Careful consideration of institutional and school-level data is an important tool to foster student success and to develop targeted services that reduce achievement gaps and/or help struggling schools identify domains in need of targeted intervention. While 'hard data' such as these are vital components of school success and data-driven decision-making, consideration of 'hard data' shouldn't come at the expense of other metrics of a school's success.
One such metric is the degree to which students feel that school staff care about them, are responsive, can be counted on, and provide tangible or instrumental support (such as assistance with schoolwork) – or what has been called supportive school relationships. Students' perceptions of supportive schools are not just a 'touchy-feely' concept that make everyone feel good or are something elusive that can't be measured.
Instead, empirical research indicates that supportive school relationships are predictive of positive school behaviors, such as compliance with school rules, exerting effort within and outside of school (such as completing homework assignments), and academic achievement . The explanation behind these statistical relationships is that students are more likely to follow rules, give effort, care about school, and achieve if they feel like school personnel care about them .
There is also a developmental rationale for why supportive school relationships matter, particularly when students make a transition from one building to another (such as moving from elementary to middle school, or the middle school to high school transition). Transitions such as these are believed to threaten students' sense of connection to their school (one of the reasons why students about to finish elementary school often make a visit to their middle school at the end of the year) and to school personnel, in that the new environment disrupts old habits and relationships that have been formed. The timing of school transitions often conflicts with the developmental timing of young people, in that early adolescents generally need more of a sense of connection to adults at the same time that student-teacher relationships in middle school become less personal and supportive . Sometimes this transition undermines students' developmental need to feel connected, in that students often move from a smaller school where they are known and know everybody (i.e., elementary school) to a larger school where they feel like a number and don't know many people (i.e., their middle school).
To be clear, supportive school relationships are not only necessary during transition years – students feeling that school personnel care about them is important across the K-12 years – but the difficulties posed by transitions are a compelling example of why measuring students' perceptions of support matter (as are the statistical relationships between supportive school relationships, positive school behaviors, and achievement).
This begs the question: what can schools do to make students feel that school personnel care about them? Fortunately, this doesn't appear to be complicated. Treating students with respect, taking the time to know students' names, making students feel like teachers, counselors, and administrators can be counted on, assisting students with coursework, celebrating student accomplishments, and listening to students when they express their troubles all appear to be 'critical ingredients' that lead to, but don't guarantee, that students will experience supportive school relationships. To many readers, this may feel like 'business as usual' at your school – and if so, the research supports the importance of continuing these important practices to foster student success. To others, these simple yet effective practices may suggest ways school personnel can enact an ethic of caring in their school in order to help students feel connected to their school and to foster their success.
In summary, measuring and fostering supportive school relationships are another tool that can be used to measure and foster student success – and remain important considerations in a context of data-driven policy and decision-making.
Readers interested in measuring supportive school relationships at their school are advised to consult the Suárez–Orozco et al. (2009) and Diemer et al. (2014) articles listed in the references section of this article, as each of these papers contains a measure of supportive school relationships designed for use with adolescents.
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Diemer, M.A., Li, C., Gupta, T., Uygun, N., Sirin, S. & Rogers-Sirin, L., (2014). Pieces of the immigrant paradox puzzle: Measurement, level, and predictive differences in precursors to academic achievement. Manuscript under review.
Eccles, J.S., Midgley, C., Wigfield, A., Buchanan, C.M., Reuman, D., Flanagan, C. & MacIver, D. (1993). Development during adolescence: The impact of stage-environment fit on young adolescents' experiences in schools and families. American Psychologist, 48(2), 90-101.
Eccles, J.S., & Roeser, R.W. (2011). Schools as developmental contexts during adolescence. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 24 (1), 225-241.
Fredricks, J. A., Blumenfeld, P. C., & Paris, A. (2004) School engagement: Potential of the concept: State of the evidence. Review of Educational Research, 74, 59–119.
Osterman, K.F. (2000). Students' need for belonging in the school community. Review of Educational Research, 70 (3), 323-367.
Suárez-Orozco, C., Pimentel, A. & Martin, M. (2009). The significance of relationships: Academic engagement and achievement among newcomer immigrant youth. Teachers College Record, 111 (3), 712-749.