This post: Want Your Teen to Thrive in School? Help Them Feel Connected to Their School
As a parent of teenagers, I’m sure you’ve heard it from either your own child or other teenagers you know…
“Man… I hate school. I dread going every day. When I’m there I count the minutes until I can go home.”
“School is so boring and stupid. I can’t stand my teachers and I don’t care about what I’m learning.”
“I know getting an education and graduating is important, but I don’t feel really connected to my school. I’m just doing what I need to do so I can graduate and move on.”
The harsh reality is, far too many kids are just “going through the motions” in middle and high school.
The true highlight of their day is hanging out with their friends in the lunchroom or library, joking around in class, and meeting up with them after school. As for school and actual learning? Let’s just say it’s not at the top of their priority list.
So, how do we help our kids thrive in school? How do we inspire them to become (even somewhat) enthusiastic about getting up for school every day? How do we encourage them to actually want to learn, take ownership of their grades, and value how school can positively impact their lives both now and in the future?
As a mom of three (and being the designated “hangout house”), I’ve had conversations with dozens (perhaps hundreds) of teenagers over the past two decades. I’ve seen some struggle in school, while others thrived. I’ve seen some become deeply apathetic about learning, while others moved full steam ahead excited and eager to take in the experience and make the most of it.
In my many conversations with teens, I noticed ONE common thread with nearly every single child who was thriving: They felt connected to their school and had a sense of belonging there.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), helping kids flourish and thrive in school starts with fostering a sense of belonging and connectivity.
Danny Steele, well-known educator, speaker, and author of several books, confirms the notion…
“Not all students come to class wanting to learn… but they all come wanting to belong. And when they feel like they belong… they’re much more likely to learn.”
What is School Connectedness?
School connectedness is when students feel that their teachers and administrators in school care about their learning as well as about them as individuals. This includes a sense of being cared for, being supported, and belonging at school.
But it isn’t simply about academics.
Kids who are involved in school sports (like football, lacrosse, soccer or cheerleading), or kids who are engaged in school clubs or social activities (like the robotics club, drama, the choir or band, school government, the yearbook club, etc.) also feel a strong sense of connectedness and belonging to their school.
And, considering many sports programs hold students accountable for their grades, (meaning, they won’t allow students to play if their grades drop below a certain point), players have no choice but to balance their love of the sport with their grades.
It’s important to note that while feeling connected can be hugely beneficial, according to the CDC, not all students benefit equally. In fact, kids who experience racism, bullying, or who identify as LGBTQ+ often feel less connected at school.
The Benefits When Kids Feel Connected to Their School
Students who feel a sense of belonging at school not only reap the benefits of improved learning, but they’re also far more likely to get on a path to better mental health and well-being that carries over even into adulthood.
Studies have shown that kids who feel connected to their schools and feel as though they belong are less likely to experience mental health issues and they’re less likely to engage in risky behavior, have issues with substance abuse, or become violent.
How Can You Help Your Teen Develop a Connection to Their School?
Here are a few simple ways to help your teen feel more connected to their school that worked for me as a parent.
1. Join Forces with Their Teachers and Academic Advisor
When our kids were in elementary school, we had annual conferences with their teachers. It gave both the teachers and us a chance to enlighten each other and share details about our kids’ strengths and weaknesses, learning style, passions and personalities. Fast forward to middle and high school and those teacher conferences have become a thing of the past… but they shouldn’t be.
Schedule face-to-face meetings with your child’s teachers and his/her advisor. (Your child should attend all meetings.) Talk about grades, their learning style, your child’s short and long-term goals, etc. Let your child speak up so the teachers/advisor really get to know them beyond a face among the desks. Teachers want to see their students succeed. The more teachers and advisors become invested in a student and see first-hand their desire to succeed, the more they’ll be willing to go the extra mile to help them reach their goals
2. Encourage Involvement in School Sports, Clubs & Activities
I’m a firm believer that every teenager needs an outlet to meet and connect with other kids, to help build their self-esteem, to encourage them to step out of their comfort zone, to break away from the rigor of school and give them a sense of belonging.
When your son’s team scores the winning touchdown on Friday night or when your daughter plays a role in the school play that turned out to be a huge hit with students, you better believe they’ll be excited to get up for school the next day.
Even if your child isn’t the star football player or the leading lady in the school play, small feelings of inclusiveness with other students, feeling that they’re making a difference in their school or being part of something within the school will inspire them to look forward to jumping on that bus at 7 am in the morning.
3. Cast a Wide Social Net
Middle and high school can be dripping with social drama – especially girl drama. And, if you’ve ever had your teen at the center of heavy drama you know it can be terribly draining on our kids making them feel isolated and deflected. And, the more isolated and deflected they feel, the less connected they’ll feel to their school.
Avoid it by encouraging your teen to cast a wide social net. Encourage them to join a couple of clubs or sports, get involved in activities outside of school, and not get too caught up in one “tight clique” of kids. The broader the friend group they have, the more likely they are to brush off occasional drama because they’ll have plenty of other friends they can call and hang out with.
4. Continue to Foster Relationships with Teachers
After you’ve laid the initial foundation by scheduling a meeting with your child’s teachers and academic advisor, encourage your teen to keep the rapport going.
Showing up a few minutes before class and striking up a conversation with the teacher or staying a few minutes after class and offering to help the teacher with a task are ways your child can continue to keep those lines of communication open with teachers.
I encouraged all three of my kids to get to know their teachers and they would often come home and tell me interesting stories about them. One teacher had a passion for birds so my daughter would bring in feathers she found and give them to her. One teacher loved history, so my son would spark conversations by asking questions about historical events. Teachers (most, anyway) love talking to students and want to get to know them!
Our kids will thrive in school and be inspired to learn when they truly feel connected… to their teachers, to their advisor, to their school and to other students.
Help your child create a sense of belonging by honing in on these four aspects of school. You might just be surprised to see how a positive attitude and the feeling of being connected impacts their grades.
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