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September 1, 2014
Vol. 72
No. 1

Inside Out: The Power of Relationships

By meeting students' social and emotional needs, schools can spark motivation and engagement.

Gentle Tassione and Linda Inlay

Maria is a quiet girl who offers absolutely no clues as to who she is. She's had good grades until now, has a strong core group of friends, and is always on time. One of us, her teacher (Gentle Tassione), knows Maria is an avid reader because she sees book after book on her desk. When Maria runs out of books, she asks Gentle to recommend another. When Gentle asks which books she's liked best, Maria just smiles. Gentle recommends title after title, and they talk a little about each, building a connection through the language of books. So it goes for six months, until a biweekly listening group where everything changes.
Usually during listening group, the other two girls in the group talk about boys and their parents, about schoolwork and friend drama. Maria always just says, "Everything's fine." But today is different. All three girls are scared for a friend they think is cutting herself. Maria is near tears. Gentle decides to extend the usual 20-minute listening group to an hour. This is when Maria shares that she used to cut herself–and that she still wants to. Her mom knows, and Maria has a therapist, but she's not always truthful in therapy sessions because she doesn't want to be put on medication. She shares all of this as her friends sit close by. Gentle urges Maria to tell her supportive mom everything, and as the group time ends, Gentle can see in her face and posture that Maria feels lighter. She has finally shared what she couldn't before, and a relationship is established.
At River School, a charter middle school in Napa, California, experiences like this occur regularly as teachers relate with their students on a personal level. Our belief is that when a school tends to the needs of the whole person, especially their social and emotional needs, students are more motivated to learn and engage in the classroom and school community. Indeed, neuroscientists are coming to the realization that social-emotional skills, like self-awareness, self-regulation, and resilience, are more important than IQ in academics and later life achievement (Farrington et al., 2013). And addressing the whole person begins through relationships between advisory teachers and their students (Hallowell, 2011).

The Value of Relationship

Students who love school and have healthy relationships with adults have a strong sense of belonging. They know they matter. When they feel that their teachers like them as individuals, they in turn like their teachers. Because of this relationship, they are cooperative and motivated to work hard.
We educators tend to do a lot at students, like giving them the algorithms in math or sentence structures in language arts, or for students, such as organizing tutorials to support low-performing students or providing laptops and online programs to support skill building. These are important strategies and structures, but they are just the beginning. Effective learning always involves emotions, so it's important to consider students' emotional states if we are to help them learn (Immordino-Yang & Damasio, 2007). When students make a personal connection with a lesson, that lesson sticks. When they feel safe among their peers, they are not afraid to take a risk, raise their hand to offer an answer or an opinion, or make a mistake. When students have a choice in what they are learning, there is more student engagement, self-motivation, and personal investment in the project. (Pink, 2009). We orchestrate River School's environment so that teachers build students' sense of belonging and their sense of self, helping students feel safe enough to learn.
Listening groups are just one of the ways students and teachers connect meaningfully. Each advisor organizes his or her advisory class into listening groups that meet every other week to celebrate successes and to share concerns. It is a safe space where students can share and just "be." Sometimes, teachers and students are silly together, sometimes quite serious. Stephen Covey's eighth habit–the most important one–is "to find our voice and to inspire others to find theirs" (Covey, 2004). The role of the advisor in listening groups is to empower students' voices.

Becoming Their Best Selves

Middle school is the dawning of adolescence and a rich time for growth of a student's unique identity (Siegel, 2013; Sylwester, 2007). This development of identity comes with the movement away from parents and toward greater autonomy in preparation for adulthood. Other adults, such as teachers, coaches, and custodians, have an opportunity to be mentors and guides, helping students reflect on who they are and who they want to become.
About seven years ago, one of us, the director of the school (Linda Inlay), learned something from an 8th grader who had not been very likeable or cooperative in 7th grade. In 7th grade, her attitude communicated the message, You can't tell me anything; adults are boring. Her actions were off-putting and sometimes downright rude. But when she returned in 8th grade, she was pleasant and cooperative, wanted to contribute to the school community, and worked hard to do well. It was a huge transformation.
Linda asked her, "What changed? What is the secret? I could sell this secret and make millions!"
The student said, "During the summer being away from school and my friends, I had time to reflect, and I didn't like who I had become in 7th grade, so I decided to change and make my 8th grade year a great one."
Since then, Linda has written a letter to the incoming 8th graders every August asking them to reflect on their 7th grade year–what worked well, what was challenging, and what they learned about themselves. Then she asks them to think about what they want their 8th grade year to be like and choose a goal to focus on (Given, 2002). Every year about 80 percent of the 8th graders make it their goal to get on the honor roll.
The next part of the August letter is about inviting the students to step up into leadership roles. They are all invited to participate in as many leadership roles as Linda can create. The 8th graders have helped younger students by becoming peer tutors, Big Brothers and Sisters who meet weekly with a 6th or 7th grader, and Tech Wizards who help 6th graders learn to use our school's technology tools. Students often form lasting bonds through these programs. One Big Sister continued to connect with her Little Sister, even after leaving for high school. This was a great support to her Little Sister whose parents had recently passed away. When she reached 8th grade last year, that Little Sister turned into a Big Sister herself and is confident, articulate, and ready for high school.
Some students serve on an advisory panel that thinks up new ideas for the school and makes plans for how to implement them. For example, this group proposed that students be allowed to use iPods to listen to music while running the mile in physical education. The plan included agreements for iPod use and consequences for misuse.
A few students each year serve on a panel at our parent orientation in which they talk about their journey through middle school and share what kinds of help they want (and don't want) from parents. Every year, parents tell us that listening to the wisdom of these students was the best part of the program.
Students have also stepped up to create new groups to meet a need. Noticing that our custodian, Jeff, needed help, one of our more active boys offered to give the school back some time because he had taken up so much time with his attention-grabbing behavior. So we allowed him to organize a group of helpers we called Jeff's Crew. The student designed an application process with forms and interview questions. Students view being on Jeff's Crew as a privilege, and several of our more active boys have worked hard to bring their grades up and to change their behavior to qualify for it.
Ten year ago, two of our 8th graders were involved in a disciplinary incident and decided to create a peer mediation program we call DIGA (the Portuguese word for "tell me"). Through DIGA, students are trained in active listening and mediation to help with the typical interpersonal dramas that occur among middle schoolers. Handling problems at a student level prevents escalation of conflicts that might have otherwise resulted in administrative intervention. One DIGA member appreciated the program so much that she took part in implementing the program at her high school. This past year, we had a large group of DIGA members and very few conflicts.
A newer student group is called Be the Change. This group gives students a place to be heard and to reach out to others at school and to the world outside school. This group has collected shoes for Soles for Souls, and a few students went with their parents to Honduras to deliver them.
Thanks to these leadership opportunities, our 8th graders have a place where they can direct their energy in productive ways. We have much less "attitude" among our 8th graders and fewer disciplinary struggles since implementing these structures. Students feel that they matter and make a difference. The student facilitators of each of these groups learn leadership skills like drawing up meeting agendas, creating application forms, interviewing applicants, scheduling, and communicating about group activities.

A Climate for Learning

As our students' sense of self increases, as they experience making a difference in the lives of others, their social intelligence grows, increasing their capacity to work collaboratively. This is a must in a New Tech Network school like ours, where project-based learning is implemented through groups.
In many middle schools, students are an untapped resource that can help decrease bullying, increase motivation, and contribute to creating a positive school culture. At River School, we have made the most of this resource by nurturing our students' capacity to be a positive force in our school. And we've seen results. Our intentional attention to students' social-emotional needs is reflected in the California Healthy Kids Survey, on which we consistently rank as one of safest schools in Napa County.
When students feel physically and emotionally safe at school, when they experience close relationships with their peers and teachers, when they are nurtured in their own sense of self and identity, and when they make contributions to their school community and beyond, they grow personally, are motivated to learn intrinsically, and achieve success academically.

Covey, S. (2004). The eighth habit: From effectiveness to greatness. New York: Free Press.

Given, B. (2002). Teaching to the brain's natural learning systems. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Hallowell, E. (2011). Connect: 12 vital ties that open your heart, lengthen your life, and deepen your soul. New York: Pantheon Books.

Farrington, C. A., Roderick, M., Allensworth, E., Nagaoka, J., Keyes, T. S., Johnson, D. W., & Beechum, N. O. (2012). Teaching adolescents to become learners: The role of noncognitive factors in shaping school performance: A critical literature review. Chicago: University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Immordino-Yang, M. H., & Damasio, A. (2007). We feel, therefore we learn: The relevance of affective and social neuroscience to education. Mind, Brain, and Education, 1(1), 3–10.

Pink, D. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York: Riverhead Books.

Siegel, D. (2013). Brainstorm. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin

Sylwester, R. (2007). The adolescent brain. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Linda Inlay has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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