The well-being of children and youth is becoming increasingly important in the school landscape of Alberta. Students’ needs are noticeably more diverse as noted by teachers with years of classroom experience who are acutely aware of these recent changes.
How do educators support the complex nature of student well-being—including mental well-being—in a scenario that is characterized by diverse and unique needs? One important way to achieve this goal is to foster a sense of school connectedness. School connectedness is “the belief by students that adults and peers in the school care about their learning as well as about them as individuals” (JCSH 2017, 4). It is one way to support the academic and health outcomes of students in our school communities, including their positive mental well-being (Public Health Agency of Canada 2012).
What can teachers do to support the feeling of school connectedness? A great start is to understand that school connectedness includes the relationships that students have with their peers and with the adults who work within a physically and emotionally safe school community (Blum 2005).
Equipped with this understanding, teachers can then intentionally focus their efforts to support each of these areas. The following ideas for supportive actions are not exhaustive and, in some cases, require little effort. Other approaches may need a larger, more coordinated effort with health-promotion partners, school councils and other important stakeholders.
The first type of relationship, which is likely central to the idea of school connectedness, is the student-adult relationship. These relationships can be largely affected by the context of the school. For example, a student in Grade 3 can usually develop a deeper relationship with a homeroom teacher and perhaps interact with fewer adults in a day compared to a sibling in Grade 9 who is transitioning between several classrooms on the same day.
An excellent way to see which students may be lacking a significant connection to adults in a school is to conduct an activity called “school of fish.” Start with student involvement by having students illustrate “who they are” on a template of a fish or puzzle piece. This concept may work better in smaller settings and perhaps can be done in grade groupings or subject disciplines. Next, display the student work and have adults initial only the pieces with which they feel they have a significant connection, for example, those where they know the student’s family and/or siblings, the activities the student enjoys outside of school hours or the student’s future career aspirations. This process will quickly identify those students who may be lacking a connection to adults in the school and offer a starting point for more intentional relationship building.
The second type of relationship is the connection that students have with their peers. Students’ health outcomes and educational achievements are positively or negatively influenced by their peer group (Centre for Disease Control 2009). The amount of time that students spend with their peers and the influence that peers may have on their day-to-day routines will be different in elementary, middle and high schools. But it is important for students of all ages to experience a sense of independence and autonomy within their school day. With this comes opportunities to interact with friends and, ideally, belong to a positive peer group.
As years go by, students discover that their friends become trusted sources of information. With this in mind, we can teach students the importance of quality friendships over quantity, often a challenging but important theme to explore. A further emphasis on social and emotional skill development can support students in this task by seeking opportunities within the curriculum to highlight and practice these concepts.
Finally, schools can support school connectedness by fostering physically and emotionally safe environments. There are two areas where it may be advisable to begin: students transitioning between schools and Internet/digital media safety.
Investing time in students who are transitioning to and from your school can support students’ emotional needs and settle the uncertainties associated with these moves. This is an especially delicate time for students who may have become accustomed to the same peer group in one school and find themselves in larger, more diverse classrooms where they are expected to quickly become more independent.
In addition to supporting students in their first and last few months at a school, the day-to-day interaction with the Internet is an important consideration. In an era with emerging digital technologies and equally diverse social media platforms, students will continue to interact with the Internet both out of interest and necessity.
It may be difficult to see the tangible elements of school connectedness come to light in the early days, but the impact of making this a priority is worthwhile and long-lasting. Students will benefit greatly from a healthy connection to adults in their schools. And the positive influences of a quality peer group reach beyond the walls of a school. They have the power to amplify a safe, caring and healthy school community, and in time, students’ overall well-being and success in school will be evidence of your efforts.
Blum, R. W. 2005. “A Case for School Connectedness.” Educational Leadership 62, no. 7, 16–20. www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/apr05/vol62/num07/A-Case-for-School-Connectedness.aspx (accessed January 18, 2018).
Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. 2009. School Connectedness: Strategies for Increasing Protective Factors Among Youth. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/protective/pdf/connectedness.pdf (accessed January 18, 2018).
Pan-Canadian Joint Consortium for School Health (JCSH). 2017. Positive Mental Health Toolkit, Module 2: School Connectedness. Ottawa. ON: JCSH. http://wmaproducts.com/JCSHModule2/ (accessed January 18, 2018).
Public Health Agency of Canada. 2012. “Chapter 4: School.” In The Health of Canada’s Young People: A Mental Health Focus. www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/health-promotion/childhood-adolescence/publications/health-canada-young-people-mental-health-focus/school.html (accessed January 18, 2018).
Chris Fenlon-MacDonald is the provincial education coordinator for Ever Active Schools, a provincial initiative that supports wellness in Alberta school communities.