May 9, 2022

My son left for his first year of college last fall. He wasn’t exactly what you’d call an independent kid, so like any parent, I worried about how he would manage his new responsibilities. Two months into the school year when I called to remind him to get a flu shot, he surprised me by saying, “I already got one. My friends were going to CVS so I went with them.”

This exchange got me thinking about the power of relationships and how they can encourage student growth. College provides many students with a sense of connectedness that they haven’t experienced before. Much like my son, they forge different kinds of relationships with peers and teachers than they had in high school. They begin to feel like members of a community, and as such, they take care of and take responsibility for each other.   

Research shows the importance of building a sense of community in school. And, although close relationships are crucial for adolescents’ healthy development, a survey of over 25,000 secondary school students in a large school district found that only 16% of 12th-grade students had a strong relationship with their teachers. A recent study conducted by EDC and Wheelock College of Education and Human Development underscored the importance of a sense of school connectedness in remote as well as in-person contexts.

In my research, I have seen how the intentional development of communities can impact student interest, persistence, and resilience. In one high school, the creation of STEM curriculum pathways essentially constructed smaller learning communities within the school, offering students a greater sense of belonging. Students viewed their pathway as a family, complete with good-natured ribbing, support during difficult times, and a say in what they study.

The onset of COVID-19 and its resulting constraints highlighted the importance of this connectedness, especially in a virtual learning environment, where students indicated they were still able to feel “attached.” In fact, students in a pathway had greater attendance during the pandemic than other students in the same grade levels at schools across the district. Teachers also noticed that students in pathways took more responsibility for each other, ensuring their friends made it to class, encouraging each other to take risks, and applauding each other’s accomplishments.

Building a STEM curriculum pathway is just one of many ways to develop community within a school. What are some techniques that your school or district is using to develop a sense of connectedness to engage students in their learning and carry them successfully through and beyond high school?

 Erica Fields, an EDC researcher and evaluator, has extensive expertise in science, mathematics, and early childhood education programs. Her work focuses on improving STEM college and career pathways and maternal, infant, and early childhood health.
Behavioral, Physical, and Mental Health

3 Replies


Replying to:
Ken Barer
Great blog, Erica. I have always believed that relationships are at the core of greater growth, achievement and success in life (however you may define "success"). Well done!

Replying to:
Erica Fields
Thank you, Ken! Agree wholeheartedly. I'm sure you see you see this a lot among the kids with whom you work. Sports is another area where building relationships is hugely important!

Replying to:
Jonah Hallie
How can students develop that strong relationship with their friends and teachers?

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