Every day, teachers, building leaders and support staff enter schools, ready to do the heart work; to grow children. They come to us with a variety of skills, needs, and challenges, and we continually put all we have into meeting them where they are. Our task can feel insurmountable at times. From addressing chronic absence, to being trauma informed, to moving the needle on learning loss and we can easily feel overwhelmed.
Despite the disparate needs, I always go to my roots as an educator to forge a relationship with a child and to do all I can to make them feel seen, heard, and honored. It is a very natural process for me. I was not told this is a key practice, nor was I taught how to build those relationships. Yet I have seen firsthand the power of this approach as it has led to countless positive outcomes for kids. I know many of you bring that same commitment of connection to your work with kids as well. In fact, it’s often these same educators that are the best at what they do!
….I wonder, are relationships a solution to solve for the variety of needs?
Relationships Fuel Positive Outcomes for Students
Research continually confirms the power of relationships as fuel for positive academic, behavior, and attendance successes. Relationships serve as the ultimate preventative and essential protective factor for our children. Relationships between students and teachers have been found to directly and strongly predict motivation and school climate at both middle and high school levels, and they too can predict GPA and a strong association with motivation at both middle and high school levels.1
Additionally, an intentional focus on relationships moves us from trauma-informed to trauma-responsive, because relationships are restorative in nature, serving the whole child.2 And too, students who experience higher levels of environmental adversity or a high level of personal challenge (i.e., academic, or behavioral) actually benefit more than a “typical” peer3.
If the data and evidence suggests relationships are a powerful lever for launching student academic, behavior and attendance success, what might be possible then if we shift from our individual instinct to forge genuine relationships with kids to an intentional and systematic one, one that embeds relationships intentionally and building wide?
Relationship Mapping as a Tool to Intentionally Embed Relationships
Thankfully, a tool from Harvard’s Making Caring Common Project4, serves as a unique starting point to support the intentional and embedded nature for formalizing relationships; Relationship Mapping. The Mapping tool is designed to support our capacity as school leaders and staff to map quality connections between adults and students in our buildings. In this low-lift activity, schools visually see who is connected to who, in line with academic, behavior, and attendance flags. In turn, staff can focus support on those students who need us most.
Mapping is best suited for middle and high schools with a modified version for elementary schools. Completed in early to mid-fall and revisited again in early spring, here’s how the mapping tool works:
- Build an excel sheet with your student roster.
- All staff gain access virtually to a shared worksheet and are tasked to review the list in a suggested 5-day open window period.
- In review, staff place an ‘x’ next to the name of any students with whom they have a positive, trusting relationship, i.e. a child would come to them with a problem or need.
- Staff also place an ‘x’ to the right of the name of any student who may be at risk for academic, behavior, attendance and/or a personal, or other issues.
- Staff write their name as a “Faculty Match” next to students whom they feel they have a quality relationship with.
- A building team, led ideally by an administrator, reviews the data and identifies staff to support students without an established connection.
After speaking with schools who have embedded Relationships Mapping, they not only report that little time is needed to complete the map, but they too report seeing positive outcomes in a short time, including improved attendance. For elementary schools, a similar approach is taken but is based on a classroom roster where support staff also assist.
As an experiential educator and advocate for vulnerable youth, I would be remiss to not consider and explore ways to integrate relationships that exist external to the school day. Whether a child’s case worker, participation in an after-school program, or an established family connection, each connection mapped offers opportunities for additional support for a child’s success.
With that, I suggest expanding the mapping fields to also include:
- Whether a child is a vulnerable youth designation, i.e. foster care, has a disability, is EL (English Learners) or juvenile justice involved, etc. and adding who the case worker, advocate or supporting agency might be.
- Mark whether the child is participating in any school based tiered interventions.
- Mark whether a child has any involvement in any school-based co-curricular program.
- Mark whether there is any community-based, co-curricular involvement.
- Mark if a family connection exists.
The expanded fields allow us to again capture the broader array of potentially supportive relationships that exists in a child’s life, and in turn, we as a school are better able to collaborate and strengthen our teaming process in support of the children we serve daily. We also pause to explore enrichment and supportive programs that also aid in positive student outcomes.
Putting Relationship Mapping to Work
While Relationship Mapping is a powerful tool, it requires us to be intentional and further embed relationships more deeply into our building-level practices. From adapting schedules and classroom expectations to include check-ins, check-outs, and morning meetings, to embedding relationships into our instructional practices, to providing professional development, tools, and resources on building relationships; these additional supports give depth to the map and help skill up staff and teachers in tangible ways.
As you close out the school year…
Have all staff reflect on where relationships live in your building, in classrooms, and in intervention programming; examine where relationships exist in your policies and current practices. Identify current relationship strategies, tools, and approaches. Use the list to build on what you are already doing.
As you plan for the next school year…
Actively reflect on and discuss how relationships are a part of your school and district mission and identify building initiatives such as PBIS, SEL curriculums, instruction strategies, community partnerships, District MTSS, Attendance Teams for alignment.
Consider and plan for areas of professional learning that build the capacity of school staff to value, build, and maintain relationships. Offer tools and strategies for connecting with, listening to, and honoring kid perspectives. Schedule professional learning with tangible resources for leveraging relationships. Curate and share relationship-building strategies to be used broadly.
As you launch into the next school year…
Be ready to map in early to mid-Fall and again in the new year or mid-winter. Be sure your academic, behavior, and attendance data is accurately reflected, and consider ways to better leverage internal and external partnership support for kids who need the additional support.
Remember, you are not alone in this work. The ESC Of Central Ohio has many supports to grow your efforts. I am a free resource to support professional learning on relationship building strategies, family engagement, and community partnerships and too can serve as a thought partner and coach as you explore building-level and systems changes that better center relationships into your efforts.
Contact me, Andrea Summers Family & Community Partnership Liaison at [email protected]
Andrea Summers serves as the Family & Community Partnership Liaison on the SOS Team at the ESC of Central Ohio. With more than 20 years’ experience as an educator and administrator in Out-of-School Time (OST) and co-curricular and experiential learning programs, Andrea's expertise will guide districts in implementing effective family engagement and community partnerships strategies. Andrea will work with districts and schools to promote and embed effective systems that serve all youth, but specifically our community’s most vulnerable (i.e. those experiencing homelessness, in foster care, English learners, those with disabilities, migrant, military and justice involved). Andrea holds an M.S. in Nonprofit Management, with a concentration on Education Policy, from The New School in NYC. She earned her B.A. from Antioch College in Sociology/Anthropology with a focus on Education. She is certified in Adaptive Schools & Cognitive Coaching through Thinking Collaborative.