The Importance of Belonging and Relationships | Steve Barkley

Belonging and Relationships

Two recent articles encouraged me to reflect on how the environment we create in schools and classrooms can impact student learning. Mindshift featured a piece that examined, How Being Part of a ‘House’ Within a School Helps Students Gain A Sense of Belonging. Creating houses forms smaller communities within the school where students can make stronger bonds and connections. The role of teacher-student relationships was featured in a Hechinger Report, Two studies point to the power of teacher-student relationships to boost learning  (Kids do better when teachers know them well). The two studies examine “Platooning” which refers to elementary teachers specializing in a particular subject having students switch teachers for different subjects and “Looping” where kids keep the same teacher for two years in a row.

Christi Bergin & David Bergin identify the importance of ‘attachment to teachers’ and ‘school bonding’  to student academic success in Attachment in the Classroom (Educ Psychol Rev (2009) 21:141–170). The writers describe the need for teachers to connect and care for students with warmth, respect, and trust. They also highlight students’ need for a network of relationships with peers and teachers that create a sense that “people like me.”

Elementary school kids using a computer

Bergin and Bergin recommend the following teacher characteristics and behaviors:

  1. Sensitive, with warm interactions.
  2. Well-prepared & setting high expectations.
  3. Supportive of autonomy.
  4. Promoting prosocial behavior among students.
  5. Non-coercive discipline.
  6. Relationship-specific interventions.

[For more on this topic, see my earlier blog from January 2016 or podcast from July 2017  on teachers being “warm demanders”.]

Recommendations from Bergin and Bergin for school organization align with the articles on school houses, platooning, and looping:

  1. School-wide interventions
  2. Extracurricular activities
  3. Small schools
  4. Continuity of people and place
  5. Facilitated transitions
  6. Decreased transitions

The Mindshift article about houses describes the design at Lake Canyon Elementary in California. Six houses are made up of K-6 students. Student leadership opportunities are created as sixth-graders take kindergarten students to house meetings. The principal at Lake Canyon states that the mentoring activities that exist in the houses has reduced bullying and other behavior problems.  San Francisco Bay Area Hillsdale High School has a ninth/tenth grade house system where around 100 students work with four teachers in mostly adjacent classrooms. Teachers take responsibility for advising students whom they follow through the conclusion of their sophomore year. Students are reshuffled and join new houses for grades 11 and 12. Hillsdale’s principal identifies that students are “known” and responses are individualized.

It is important that every student has at least one significant adult with whom they have a caring relationship – someone who knows them well, knows their strengths,
can ‘check in’ with them regularly and act as an advocate if necessary. “

Mind Matters 

Teacher talking to a young student

An article in American Economic Review by Roland Fryer provides some insights regarding the practice of platooning. In The “Pupil” Factory: Specialization and the Production of Human Capital in Schools,*  he describes why specialization makes sense in industry: workers doing a subset of the tasks needed for an outcome, gain efficiency at their task.

However, his research in elementary schools did not match payoffs that industry would indicate. Reading and math scores were slightly lower in platoon settings. A negative impact was greater in these specialized settings for special education students and for students taught by inexperienced teachers. Another finding was that there were more serious behavior infractions and lower attendance in these schools as well. Teachers in the specialized settings were less likely to tailor instruction for individual students and were less likely to report an increase in job satisfaction or performance.

Fryer suggests that these might be costs of specializing (platooning):

  • Teachers are working with students for less time and working with more students making it harder to know individuals.
  • Transitioning frequently during the day, the teacher may not know the “state of the world” for a student on a particular day.
  • Increased transition times for teachers and students may decrease available instructional time.

Fryer reports that of the 34 OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries only 5 use specialization which begins at grade 3 or higher. In Austria, Hungary, Norway, Portugal, Latvia and Israel teachers stay with students beyond a year. The average in these countries has teachers with the same students for at least 3 years.

As I reviewed these articles on belonging and relationships I was reinforced that “knowing” students is central to successful teaching. The stronger a sense of team exists within a school, the greater likelihood that students are known. Teaming, not franchising. (See: Podcast from September 2017) Shared responsibility for the success of all students.

*Fryer, Roland G Jr. 2018. “The “Pupil” Factory: Specialization and the Production of Human Capital in Schools.” American Economic Review, 108 (3): 616-56.

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2 Responses to “ Belonging and Relationships ”

  1. Michael Chirichello Says:

    The practice of looping in the US is not common. Elementary schools can easily implement this process that will build relationships over time. In middle schools, teams that work with the same cohort of students can also strengthen relationships. When teams loop with middle school students, relationships are strengthened. In high schools, having many teachers throughout the day makes forging relationships more difficult. But, then once again, we tend to do what we have always done rather than negating assumptions and seeking out new possibilities!

  2. Steve Says:


    You labeled the leadership challenge: “But, then once again, we tend to do what we have always done rather than negating assumptions and seeking out new possibilities!”

    Knowing and not doing

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