Caring connections are key to school success

When I was in kindergarten, I was eager to give my parents a tour of my school. At the Garfield Elementary School open house, I proudly pointed out all the important places: the library, the cafeteria, and Mr. Kittleson’s office.

Mr. Kittleson? My parents — who still love to tell this story — didn’t recognize the name. But when they learned that Mr. Kittleson stored mops, tools, and cleaning supplies in his “office,” they understood: He was the janitor. Mom and Dad realized then that I was in a nurturing environment where adults and kids respected each other and knew each other’s names.

This story came to mind when I interviewed Marnie Thompson about school connectedness. Thompson is the assistant principal at Northfield High School, where my daughter Louisa will be a ninth-grader this year. Thompson is also the district’s school connectedness truancy prevention coordinator.

What is school connectedness? Thompson defines it as the perception by students that at least one adult in the school cares about them. It’s important because students who feel connected are more likely to do well in school and avoid risky behaviors.

“There’s plenty of data out there that says that they’re less likely to smoke, drink, skip, be involved in any kind of violent activity or bullying,” Thompson says. “When kids perceive that their school is a safe place, that there are caring adults, that there’s a focus on their education, they’re more apt to be successful both academically and behaviorally.”

Studies show that being involved in co-curricular activities and participating in service projects, like delivering meals to the elderly and picking up litter, also benefits teens and tweens.

“If they’re doing something for somebody else or for the community, they feel more valued, and it increases their feelings of connection,” Thompson says.

The Northfield school district conducted a survey a few years ago at the elementary schools, middle school, and high school to help identify students at risk of feeling disconnected from school. They posted the names of all the students and asked the adults in the building — including cooks, custodians, and aides — to put a mark by the names of students they felt they knew beyond basic name and face recognition. Students who had one or no marks were then mentored by adults in the school.

Thompson says most kids at the elementary level could identify at least one caring adult, but that in the upper grades, even though students interact with more adults, those relationships are less identified by students as involving a caring adult. If children can’t name an adult who they think cares about them, she recommends that parents contact a counselor or other staff member to make sure the child’s needs are being met.

Because students can feel disengaged during the transition years — when they move from elementary school to middle school, and middle school to high school — the Northfield district initiated student-led orientation programs for sixth- and ninth-graders designed to foster relationships across grades and make students feel comfortable in their new environment. My daughter was a leader for WEB (Where Everybody Belongs) last year, and will be in the high school’s LINK program this year.

The school district also has focused on providing after school and summer programming for students who need extra academic or social support. Thompson says this has increased students’ interaction with caring adults, and has helped them improve their performance in school.

Helping students feel connected can be challenging when their parents aren’t able to be as involved in the school, because of work schedules or language barriers. Thompson says that’s an issue the staff has focused on lately, trying to find other ways those parents can volunteer their time and skills, like preparing food for teacher conferences, or putting up bulletin boards.

A key message she hopes all parents will remember is that schools welcome parent involvement and want to be informed of any changes outside of school, like a divorce, or financial stress, that might affect students’ attendance or cause their grades to drop.

“The more the school staff knows, the more we’re able to watch and increase the protective factors for kids at school,” she says.

My daughter is excited to start high school next month, and I don’t anticipate any problems with her feeling connected. But it’s comforting to know that if Louisa does need help, Thompson and other caring adults are ready and willing to provide it.

Joy Riggs salutes all the Mr. Kittlesons out there who make students feel welcome at school.

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