One of the most worrisome problems we faced during the spring was the students who disappeared when face-to-face school was suspended. Despite efforts to contact, locate, and engage these students, too many never resurfaced. Predictably, they missed a good portion of learning from the past year. This is bad news, but other aspects of the situation are even more troubling.
For many of these students, the shift in school experience gave them an exit door that allowed them to act on preexisting feelings of separation and psychological disconnectedness without having to face immediate consequences. The source of these students’ behavior was not really the pandemic and cancellation of school. It grew out of what was already present in their school experience and absent in their relationship experience. Simply providing support and opportunities to catch up in their learning will not likely solve their problems or change their behavior.
These students and others like them need a different experience, stronger connections, and a new direction before their choices about school and learning will change. Fortunately, we know much about what can be done, but our efforts will require commitment, patience, and focus.
It is correct that much of this work must occur within the relationships between students and teachers. Yet, our leadership, advocacy, persistence, and accountability in support of these students will likely determine the extent to which many teachers will invest in and persist in engaging them. Everyone needs to hear that we cannot and will not give up on these students. Teachers need to know that we place a priority on the success of students who are disconnecting.
We also know that among the strongest driving influences for students to remain in, commit to, and succeed in school are feelings that they are noticed; they are seen and recognized, especially by adults who matter. They need connections with other students and other parts of their lives. They also need to experience some level of success, at least occasionally. These elements need to play a role in the work we all do to address this challenge.
Interestingly, these factors are not necessarily expensive to put in place, but if we have any hope of reengaging and finding success with these students, we need to act on them. For example, do we know how many students in our school have no adult with whom they have a relationship, could go to with a problem, or see as an advocate? There are a number of ways to find out. Student surveys, staff analysis, and sociograms are places to start. Making a commitment to have every student know an adult to whom they can turn and who is willing to advocate for them can make a profound difference.
We can help students form positive, influential relationships with other students through engagement in activities. Research studies have shown that forming positive peer relationships alone can increase academic success. Traditionally, sports, theater, music, and technology clubs have offered good options for some students. However, if we want more students to choose to be involved, we need to think more broadly and cast a wider net. Esports programs, video game related activities, and engagements related to social issues are just a few examples that can broaden appeal and build connections. Consider asking students what they would like. Listen carefully and find a way to make it happen.
The third factor, experiencing some instances of success, also warrants careful consideration and commitment. Think about the number of students who come to school each day and week and fail to experience even one success. The number might be surprising and definitely will be sobering. A recent Gallup study found that one of the most powerful factors leading students to stay in school is experiencing some form of success at least once per week. Of course, not every success must be academic. Being noticed can reinforce our value. Hearing a compliment can lift our spirits. Having friends can feel like we belong. Having someone advocate for us can feel like success.
We might think that moving forward on these fronts at this time will be challenging. They will be. Yet, with focused, clear leadership supported by concrete steps, persistence, and unwavering commitment we can make the greatest difference in the lives of our students, especially those who need us the most.