“Our children are so happy this year.”
That’s what Lisa Shearer, mother of two students who transferred to Allendale Columbia School this year, said at a recent PACK meeting. “The very purposeful building of community and connections amongst students, staff, and faculty has made a world of difference for my children. They were instantaneously embraced by the entire community in such a meaningful way!”
At Allendale Columbia, “the importance of connections” is listed first of our four core values. While everyone works throughout the year to help students build connections with each other and the adults supporting them, we especially focus on connection at the beginning of the school year, when new and returning students arrive and are welcomed into the AC school family.
According to the longest longitudinal study on happiness out of Harvard University, “Personal connection creates mental and emotional stimulation, which are automatic mood boosters, while isolation is a mood buster,” says Dr. Robert Waldinger. In our role as an educational institution, it is vital that we teach and model for our community not just the importance of connecting, but also the skills needed to foster connections in any context. (See an article about the Harvard study and Dr. Waldinger’s TED Talk.)
It starts from the beginning of the admissions process, where every inquiry is followed up with a personal phone call, not just an email message. New students and their families are invited to on-campus orientation sessions before school starts, whether they are brand new to the school or just transitioning from Lower School to Middle School, or Middle School to Upper School. Each spring, students get a taste of what’s ahead for the following year when they are matched up with buddies in the next grade and invited to walk through a school day together. They can experience what the coming year would be like and have a personal guide they can turn to for questions.
“We think it’s important to build connections with the students and also with the parents,” Head of Lower School Michelle Feiss remarked. “We hold Hopes and Dreams conferences before the first day of school, where families meet individually with teachers to better understand the child and how best to support him or her. These meetings set the tone for the year and help to create a bond between parents and teachers.”
During the first week of school, a number of activities establish a foundation of connections for the year. Middle School and Upper School take the first Friday of the school year to bond as a class and focus on community building and fostering interaction between faculty and students outside school. These events address skills and themes which help instill core values, and they help build the community and connections students will rely on for this year and years to come. You can read about Middle School’s Advisory Day and Upper School’s Class Day to see how they explored this year’s themes. Students leave these events with friendships, teamwork experience, and mutual respect.
“For my son, the senior overnight trip at the beginning of the year was important,” noted Mrs. Shearer. “When he returned, he told us that he felt close with the entire class and had tons of friends. He also really appreciates the way the teachers engage with him and treat him like an adult.”
Every day at AC is an opportunity to build and strengthen connections. Students are welcomed with smiles at the car or bus door by staff and parent Helping Hands (equipped with umbrellas when needed). They offer a lift out of the car and handheld walk to the door for the youngest students, or assistance gathering backpacks and other daily paraphernalia for the older students. A welcoming “have a good day” to child and parent, often with a cheerful compliment or joke, starts the entire family off on a positive note.
“In the Middle School, mornings do not start with announcements or shuffling students off to class,” says Tina Duver, Head of Middle School. “Mornings begin together, as a group, recognizing each other for strengths, accomplishments, and contributions to the community. Attendance can wait for just a minute because here at AC, building those connections of community and thankfulness are important to building peer-to-peer and faculty-to-student relationships. The mindset starts early and continues throughout the day with positivity and reflection of self-worth within the community.”
Advisory groups of students and faculty meet weekly to check in on student well-being, address concerns, and build support networks through team-building and conversation. Advisory groups are intentionally small (usually just six students), allowing advisors and students to focus on what students need that day, or that moment. Some days the focus is on mindfulness, and other days the focus is on upcoming academic projects or social and emotional needs. And sometimes it’s working together on a community service project, getting students to go beyond themselves and connect with the larger community.
“My daughter’s entire experience has been seamless, and she has felt very supported and has lots of friends,” continued Mrs. Shearer. “The study skills, time management, and work organization class, along with her Advisory group, have helped the school year to be stress-free.”
Even lunch promotes connection and inclusion. With family-style lunches, faculty members each host a table of students from across grades within their division. The students are assigned tables every month in Lower School, and every two weeks in Middle and Upper School, providing opportunities to get to know virtually everyone in the division. Students rotate through responsibilities for bringing food to the table and clean-up, and faculty members keep table conversations inclusive and respectful. No one sits by themselves at AC lunches.
AC School Counselor Starmeshia Jones is available for students who may want a bit more support making connections while on campus. “At any given point in a school year, I am working in small group, whole group, or individual settings with students who have had difficulty connecting or maintaining fulfilling friendships. All too often I think that self-esteem, anxiety, or self-consciousness can contribute to actual or perceived social disconnect.” Working with students on activities designed to build self-esteem, exploring themes of friendship, and gradually pushing them out of their comfort zones in building relationships can be useful. She continues, “seeing students move from a place of anxiousness last year to connecting more with their peers this year has been wonderful. They look more comfortable, and I’ve gotten reports that they are happier and more engaged with the adults and other youth in their lives.”
Special events at AC go deeper than they might at other schools. Blue/White Day isn’t just a school spirit day. It’s about pairing younger students with older students who guide them, do activities together, and cheer each other on. It’s competition mixed with collaboration, where teams of students age 6 to 18 work together to transfer water to a bucket or to guide a ping pong ball to a distant bucket. Older students know they are setting an example, and the younger students leave with a “big kid” friend and another familiar face around campus.
Professional development activities for faculty, planned by teacher Tony Tepedino, provide guidance for teachers around team-building and making connections that help them collaborate with and support each other. “Meetings start with an introduction to our group norms as a way to create a safe space for the work that will occur. We then move on to an entry activity that encourages attendees to connect with each other as humans first, which hopefully allows for more authenticity and openness while we learn together. The idea is to create a shared environment where students and teachers are comfortable to be themselves and take risks.”
“I am passionate about my children and their happiness. I’ve definitely shed my fair share of thankful, happy tears this year,” concluded Mrs. Shearer. “Brian and I have been very impressed with so many things. As parents, it was immediately apparent to us that AC’s intentional focus on connection is groundbreaking and very different from other educational experiences we’ve had. I wish AC’s model could be replicated nationwide to combat bullying in schools and promote inclusion on all levels.”
What’s your favorite way that AC connects? Tell us!
Posted in: Highlights, Lower School, Middle School, Upper School
Last week, in conjunction with our Upper School Parents of Allendale Columbia Kids (PACK) parents, we hosted our first ever parent/student conversation night at AC. About fifteen US students and about twenty parents from grades 8-12 attended. The simple yet powerful objective of the night was to create conversation between teenagers and parents about important topics. Topics like:
- Academic Pressure
- Technology, Social Media, Gaming and Parent Monitoring or Regulation
- Sex, Dating, Relationships
- Drugs and Alcohol
Parents usually only talk about these things with their own children, and when they do, it is often in an argument or reactively addressing something that has gone wrong. Teenagers come away from those conversations feeling lectured, and parents often come away feeling a mix of confusion and frustration.
When I asked our US students for volunteers for this event, I had more than 30 students reach out to me wanting to participate. They don’t get anything for helping me, and they give up valuable free time in an already busy schedule of school, work, drama, an/or sports. This amount of student interest speaks for itself. Teenagers want to be heard, and they want to be better understood. Here are some examples of the prompts that were used, and if you would like to see the full list, please click here:
- How can a parent motivate a young person that isn’t taking advantage of all of the opportunities that they have?
- We don’t know much about you because you don’t share much. How can we know you better and have a better and closer relationship with you without compromising your independence?
- What if my beliefs, values, sexuality, or religion are not the same as what my parents want it to be? What do I do? How can I be honest with them without hurting them?
By using two rounds of conversation with clear guidelines and structure, we were able to tackle some of these rich and important prompts in mixed groups of students and parents. As usual, my student leaders who were responsible for keeping the conversation on point were phenomenal, and parents and students both reported learning a lot. Some of the feedback we heard:
Parent: “I was surprised at the depth the students had. They really do think about this stuff deeply, and I was also reminded of how much it hurts when parents are critical or judgmental towards young people.”
Student: “Parents know a lot more than I thought.”
After the event, two juniors were very interested in continuing this tradition and holding more regular opportunities for students and parents to tackle vital topics, and I look forward to helping them lay the groundwork to make that happen.
Ryan BurkeRyan began his 16-year career in the field of education as a teacher with areas of expertise in literacy and special education. He earned a Master of Science Degree in Applied Behavior Science with a focus on family therapy, and he has done some work as a therapist. Ryan's primary focus in the field of education has been and always will be working in schools with students and their families. In addition to his role at Allendale Columbia as the Head of Upper School, Ryan is the co-founder of Leadership+Design (http://www.leadershipanddesign.org/), a non-profit organization dedicated to transforming the work of school leaders through professional development experiences.
Posted in: The Birches, US Birches