Student-school connectedness is a valuable strategy that helps schools support all children, many of whom may feel unwelcome at school, left out by peers, unsupported by teachers and other adults, or anxious about school work. This sense of isolation goes hand-in-hand with the alarming rate of mental health issues, especially suicide, among children and adolescents.
Mental health problems in children started to climb decades ago and have now reached crisis levels. During the last few years, children and adolescents experienced approximately twice the level of depression and anxiety symptoms that existed before the pandemic, with more than one-third of U.S. high school students reporting regular mental health struggles, including depression, during the COVID-19 pandemic.
One way to address the struggle with student mental health is to break down barriers and create a positive school environment conducive to creating a support network in the schoolwide community.
Student Connectedness and Mental Health
Feeling connected to the school isn’t a panacea for student mental health, but it can ease their depression, anxiety, and sense of alienation. Approximately half of high schoolers don’t feel connected with peers, teachers, and staff—with 41 percent saying they feel less connected since the pandemic began.
A lack of connectedness may either reflect or trigger mental health problems. Studies show that students who don’t feel accepted and valued are likelier to become isolated and succumb to mental health issues. On the flip side, adolescents with mental health conditions are particularly vulnerable to social exclusion, discrimination, and stigma. In either case, low student-school connections can escalate mental health issues, erode peer relationships, and lead to risk-taking behaviors.
What are the Positive Results of Student-School Connectedness?
Schools with a supportive and nurturing environment lay the groundwork for easing student isolation, decreasing mental health risks, and helping troubled students find the support they need. Programs that successfully reinforce student-school connections hold the promise of reducing isolation, improving mental wellness, and effecting a host of other positive effects, including:
- Coping and resilience: Schools that promote a welcoming, inclusive environment, along with a supporting curriculum, help students develop resilience, coping skills, and self-worth.
- Self-Advocacy: Connected students are more likely to seek help and access school and community resources and interventions.
- School Engagement: When students feel they belong, they are more likely to engage in school activities, attend classes, collaborate with peers, and participate in other positive behaviors.
- Peer Relationships: Forging better connections with other students improves collaborative skills, provides new insights into different perspectives, and demonstrates other approaches to addressing challenges.
- Academics: Students with connections to teachers are likelier to have higher grades and test scores, better school attendance, and higher graduation rates.
- Risky Behaviors: Connectedness leads to a significantly lower likelihood that students will engage in risky behaviors, such as violence and substance abuse.
Strategies to Increase Student Connectedness
Successfully building student-school connectedness requires a multi-faceted approach that includes students, teachers, parents, and other adults in the school community. Here are some strategies that schools have used to strengthen connectedness and reduce mental health risks:
Students gain emotional strength when they have strong relationships with their peers. Teachers and students can encourage classmates to participate in extracurricular activities that provide opportunities to form connections with other students. Schoolwide engagement allows students to take on leadership roles, make decisions, improve self-esteem, and contribute to a positive school culture.
Schoolwide Activities Include:1. Develop affinity groups to strengthen peer connections among at-risk students, such as the GSA Club (Gender and Sexuality Alliances), Diversity clubs, and mentoring groups (such as Future Business Leaders of America).
2. Students, teachers, and parents can work together to create and distribute flyers, emails, signs, and announcements to promote clubs, activities, and events.
3. Arrange a Students Connect Day to encourage participation in student committees, clubs, and activities.
Teachers can boost peer-to-peer connections by fostering a classroom atmosphere of open communication, active listening, positive relationships, and trust. Classroom learning activities that develop social skills, emotional intelligence, empathy, and self-awareness strengthen relationships with teachers and their peers. Many schools and districts integrate these emotional and relationship-oriented skills with SEL programs.
Classroom Learning Activities Include:4. Develop and implement age-appropriate SEL curricula.
5. Provide classroom modeling of respectful relationships, collaboration, and inclusion.
6. Plan team-building activities.
7. Assign group work and collaborative projects for classroom or remote learning.
Schools should provide professional development and support for teachers and other school staff to enable them to meet the diverse cognitive, emotional, and social needs of children and adolescents.
Teacher Development Activities Include:8. Develop or participate in teacher workshops on diversity, inclusion, and mental health topics.
9. Have a guest speaker or panel discussion on topics that help teachers build a connected classroom and a positive school environment.
10. Develop a toolkit for creating a welcoming classroom environment, which may include different practices depending on grade level.
11. Provide an orientation kit to help new teachers understand how to promote peer-to-peer and student-teacher relationships.
12. Create opportunities for teachers to share experiences and build teacher-to-teacher support.
26 percent of high school students say they have been the target of bullying, including being physically assaulted, the subject of rumors, cyberbullying, exclusion from activities, and name-calling. The top reasons for bullying include physical appearance, race, gender, disability, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation.
Inclusion Activities Include:13. Create an Anti-Bullying Tool Kit for Teachers with an integrated, age-appropriate curriculum. Schools can also tailor toolkits available through state agencies or other organizations.
14. Create multicultural clubs and workshops.
15. Have speakers visit to discuss inclusion and mental health topics.
16. Partner with an organization like STOPit to create and implement programs that promote student safety and well-being.
Parent engagement has a tremendous effect on how connected students are with the school. When parents are involved, children receive much-needed support.
Teacher-Parent Engagement Activities Include:17. Create opportunities for parents to volunteer in the classroom.
18. Hold teacher-parent breakfasts or events after the workday.
19. Send a survey asking parents how they would like to communicate with the teacher and how they would prefer the teacher communicate with them.
20. Provide brief weekly or monthly class newsletters to parents.
21. Create an online method to help parents provide homework help.
22. Sponsor events where parents can meet each other and teachers
Integrating technology into the classroom and remote learning is another way to build peer and student-teacher connections. At the same time, schools should understand that not all students have easy access to computers, clear expectations should be set (and enforced) for respectful online behavior, and social platforms should have proper controls with appropriate adult monitoring.
Technology Activities Include:23. Use online discussion tools for students and teachers.
24. Interactive games reinforce math, spelling, phonetic, and reading skills.
25. Leverage social networking sites that enable educators and students to network, create, share, and learn from each other. Some examples include Brainly, Edublog, Litpick, and Edmodo. This article has a range of social media sites and apps for incorporating technology into the classroom and remote learning.
26. Assign virtual collaboration projects.
27. Schools can use technology and mobile apps to improve student safety and access local mental health resources, assistance with basic life needs, community services, and school resources through technology tools and solutions, such as wellness programs and tools from STOPit.
Physical activity can help build connectedness while helping reduce stress and anxiety. Physical education programs can help students learn how to resolve conflict, practice leadership schools, and build cooperation and mutual respect. Physical health can also improve learning, mood, motivation, focus, stamina, and self-image.
Physical Health Activities Include:28. Implement a classroom mental and physical health curriculum
29. Encourage physical activities at recess.
30. Create sports clubs that may not be for advanced athletes (such as Frisbee, running, and touch football).
Encourage Connectedness Promotes Student Mental Health
Student-school connectedness is consistently associated with mental health and well-being--but it's not a fast, easy fix. There is no single way to build connectedness; each school must choose which strategies will be most effective for their students and the community.
Building an environment that supports student learning, social connectedness, and physical and mental wellness takes time and continuous refinement.