May 12, 2023

Creating a Constructive Web of Support: How Schools Can Foster Healthy Relationships

Mackey Pendergrast
An illustration of a teacher standing over a student on their laptop

I remember the moment clearly. As a superintendent of schools, I was conducting a focus group with seniors a mere few weeks before graduation. “Now that you are at the end of your K-12 years, how do you feel?” It was just a warm-up question that usually gets a few standard responses with words like “relieved,” “nostalgic,” or “excited.” Yet, one student quickly raised her hand. Eager to talk, she stated emphatically, “I feel like I can do anything.”

I knew her backstory well. Her father recently died after a long bout with cancer, and their family lost their home shortly thereafter. She had to give up many school activities, worked after school, and was a caretaker to her younger brother. Yet, here she was, confident, full of energy, and clear-eyed about her future. I asked her why she felt so strongly and she simply stated, “This community has been with me every step of the way.” Then she repeated, “I feel like I can take on any challenge.” That one sentence perfectly crystallized the purpose of education.

Building healthier communities for students

It was at this moment I fully realized excellence in academics goes hand-in-hand with being part of a healthy community. To this end, as we recognize Mental Health Awareness Month in May, it is important for every school to ask itself: How can we become a more healthy community? How can we be there “every step of the way” with each student? When students feel they are part of a healthy community, it influences a whole host of important educational issues.

One of the key components for schools to design a healthy community is to build a constructive web of support for each child. There has been considerable research regarding how trusting, protective relationships are a clear antidote to toxic stress. Julia Freeland Fischer, author of Who You Know and Director of Education at the Clayton Christensen Institute, concluded from her research, “As it turns out, a web of relationships with an array of adults — rather than a single connection — appears to be the most potent buffer against risk and a core ingredient to healthy development and expanded opportunity.” 

It’s important to note healthy relationships will not automatically happen by chance, especially for those students who have had traumatic experiences or are from environments that place them at higher levels of risk. Healthy relationships have to be created by design. 

How schools foster healthy relationships with students

First and foremost, identifying students in distress is always the highest priority. This has traditionally been a significant challenge for schools because so many students struggle in silence and schools do not have the capacity to know all of the stressors and trauma individually experienced by students. Fortunately, edtech tools like GoGuardian Beacon can assist schools in supporting student mental health by identifying online activity that can indicate a student is in crisis. This allows a school to quickly provide that student with targeted support from an array of talented, caring adults. Beyond active planning and other crisis indicators, Beacon is also an especially strong tool for shining a light on students “upstream,” before they reach an emotional crisis level. 

Second: Healthy, constitutive relationships develop most meaningfully in a calm, orderly environment where trust is enhanced and stressors are diminished. Forty years of brain research shows the brain ignites in the presence of positive, consistent routines and safe settings. Of course, with the advent of so many technology applications and a variety of platforms, the modern classroom can potentially be more distracting and disengaging, especially for students suffering from toxic stressors who are struggling daily to regulate their emotions. Similarly, GoGuardian Teacher can assist the instructor in creating a predictable, safe setting focused on learning. In such an environment, there is a much greater chance a student can develop a trusting relationship with the teacher and their peers as well. When students are engaged in learning and feel as if they belong, then healthy relationships can flourish.

During Mental Health Awareness Month, it is important to reflect on how creating a system that fosters healthy relationships is one of the most important actions we can take. All of our systems need to point to one focused outcome — each student being able to confidently say, “I think I can do anything,” because they know the entire community is behind them.