about sharing information.
Once you know who your child connects with at school, help them get to know your child better. This might mean communicating about the role they play in your child’s life, sharing updates about important experiences or describing what motivates your child to do their best. This background will not only help them support your child’s unique needs, but also help them share context about your child with other educators and staff at school.
Two years ago, when my son was in third grade, his teacher and I shared a commitment to ensuring he had a strong relationship with her. Like many kids his age, he had a lot of energy, and sometimes he just did not know where to put it. Through regular communication, we were able to brainstorm strategies to support him. She knew she could always reach out to me, and I could always listen without getting defensive because I knew it came from a place of love and support.
These connections don’t happen magically; it takes an investment from parents and from teachers. But I found that the stronger the relationship I had with my son’s teacher, the better she was able to connect with him and support his growth. Even on the hard days when he had to hear tough feedback, he never doubted that she was in his corner.
3. Remember the importance of validation and appreciation for teachers.
The past few years have been incredibly challenging for educators—from adopting new methods of instruction to navigating health risks and helping students process the trauma of the pandemic. It’s no surprise that a recent RAND survey found that teachers and principals were twice as likely to report frequent job-related stress compared to other working adults.
Teacher well-being impacts school culture and climate, classroom instruction, and students’ growth and development. When teachers are overwhelmed, it’s harder for them to build and maintain the relationships that help students feel connected to school and engaged in learning. That’s why it’s so important to express appreciation for educators, especially those who have developed strong connections with your child. Little actions—a simple thank you or acknowledgment of their work—can go a long way toward refilling their emotional cup.
If you are engaged in your PTA, encourage your school and district to invest in professional learning, mentoring and wellness practices that foster connection and community for teachers, which boost well-being in the long-term. At the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, we have supported the pioneering work of Healthy Minds Innovations, which developed a free app that is designed to help users build resilience in four areas: awareness, connection, insight and purpose. A study of Wisconsin teachers using the app found lower rates of psychological stress and improved well-being.
Today, we are beginning to appreciate the impact of the pandemic on academic achievement and well-being for our kids. The latest results from the National Assessment of Education Progress showed sharp declines in math and reading to levels last seen two decades ago. A YouthTruth survey found that depression, stress and anxiety are the most prevalent obstacles to learning for middle and high school students. What’s more, fewer than half of middle and high school students report that they have an adult at school they can turn to when they have a problem.
To get back on track, our kids need ongoing support and guidance from caring adults. It’s up to all of us to make sure they have the connections that foster well-being in support of academic achievement and long-term success.
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