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With New Study Showing a Student’s Connection to Their School and Family Can Have Lasting Health Benefits, 4 Ways Educators Can Build Stronger Relationships

By Kate Stringer | July 30, 2019

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The teachers who stand outside their classroom door to greet students every morning aren’t just doing a good job of building relationships with their kids — they may also be helping them live healthier lives as adults.

Children who are connected with their schools and families may be protected from negative health outcomes more than a decade later into adulthood, a new study from Pediatrics found. Adults who experienced these good relationships as students were less likely to have poor mental health, suffer from or perpetrate violence, engage in risky sexual activities or abuse substances.

These findings aren’t surprising to researchers and advocates who are focused on building these connections, or what the study defines as “a sense of caring, support, and belonging.” It’s part of what these groups call supporting the whole child, from physical and mental health to academics and social-emotional skills.

“One of the things we do know is that the link between health and academics is incredibly strong,” said Kathleen A. Ethier, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Adolescent and School Health and one of the study’s authors. “Kids who are healthier do better in school.”

Researchers analyzed two different groups of data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health. The first set of data, collected from 1994 to 1995, included questionnaires and interviews of about 20,000 students in grades 7 to 12 and their parents. The second data collection, in 2008, included more interviews of 24- to 32-year-olds (15,701 participants) who had experienced those in-home interviews more than a decade earlier.

Having high levels of connectedness to their schools and families was associated with a 48 to 66 percent lower likelihood of adverse adult health outcomes, such as incidences of violence, risky sexual activity, mental health episodes and substance abuse. Attempting suicide and not using a condom were the only two factors that didn’t have any link to connectedness. The study also found that these family and school relationships were associated with an increased likelihood of graduating from college.

The study isn’t able to explain why these connections may have protective health benefits. But Ethier said that one of the causes of health problems such as suicidal ideation, emotional distress or substance abuse is social isolation. If students have better connections to their community, they have a greater network of support.

Past research has found links between healthy students and good grades. And while risky behaviors in adolescence can lead to negative health outcomes down the road, this new study suggests that relationships can offer a positive antidote to that.

This work is not necessarily cost-heavy, advocates said, but is instead about training adults in schools — from bus drivers to nurses to teachers — to build relationships with students. Here are some ways educators can form these connections with students and families:

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1 Check in on school culture and climate

For school leaders interested in building better relationships with their students, Heather Clawson recommends that they first administer a survey to teachers, students and parents to understand what the climate is like in their building. Clawson is the chief program and innovation officer at Communities in Schools, a national nonprofit that helps students from disadvantaged backgrounds succeed by connecting them with resources from their communities.

These surveys often ask questions about what students’ relationships are like with their teachers, or whether they feel safe at school. By getting a sense of what it’s like to learn in their buildings, educators can better understand what problems need addressing, Clawson said.

2 Assign a point of contact

To do this work, it’s helpful to have one person in a district who is responsible for coordinating how schools are building relationships with students. The CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health has a program that helps create these connections in schools. The program assigns points of contact in each of the 28 education agencies that it works with around the country. Sometimes this person is a new hire, and sometimes it’s someone who already works in a school district who has been retrained.

The program builds relationships between students and adults through four different methods: mentoring programs for students, service learning projects, improved classroom management, and the creation of safe and inclusive clubs. The CDC’s work reaches 2 million students, and Ethier estimates these programs cost about $10 per kid.

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3 Train adults on building relationships

Communities in Schools has made recent efforts to make sure all adults in the schools they work with — from educators to bus drivers to students’ family members — have the training on common language and practice to help build relationships with students.

But it’s also really important to make sure these relationships are made up of the right elements, Clawson said. Her organization uses the Developmental Relationships Framework created by the Search Institute to guide how they build connections between students, schools and families. These five elements include expressing care, challenging student growth, providing support, sharing power and expanding possibilities.

“You really have to have that connectivity and relationships in order for you to begin to work with the student in any area of their life,” Clawson said. “Intuitively, it makes sense, but the fact that the research has been able to empirically show that is significant.”

4 Meet families where they are 

To make sure this work is reaching the students who need the most support, schools should reach out to families who might not be able to attend school meetings or conferences during the day, said Vito Borrello, executive director for the National Association for Family, School, and Community Engagement. Home visiting programs are good tools for this — teachers travel to families’ homes to introduce themselves, learn about their children and see what they need in order to help their students be successful.

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Borrello also recommends that educators show up at places of worship or community centers to help form relationships with families. This helps parents who may have had negative experiences when they were in school create better trust with educators. Texting and emailing with families also sends a signal that schools are willing to meet parents in ways that are most convenient for them, he said.

“This is about a relationship,” Borrello said. “All families want the best for their child. It’s not doing the teacher’s job, it’s being a partner with the school and being able to provide … their expertise for their child.”

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