How do principals ensure that students know they have at least one adult in the building they can rely on, and a group of peers who have their backs?
For many students, that one meaningful connection with a teacher or a custodian may be what brings them to school each day.
That’s why Julie Scott, the principal of R. L. Wright Elementary School in Sedgwick, Kan., and Michael Bennett, the co-principal at York High School in York, Me., purposefully dedicate time to ensure that staff and students work on building those important bonds.
In Kansas, Scott runs “family activity building,” or FAB, which pairs a group of about 20 students from different grades with an adult—a teacher, a secretary, or a paraprofessional. They meet after school and focus on non-academic activities.
“It’s not an academic purpose,” Scott said. “Our purpose is connection; our purpose is building those relationships within the school community.”
In Maine, Bennett runs Pride, a twice-a-week morning program, where students are put into groups of up to 10 classmates in the same grade and matched with an adult. The same adult stays with the group of students throughout high school. Older students also serve as ambassadors of sorts to help younger students.
The adults might inquire about how students are doing in class, their grades, and whether they need extra academic support. But the focus is on “supporting students’ social-emotional well-being and ensuring they build strong bonds throughout the building,” Bennett said.
“It’s another set of eyes on our kids,” he said.
Why relationships matter
Part of the goal is “getting to know kids outside of reading, writing, and arithmetic,” Bennett said.
While schools have counselors and other formal layers of support for students, these informal bonds, once forged, are crucial lifelines for students, the principals said.
“It’s extremely important that we have outside of that [formal support structure], someone who knows the kids—and then the kids knowing each other,” Bennett said. “That building of empathy and understanding and recognizing diversity in people—and honoring that.”
Those additional relationships help students when they face challenges inside and outside of school.
“The focus [of] Pride is making connections with kids—the adults with the kids, but also the kids with other kids,” said Bennett, who has been at York High School for eight years and came when the program was already up and running.
“We try to make sure that the classroom teacher connects with every single student, [but] that’s not always a possibility,” Scott said.
Having another adult in the school who is responsible for students’ well-being can make a big difference. If a child is having trouble in class, the classroom teacher may also reach out to the adult in the student’s FAB “family” to follow up with the student, Scott said.
Kindergartners light up when they see the older members of their groups—both students and teachers—excitedly exclaiming, “‘That’s my FAB mom!’ or ‘That’s my FAB brother!’” Scott said.
“I think it’s important for them to feel loved when they come to school,” she said.
Learning about leadership, while building relationships
Through FAB, students learn about trust, community service, interpersonal skills, and the importance of kindness, among others soft skills, Scott said. They’ve raked yards for seniors and crafted cards for local veterans on Veterans Day. The older student-mentors learn about leadership, she said.
“As they get older, every kid in our school gets to be a leader during FAB,” Scott said, adding that those students help model appropriate in-school behavior for younger ones.
“Even if they are not leaders in the classroom, they are their [FAB] team leaders.”
In the Maine program, the groups also include counselors, who deliver social-emotional lessons to students.
The groups meet for 30 minutes twice a week. Keeping the same adult with the students and the regular meetings helps to build consistency and continuity, Bennett said.
“The kids really value [the program] because it’s a time for them to really decompress, make connections… relax a little bit, [and] build relationships,” Bennett said.
It’s an especially valuable experience for incoming 9th graders, who are often nervous about high school and the four years ahead, he said.
Activities are sometimes structured around what’s happening outside of school. For example, they may carve pumpkins for Halloween, decorate doors for the holidays, or engage in community-service projects, such as painting a mural at the school, Bennett said.
“Even though we are a small school, we were finding that kids didn’t have connections to adults, particularly during the pandemic,” Bennett said. “So it’s important to us that kids feel that they matter here. One of the ways to do that is by developing ties with adults.”
The groups also help students process difficult events. If a weighty topic is discussed at an assembly, for example, students discuss it in their Pride groups. When a recent graduate died, students met in their groups to help them process the loss. It gave the adults who knew them an avenue to help them access additional support if they needed it, Bennett said.
The groups can also be organizing points for the school. When students evacuate the building for fire drills, for example, they assemble in their Pride groups once outside.
How to make it work
The good news is that it costs relatively nothing to start these programs.
The biggest cost—and that’s still a negligible amount—is to cover supplies for some of the activities. Bennett uses funds already set aside for SEL.
Teachers and the other adults may need some training and support to ensure that students have similar experiences across the different groups.
The most critical thing is matching students with the right team leader and grouping them with other students who share similar interests and with whom they’ll connect, the school leaders said.
Scott tries to separate siblings and family members. Bennett also takes recommendations from the students’ former middle schools.
“It’s really about knowing our kids, academically, and social-emotionally as well,” Bennett said.
“It doesn’t matter the size of the school,” he said. “I think that when you create relationships—and positive relationships with kids—it helps, in terms of the climate and the culture. It helps you identify how to support kids better. ... The kids feel like there’s somebody who cares about me. ...
“Big school, small school, medium-sized school—that’s important in education. That connection, that caring, and that trust,” Bennett concluded.
Those relationships last a lifetime.
Scott is still in touch with students from the first program she ran.
“My very first 6th grader is now a dad with two kids,” she said. “We keep up with each other on Facebook.”