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Connection is Key: Why We Emphasize the Importance of Engagement for Student Success

Steven Covey’s “Third Habit of Highly Effective People” is to put first things first. His point is that if we focus on the little stuff, we too often don’t have time to take care of the important stuff. I demonstrated Covey’s familiar “Big Rocks” story for the faculty when they returned to school in August. I wanted us to think, individually and collectively, about our big rocks, our core beliefs about teaching, education, and kids, and decide what we needed to put in our jars first.

Our Portrait of a Graduate—confident and connected kids who work hard, think well, and work well with others—captures most of the big rocks in my educational jar. The question, though, is what do I put in first and why and how do I do it? It seems to me that the first big rock has to be about the relationship that exists between and among kids and teachers, about the sense of being accepted by and belonging to a community. 

So what do we do to make sure kids feel connected at Westminster School? Largely it depends upon the age of the child. In our early childhood grades (below fourth grade), there is a lot of emphasis on what it means to be a friend. Kids give lessons to each other, share snack, put notes in friendship books, and have daily discussions around, for example, Teamwork Tuesday or Friendship Friday. Younger children love learning with their older buddies, and it would be hard to find a Westminster eighth grader who can’t remember his or her buddies from lower school. Moreover, our early childhood classrooms are carefully prepared environments. 

In one first grade class, for example, children start the day in a circle, greeting each other and then going around the circle, giving each other a firm handshake, looking into each other’s eyes, smiling, and saying “Good morning, Jack” with Jack responding, “Good morning, Will.” What a great way for first graders to learn to greet others politely, offer a bit of kindness in the morning, and start the day off well. 

By fourth grade kids tend to begin breaking more into cliques. Sometimes the cliques are defined by the children’s interests, by the teams they play on, or by their parents’ friends, but with tightly knit home rooms, strong lower school “community” programs, and formalized practices like NOSA (No One Sits Alone), our upper elementary kids stay connected.

In middle school, however, things change. The job of adolescents is to figure out who they are, and they need freedom to do so. They begin to form their own cliques which reflect their likes and dislikes. Adolescence, as most of us remember, is a difficult journey, and these cliques can undeniably be mean. After all, most middle schoolers are still widely perceived to be just a shipwreck away from turning into Lord of the Flies savages. Nevertheless, early adolescence is an incredibly important and powerful time for kids to learn and grow and change, and they need both freedom and connection if they are going to do so.

So we do two important things in our middle school to increase connection. First, we focus on inclusion. This means that we try to avoid dividing and labeling kids. We don’t have A teams and B teams, we don’t have honor rolls, and we don’t have class officers or class favorites. We don’t publish G.P.A.’s, select M.V.P.’s, or calculate P.P.G.’s. We support individual expression but only celebrate group successes. At the same time, however, inclusion means that all children have a place where they belong, a place quite literally to call home—their home groups. Second, we try to expand the size of the group in middle school. The circles and home rooms of earlier grades are replaced with a variety of groupings. This means that while middle school students are almost always with their home groups, they are also in class at different times of the day with at least 2/3 of the kids in their grade. To create an even bigger group where everyone knows everyone else, we offer age-mixed electives and lunch rooms. After all, the more kids you have to be friends with, the more likely you are to have friends.

The connection of kids with their teachers is important as well, and there are a few things I’ve learned through the years about how to enhance those connections with middle schoolers. 

The first is to give kids the opportunity to think for themselves, the confidence to express their thoughts to others, and the belief that what they think is important. Adults can’t trick kids; kids will see right through us, so if we want to connect with kids, we have to not only let them say what they think, but we have to truly value and remember what they think. Another thing I’ve learned is that lecturing middle school kids is a waste of time. 

If we want to change their behavior, we’ve got to engage them in a meaningful conversation. 

Those meaningful conversations need to be rational, not emotional; they need to engage kids in the world of ideas, not the world of feelings. Another thing I’ve learned is this—don’t try to engage a kid by being a kid; don’t try to be part of the adolescent world; don’t try to be their new best friend. It doesn’t work. They know we’re the adults. They expect us to act like it.

In my eighth grade history class, for example, we watch Henry Fonda in a 75 year old, black and white, film classic, The Oxbow Incident. This story is set in the Wild West of 1885 but was written in 1940 about the war in Europe. The question it explores is whether a committer who does an evil act is not only guilty of the crime, but also the most responsible for it. After the kids watch the movie, they read a chapter from the film’s novel. From that reading, they learn that three things have to be true for the bystander—the one who watches an evil deed unfold but does nothing to stop it—to be more responsible for it than the committer. Those things are first, the committer has to think what he is doing is okay; second, the bystander has to understand what the committer is doing is wrong; and third, the bystander has to be able to stop the committer without “playing the Christ.” 

This template is helpful for teaching history. For example, were the “good” people of the South or the KKK more responsible for Klan violence? Did the KKK members think in their own deluded way that lynching a black man for whistling at a white woman was okay? Did the respectable whites in town know it was wrong? Could those respectable whites for whom most of the Klan members worked have stopped the Klan from its violence? These are history lessons about law and justice, but they are also social and emotional lessons about leadership and our responsibilities to each other. And that’s where I take it in order to increase connection. “If you see your friend pick on another and you say nothing, are you more responsible for the other child’s distress than your friend, who for whatever reason, thought what she was doing was okay?”

I particularly like this effort to connect with kids and get them to connect with each other because it is conversational in nature, clearly focused in the world of ideas, and develops one of our most important tools for learning—intrinsic motivation. We all know that intrinsic motivation is far better than extrinsic motivation at getting kids to learn, mostly because kids get used to our rewards and punishments and become indifferent to them. Think about this story. There was an emergency staffing for an 11 year old boy, Jason, who had significant anger issues, had been permanently returned to state custody by his adoptive parents, and was totally disconnected. When Jason arrived at the group home, he walked in and immediately threw a chair at the teacher—totally against the rules. The consensus of the group of professionals, many of whom had known Jason when he lived there before, was that he could not be allowed to so defiantly break the rules. He had to be punished. One teacher, however, disagreed.  She said the problem was that Jason was programmed to throw chairs when he was frustrated. “We don’t need to punish him,” she said.  “We need to deprogram him.” 

The lead psychologist then met with Jason, and she convinced him that there was a huge problem at the group home—homeless birds. The psychologist said that these homeless birds didn’t have any family, and with winter coming, they would be alone and afraid with nowhere to go. The psychologist asked Jason, “What do you think we ought to do about these homeless birds?” Jason who had been rejected by his birth parents and his adopted parents bought in. He said they should build birdhouses for the homeless birds. The psychologist said that would be great, but she didn’t have enough help on the campus to build the birdhouses. She asked if he would help. Jason readily agreed….and his violent outbursts disappeared. 

Jason was clearly more disconnected and troubled than Westminster kids, but what should we do when a middle schooler feels miserable, disconnected, and alone? We can’t wave a magic wand to fix depression and unhappiness, but as we saw with Jason, by connecting with him on a person to person level, by explaining a problem and listening to his solutions, and by trusting him to turn his solutions into realities, we can help kids connect and be successful. 

That’s basically what Edward Deci of the University of Rochester and Daniel Pink who popularized Deci’s ideas in his bestseller, Drive, have shown are the basics of intrinsic motivation. For us to do our best, we need work that allows us to feel connection with others, provides us autonomy in completing tasks, presents us with an opportunity to achieve mastery, and gives us a purpose bigger than ourselves. It’s our responsibility as teachers and parents to provide that work—that opportunity—to kids. Being engaged in high quality work—work that provides us with connection, autonomy, mastery, and purpose—is a great antidote to despair and unhappiness and a great promoter of learning.

Sometimes, particularly in middle school, the problem is that kids don’t connect with the specific kids they want to connect with. No matter how hard they try, and regardless of whether or not it is really true, they always feel like Jason, on the outside, isolated and alone. This leads to my second big rock. We have to build confidence and resilience in our kids, and just as connection increases as kids become more intrinsically motivated, confidence increases as kids develop a growth mindset. A mindset is the set of beliefs that guide our behaviors. 

I’ve written often about Carol Dweck’s concept of a growth mindset—another of the most important tools we have for helping kids learn—and how it differs from a fixed mindset. People with a growth mindset believe the brain is “plastic,” that it never loses its ability to grow and change with new experiences. So people with a growth mindset love challenges and learning. People with a fixed mindset have a different set of beliefs and therefore behave differently because they believe their abilities are carved in stone and cannot change. Because they think people can’t grow and change, they fear failure. They can’t let others see they are not as talented as they purport to be, and therefore they don’t take chances—academically, athletically, socially, or emotionally.

This idea is basic to the research of David Yeager at the University of Texas and is being modified and implemented at Westminster by our eighth grade English teachers.  Here is how the New York Times described Yeager’s work. 

“First, students read a short, engaging article about brain science, describing how personality can change.  Then they read anecdotes written by seniors about high school conflicts, reflecting how they were eventually able to shrug things off and move on.  Finally, the students themselves were asked to write encouraging advice to younger students.” 

The results for high school freshmen in the study showed a significantly increased tolerance for social stress and a 40% drop in depression for the test group compared to the control group.  

Students in eighth grade English have written letters to younger children about struggles they have had in their lives, and they shared their letters with our fourth graders. The beauty of this approach is that when kids are struggling socially or academically, the message they need to receive is this. “You will change, others will change, and your life will change. Change is inevitable; change is desirable. All you need is the confidence and resilience to keep trying. I promise you, you won’t always feel this isolated and alone. You are not doomed to unhappiness.” 

As our children develop a growth mindset and become more intrinsically motivated, their connection and confidence will both improve, and so too will their academic achievement. And as their academic achievement improves, so too will their connection and confidence. This creates a powerful virtuous cycle. That’s why, as parents and teachers, we have a responsibility to work to develop them both. 

Paul Tough, author of the bestseller, How Children Learn, has reported on the work of an economist, C. Kirabo Jackson, at Northwestern University. He found that high scores on non-cognitive skills like grit, confidence, conscientiousness, perseverance, and resilience, were better than high standardized test scores for predicting future success. 

That’s not new, but what is new is that if a student had even one teacher who ranked high in developing non-cognitive skills, the child’s grades went up not only in that teacher’s class, but in all of the child’s classes. Jackson’s research concluded that if a teacher can get students to believe these four statements—

1. “I belong in this academic community;”
2. “My ability and competencies grow with my effort;”
3. “I can succeed at this;” 
4. “This work has value for me”

—those kids will experience academic growth. Why? I suspect it’s because those statements closely mirror the components necessary to become intrinsically motivated—connection, autonomy, mastery, and purpose—and intrinsic motivation is a great predictor of success.

Young adolescents are a bit of a conundrum. On the one hand, their minds are more plastic than they’ve been since they were three, and it is a time when they are programmed to work hard and learn. At the same time, however, their brains are more attuned to pleasure than they will ever be again. Teenagers’ highs are higher and their lows are lower than anyone else’s. So our job as parents and teachers is to understand them and do what we can to help them, not just to survive, but to thrive in adolescence. 

Tough suggested three things we need to do to help our children thrive. First, we need to provide them with a sense of connection and relatedness and assure them that they belong. Second, we need to give them work that is challenging, rigorous, and meaningful and convince them that the harder they work, the better they do. Finally, we need to convince them that their issues with connection and confidence will improve as they mature, but what they need to do now is to organize and minimize their free time by keeping engaged and working hard. 

This theme of working hard is foundational in eighth grade, but it’s based as much on research as Westminster’s philosophy of teaching. Annette Lareau compared the child rearing practices of parents who kept their kids busy with work in school, sports, the arts, and other disciplined activities (she called it concerted cultivation) as opposed to child rearing practices that provided kids with long periods of unstructured time (she called it natural growth).  

What she learned is that concerted cultivation created adults who knew how to challenge authority, navigate bureaucracy, and manage their time—all skills needed for success.

Laurence Steinberg looked at this same issue in his new book, Age of Opportunity, and concluded, like Annette Lareau, that early adolescents need structured lives. They need challenge. They need homework. They need involvement in extracurricular activities. They need to be busy. Idleness and emptiness are not the friends of adolescents.

But adolescents do need friends. Long before Jackson’s research at Northwestern, psychologist Julius Segal said, “Possibly the most critical element to success within school is a student developing a close and nurturing relationship with at least one caring adult. Students need to feel that there is someone whom they know, to whom they can turn, who will always be there for them, and from whom they can gather strength.” I’m not talking about being a friend; I’m talking about being a charismatic adult—“someone from whom we gather strength.” The amazing thing is that most of the time, we don’t even know when we’ve been a charismatic adult to a child. And when in fact we’re told of a time we gave strength to a child who needed it, we don’t even remember what we did. And that’s the point. Being a charismatic adult is not something we set out to do. It’s that connection we make with kids because we genuinely like and care about them, and because of it, we’re able to touch their hearts as well as their minds.