When a young student starts to demonstrate a learning disability, schools use a variety of diagnostic measures to evaluate the problem and intervene to support that student. As a result of this process, a student who otherwise would face failure and frustration instead gains the skills they need to succeed in school because that support makes the student feel like they belong.
This is quite an accomplishment, and the feat is multiplied across many students and can be witnessed in schools everywhere in our country. Our schools have a great track record in actively identifying students with academic problems and intervening successfully for the benefit of these students, their families and the wider community.
I share this success story of our schools as a way to offer a direction and a hope for how to address one contributing factor to the problem of school violence.
Some students don’t feel like they belong
One common characteristic of many of the individuals who resort to violent acts is that their school experience, when combined with additional negative aspects of their life, has resulted in a sense of alienation, grievance and sometimes suicidal urge to strike out against the world. Many of these students report that they never felt like they belonged in their schools.
To be clear, most of these students who don’t feel like they belong do not resort to violence. But many of them can fall prey to other problems: addiction, crime, mental illness or an inability to hold a job. These students might pose less of a physical threat to the school, but their problems impact their own lives and all aspects of our society.
Simply put, success in school is a prerequisite for success in life after school. The converse sadly is too often true.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The key ingredient for making success in school possible for all students already exists: Schools are full of caring and competent educators who are dedicated to improving the lives of their students.
Make sure kids know we care
The great tragedy that I see happening in our schools is that the students who often need this caring and support from the adults do not know that these adults care about them. Many of these students get informally labeled as troublemakers and face consequences such as removal from class or suspension from school. This response to inappropriate behavior can inadvertently convey the message that the students are not cared for and, worse, not wanted by the people educating them. Unfortunately, this message is not what the school intended to convey — but the students nonetheless perceive it that way.
Lacking a sense of belonging and being cared for can be the root cause for students failing and subsequently acting out in a variety of negative and sometimes destructive ways. Students can descend into this tragic cycle: Feeling disconnected leads to greater acting out that results in an increased sense of alienation the longer these students stay in school.
Fortunately, schools have the capacity to prevent this cycle from occurring. They can do so by focusing on where they already have succeeded rather than analyzing where they have failed.
Bring academic success to SEL
I propose that schools build on their well-established success in addressing academic problems and apply it to the social and emotional one of ensuring that all students feel connected and feel like they belong to a school community.
Schools can translate their track record of success in academics to the social and emotional needs of students if they have the courage to ask three key questions of the students they serve:
- Do you feel like you belong to this school community?
- Do you feel like there is one adult that you trust with whom you can share a problem?
- Do you feel obligated to report anything you see or hear that you feel might hurt or harm any person in the school?
Asking these questions and listening to student responses are essential starting points to making schools a place where all students feel like they belong. Schools can meet the challenge of preventing school violence while simultaneously improving the learning environment for all students.
How to help students feel like they belong
- Get the data from the questions above and assess where you are in meeting the social and emotional needs of your students. Accept the data even if it conflicts with personal opinions about the school climate. When it comes to this type of information, ignorance is not bliss; it has very negative consequences.
- Use this data as a baseline for evaluating progress in the future. Many schools put great programs in place to improve school climate but fail to accurately measure progress because they haven’t gotten a clear picture of their status quo.
- Put a human face on the data. Actively seek to translate the percentage of students who feel like they don’t belong into specific students. Mobilize staff to help. Some schools have staff collectively review class lists where each student’s social and emotional needs are assessed. Staff share what they know or don’t know about each student and his/her past experiences.
- Positively red-flag these students. When these students who don’t feel like they belong are identified, put a red flag on their name. Now schools can apply and adapt what they do for students with academic problems for students with social and emotional ones. Make sure these students do not fall through the social and emotional cracks of the school environment.
- Provide a personal connection with a charismatic adult for every student who lacks a sense of belonging. When students who come from very troubled situations eventually become successful adults in life, they typically report that they had at least one adult in their life whom they trusted — someone, often referred to as a charismatic adult, who believed in them when they could not believe in themselves. Schools should make sure that every student who needs a charismatic adult in their life gets one.
Our schools are not perfect. But rather than be criticized for their failings, their greatest strength must be recognized and affirmed: Schools are staffed with caring and competent educators.
The current crisis regarding school violence can offer an opportunity to do more than just stop tragic events from happening; this crisis has the potential for ensuring that all students feel cared for and supported. Schools can be caring communities where students find personal connections with educators that many of them lack in their lives outside of school. When this type of connection and sense of belonging happens for all students, schools will become places where all students can and will succeed.
Jim Dillon has been an educator for over 40 years, including 20 years as a school administrator. He is an educational consultant for Measurement Inc. and the author of several books, including Peaceful School Bus and No Place for Bullying.