Students are more likely to succeed when they feel connected to school. School connection is the belief by students that adults in the school care about their learning as well as about them as individuals.
—Wingspread Declaration on School Connections.
What educators and parents have intuitively known—that students who are “connected” at school fare better than those who feel alienated—is now becoming a priority as researchers identify the ingredients of successful school reform.
Student connectedness at school fosters high achievement, social engagement, intellectual pride, and fewer discipline issues. In a report identifying the characteristics of successful high schools, more than 90 percent of high achieving students reported that they have adults with whom they can speak personally and confidentially. In addition to these benefits, connectedness is consistently understood as a key protective factor against unhealthy behavior in adolescents.
“It makes such a difference for students to have an adult in school who knows them academically, socially, and has a sense of what their life outside school is like,” agrees Christine Blaber, project director of EDC’s Teenage Health Teaching Modules (THTM). “By high school, the focus becomes so academic that unless kids are in trouble, they often aren’t known to the teachers.”
While THTM doesn’t explicitly set out to address connectedness, by its nature the curriculum builds bridges between teachers and students. It provides opportunities for discussion and reflection. A result is that THTM teachers are often more able to connect with students, Blaber notes. “THTM facilitates connection and connection facilitates health.”
The Comprehensive Approach
Health education suffers from a few persistent stereotypes. Educators and students alike often view health education as an unnecessary add-on. It is a constant struggle for health educators to maintain their foothold in today’s schools, where the main emphasis is on core academic subjects and standardized tests.
“Health education has a huge contribution to make,” says Blaber. “The major challenge that we face is that health education and social and emotional learning typically do not occupy a front and center position in the school curriculum. We are not part of the mainstream.”
Research has demonstrated that students who are physically and mentally healthy are, in fact, better prepared to learn and do better in school, notes Blaber. “Some people think health class is not going to help students handle high-stakes testing. In fact, research clearly shows that effective health education improves academic performance.”
THTM is sequenced to address the development stages of adolescence. At the high school level, units focus on such developmental tasks as recognizing feelings and managing them in positive ways, handling stress, and being a capable and competent health care consumer.
Built on scientifically accurate health content (e.g., on mental and emotional health, tobacco, violence), the units work to help students acquire health skills (e.g., communication, decision-making, setting and reaching goals, health advocacy, healthy self-management). The curriculum uses scenarios that mirror the situations and decisions high school students face and provides students with opportunities to sift through the varying influences on their behavior and think through the ramifications of decisions they might make.
Christine Sheldon, a high school teacher in Vermont, prizes THTM’s flexibility. “THTM units are easy to use. Teachers can use one module or the entire program. I use material from Aggressors, Victims, and Bystanders to help students explore the connection between what they believe and what they do.” For example, a young person who agrees with the statement, “If I refuse to fight, others will think I’m a coward,” would make very different decisions from those of a person who believes that, “Fighting doesn’t solve problems; it just makes them worse.”
THTM is known for its use of realistic scenarios to provoke thought and discussion. For instance, a lesson on friendships provides several dilemmas for students to analyze and reflect on. One involves a teen who is anxious about moving from a city to a small town and another features a brother who is pressuring his sibling to use drugs with him. The students are led through steps to understand the influences on people’s decisions, their motives, and responsibilities and then are prompted to craft healthy, safe responses or advice to resolve the dilemma.
THTM classes typically avoid lectures and films, opting instead for small-group work, cooperation, guest/experts, case studies, and role-playing. The methods involve students in active learning and skills development, and come at issues from a perspective that makes sense to the students and connects them to their families and communities.
“I like this style of teaching,” says Sheldon. “Most textbooks do not have really helpful activities, just facts. Current research shows students need more than the facts to adopt a healthy lifestyle. They need skills.”
Skill-building is the focus of Planning a Healthy Future, a five-lesson unit that helps students think about where they are now and where they want to be when they leave high school, as well as explore some concrete steps that they need to take, and how to find the support to get there. “THTM helps young people see they do have some control over what happens to them once they leave school,” says Blaber. “There are healthy choices, and THTM provides the opportunity to make them.”
The Teacher’s Role
The THTM teacher, in part, has to function not only as a role model regarding those issues, but also as a gatekeeper to resources and services, if needed.
“In our training sessions with teachers, we emphasize all of the things that happen before, during, and after the activities. Teachers explore how they can create a safe classroom climate, and what to do if the material raises emotional responses from students or within themselves. There are some teachers who just do this naturally and automatically because that’s who they are. For others, we need to help them see that this is a manageable and essential part of their job, whether they’re teaching shop or Advanced Placement English,” says Blaber.
“We’re not suggesting that teachers become counselors,” adds Blaber. “We’re saying, ‘Some students with really urgent needs are in your classes, and here are some simple steps you can take to connect them to resources in the school and community. You can be a support to students without being their counselor.’”
To Blaber and her colleagues in EDC’s Center for School and Community Health Programs, it comes down to a simple truth: Unhealthy, disconnected students don’t do well in school. As Deborah Haber, director of the center, puts it: “If health and health instruction remain at the periphery of a school’s mission, young people with pressing health and social concerns are unlikely to achieve the levels of education required for success in the twenty-first century.”
Originally published on September 1, 2005