By Sandra L. Dame, David Peat, John Burger
Sandra L. Dame, PhD.
Alberta Health Services
David Peat, PhD.
Transformational Education, Inc.
John Burger, PhD.
Director of Schools
Rocky View Schools
This paper describes the impact of a High-School intervention directed towards enhancing the social connectedness of students. The attachment paradigm, as described by Neufeld (Neufeld and Mate, 2004), formed the bases of the approach. An entire school staff was invited to participate in ‘collecting’ youth in a specific and intentional way. Preliminary program indicators were obtained from a sub-set of the Alberta Education Accountability Pillar (APORI) (Alberta Education) data that is gathered yearly, with specific attention being paid to the constructs of safe and caring environment, school completion rates, and school drop out rates. Comparisons were made year-over-year. Results show an upward trend in student perceptions of the school as a safe place. A remarkable decrease was found in the dropout rate, which post-study was below the provincial average, as well as an upward trend in the high school completion rate. Additional measures were taken related to student perceptions of ‘belonging’ for triangulation with the APORI data. These were found to confirm student positive perceptions of school as a place where adults are interested in them, their opinions matter, and that they would recommend to others.
This research was made possible through the support of Alberta Health and Wellness under the Mental Health Capacity Building in Schools Initiative. It could not have been undertaken without the generous support and creative energy of the steppingstones organizing committee at Bert Church High School, Airdrie, Alberta, including: Nancy Adams, Tracey Sweetapple, Teresa Cardinal, Jeff Chalmers, Treena Bradbury, Sharon Cirankewitch, Alycia Berg, and Rhonda Anderson-Cox. Their participation, ideas, and energy were invaluable. Thanks also Wendy Tzupa and Marleane Morrissey for lending their expertise in youth engagement to the project. Appreciation is also expressed to the entire staff of the school; their tireless efforts to ‘collect’ students were instrumental in achieving the positive documented outcomes as described in this paper.
Baumeister and Leary’s belongingness hypothesis states “human beings have a pervasive drive to form and maintain at least a minimum quantity of lasting, positive and significant interpersonal relationships” (1995, p. 487). In their synthesis of the literature, Baumeister and Leary postulated that people need positive contact with the same individuals over time if they are to thrive. Furthermore, the affective quality of relationships and the existence of these relationships over time were equally important in the development of “cognitive processes, emotional patterns, behavioral responses, and health and well-being” (Baumeister & Leary, 1995, p. 522).
Since 1995 researchers and scholars have continued to study the construct of belonging and to add layers of meaning supporting the notion that the development of strong safe relationships between people ultimately leads to an improved quality of life through sustained mental wellness. The significant relationship between mental wellness and quality of life is becoming more widely understood with policy makers contributing to the dialogue as well. Joubert (1999) discusses promoting mental health in Canada and points to social support as a key factor in the development of resilience. Her review of the literature points to the importance of strengthening natural support systems for the whole population rather than focusing on the reduction of stressors among identified groups.
A vast literature has since developed relating the constructs of social support, the need to belong, and connection to resiliency (Brendtro & Larson, 2006), attachment (Neufeld & Mate, 2004), and substance use in adolescents (Bryant & Zimmerman, 2002; Hawkins, Catalano & Miller, 1992). More recently Schmold (2010), in writing an Alberta Learning review of high school completion, repeatedly addresses the positive role of relationship and feelings of belonging in increasing school success.
A recent paper entitled, Mere Belonging: The Power of Social Connections (Walton, Cohen, Cwir & Spencer, 2011) postulates “effective strategies to enhance a sense of social connectedness to others in a school or work setting may raise people’s motivation and achievement” (p. 529). The outcomes related to the intervention described in this paper support this contention.
In 2004, the Government of Alberta drafted a Provincial Mental Health Strategy in response to concerns from Albertans that citizens with Mental Health needs were not getting the care they needed or deserved. Part of the strategy included enhancing services for children and youth through grassroots partnerships that respond quickly to the mental health needs of young people and teaches them to protect their own mental health. This study was conducted in one such project Stepping Stones to Mental Health (steppingstones). (Please note there is no connection between this project and any other project known by the name Stepping Stones. This name was chosen specifically as a play on the word Rocky in Rocky View Schools)
Steppingstones was one of 39 projects in an Alberta province-wide Mental Health Capacity Building in Schools initiative. The initiative was led by Alberta Health Services (AHS) – Addiction and Mental Health in partnership with Alberta Education and funded by Alberta Health and Wellness. The local community partners included Rocky View Schools, the Boys and Girls Club of Airdrie, the Town of Chestermere Community Services and AHS – Youth Addictions and Mental Health – Youth Addiction Services. Staff began offering services within three selected high schools in September of 2008. Each school had a steppingstones team that included a representative from the school administration team, the guidance counselors, and the steppingstones staff [success coach, substance use counselor, project coordinator and cultural coach (in one school only) along with community partners]. The steppingstones teams created programming that was both consistent across sites as well as specific to each site. The goal was to provide a comprehensive mental health promotion, prevention and intervention program that was both evidence-based and population responsive.
The process of discovery, planning and design led the team to actively study existing theory related to promoting mental health in youth within the school context. Early on, the team was influenced by the work of Brendtro, Brokenleg, and Van Bockern (2001). Further review of the literature suggested the need to belong and to feel connected to one’s community is one of the most salient factors in supporting young people in their development. The literature is clear about the positive impact of belonging on a variety of developmental factors including academic success, social-emotional wellbeing and relational competence (Doll & Cummings, 2008), resiliency (Brendtro & Larson, 2006) and substance use (Bryant & Zimmerman, 2002; Hawkins, Catalano & Miller, 1992). The attention of the team became quickly focused on developing a strategy that would be simple, yet inclusive and one that would involve the entire school community. The work of Gordon Neufeld became the foundation for the intervention used in this study.
The term ‘collecting kids’ is taken directly from the work of Dr. Gordon Neufeld (Neufeld & Mate, 2004). Neufeld has spent his career developing what he has termed ‘the attachment paradigm’. In this paradigm, he integrates a multitude of developmental theories to create a comprehensive view of attachment across the life span.
Collecting kids is a simple and systematic process by which adults can ‘trigger the attachment reflex’ in children and youth (Neufeld and Mate, 2004). The premise is that a healthy attachment relationship is the key to maturation and to learning. Although few would argue the significance of attachment as it relates to learning with young children, typically, the general focus and attention paid to attachment diminishes with age. Research, however, suggests the human need to feel valued by others (Elliot, Kao, & Grant, 2004; Dixon-Rayle, 2006), to feel connected to a community (Brendtro, Brokenleg, & Van Bokern, 2001), and to have social support (Nikelly, 2005) does not diminish over time.
A full discussion of Neufeld’s work is beyond the scope of this paper. The focus of this intervention was to engage school staff in an intentional process of ‘collecting’ high school students to increase their connectedness to school, improve their experience of school as a caring place, and maintain their school enrollment. In so doing, it was expected that personal outcomes for students would be improved.
Attachment relationships matter to all of us. If young people do not feel securely attached to significant adults, they will seek that attachment elsewhere. Neufeld (2004) suggests that, in modern day North America, the natural mechanisms that keep children attached to their parents, extended families, and safe adults in the community are being rapidly eroded by the impact of economic realities on family dynamics, as well as geographical distance coupled with a culture that values production over relationship. As a result, young people are attaching to peers early in their development and shutting out the wisdom and experience of elders who can most safely guide them to true independence.
Collecting is conceptually rich but practically simple. It revolves around the ritual of greeting. This ritual is the foundation of all relationships but is often missed when adults are approaching children and youth in highly scripted relationships like parenting or teaching. Collecting involves four distinct steps.
The first step is to “get in the young person’s face or space in a friendly way” (Neufeld & Mate, 2004, p. 180). The point of this action is to establish eye contact and make a non-verbal agreement to interact by smiling and eliciting a nod from the young person. This activity creates an opening for other interactions to follow. Neufeld suggests that adults often only get into the space of young people when they want to correct their behavior; however, if this occurs without first collecting them emotionally, they are often unreceptive to instruction or requests.
The second step in collecting is to provide the young person with someone to be attached to. Neufeld (2004) suggests, “attention and interest are powerful primers of connection” (p. 184). Although touch may be experienced as intrusive or inappropriate, especially in a high school setting, creating a sense of sameness or loyalty can give a youth something to hold on to. Being invited to exist in the presence of another (Neufeld & Mate, 2004) is a powerful gift. This invitation may be offered in many forms, which include words, gestures or shared activities. The method may differ from youth to youth, but the key is that young people know they are valued by adults for who they are, not just for their abilities to please adults in some way.
The next step is inviting dependence. Societal norms in North America push children toward independence. The premise of Neufeld’s (2004) work is that true independence grows out of dependence and suggests that nature has designed humans to become independent as they mature. Adults therefore do not need to push youth to be independent; that will happen as a matter of course. What adults do need to do is provide the safe place in which youth can mature. Natural development will do the rest.
Finally, Neufeld (2004) points to the adult’s role as a compass, providing the young person with direction. This orienting function cannot be over-estimated. Although young people may seem self-assured, their lack of experience in the world leaves them vulnerable. If adults do not intentionally act as an orienting force for youth, they will find their orientation where they can, often with peers who are equally inexperienced and cannot provide adequate advice. This orienting function, then, is vital in cultivating connectedness with youth.
Initial program evaluation was designed to provide insight about how intentional and purposeful efforts to collect students might affect students’ feelings of connection to their school. It was predicted that students’ feelings of connection would be reflected in key indictors including student’s feeling safe and cared for at school, school dropout rates, school completion rates, and suspensions. Using mixed-methods design, both quantitative and qualitative information was collected from a variety of sources including the Alberta Education Accountability Pillar (APORI) student survey, the project student surveys, and suspension records year over year. Baseline data was taken from the APORI survey for the year prior to this study. At baseline, the data revealed concerns related to student perception of the school as a safe and caring place, drop out rates above the provincial average, and high school completion rates below this same average.
The school steppingstones team met several times to design and establish the intervention. It was agreed that the steps needed to be simple, easy to implement, and in keeping with what teachers could reasonably be expected to do in a busy high school. Early discussion focused on how to invite teachers to look at the key concepts described above. It was recognized that some were already ‘collecting’ most of the time and most were ‘collecting’ some of the time. The key was to encourage all teachers to become more intentional about how they collected students on a daily basis. Another suggestion was the importance of finding out which students had no connections at all and to find ways to decrease that number. In preparation for presenting the intervention to the school staff, the guidance department created a list of all the students in attendance, according to grade.
Members of the steppingstones team attended a regular staff meeting and presented the staff (including support personnel) with a brief thirty-minute presentation on increasing attachment at school. Attachment in the school setting was defined as ‘a relationship between a staff member and a student that is not based solely on curriculum’. After the presentation, staff members were asked to review student lists and place checkmarks beside the names of students they believed they had an attachment relationship with. Once all staff members had reviewed the lists, the guidance counselors tallied the information and identified all students with only one or no checks beside their names.
At the next staff meeting further information was provided related to ‘collecting’ young people including the connection between attachment and learning. Resource materials were made available to the staff in the form of handout. In addition, they were encouraged to read Collecting Our Children, Chapter 14 of Neufeld and Mate’s book, Hold On to Your Kids: Why parents need to matter more than peers. Finally, they were asked to review the listed names of unconnected students and make a commitment to ‘collect’ at least one of them.
At the first staff meeting of the new semester, information about the Circle of Courage® (Brendtro, Brokenleg & Van Bockern, 2001) with an emphasis on youth feelings of connection was presented. Teachers were provided with icebreaker activities they could use with their students to help bring them together and to break down barriers of isolation that sometime occur in large classes. In addition, teachers were asked to collect students (i.e., eye contact, smile, and nod) as they were coming into classes each day. School Administrators also committed to engaging students in the same way throughout the day.
At the mid-semester staff meeting an excerpt from Neufeld’s video Hold On To Your Kids was reviewed and discussed along with information from Chapter 14 of his book. Further handout references were provided and staff discussed the progress being made with the students.
At the end of the semester, teachers were asked two specific questions. In relation to their efforts to collect the individual students they had committed to, they were asked, “What are some of the ways that you connected with these (individual) students?” and “What are some ways that you have collected students in general?” The responses to the two questions were similar with three themes emerging. The first related specifically to greeting students with many references to saying hello, smiling, and standing at the classroom door as students were coming in so they could converse with them there.
The next most common reference was to taking a personal interest in students. For example, one teacher stated, “talking about lives beyond the classroom”, while another reported “I like to talk about their interest outside of school and that can turn into a long- term discussion topic”.
Activities that nurture were also described. This included either feeding students or eating with them. Also, demonstrating care through listening and supporting extra-curricular activities was noted.
When asked what they saw as outcomes of collecting, teachers reported improvements in behavior, increase in the desire to please, increase in receptiveness to teacher requests, and stronger relationships. The following teacher comment provides an excellent summary of the feedback received:
“Students are more willing to work for me. Students are willing to help me. Students show me, and others, more compassion and concern. Students are more open to receiving correction for behaviors.”
At the start of the school term, the principal drafted a one-page handout reviewing the relevant concepts of the intervention. New staff members were provided a description of the Collecting Kids project and all staff members were encouraged to continue to collect kids as an intentional part of their practice.
The APORI survey is an instrument used by the Alberta Education to assist in the evaluation of many aspects of school functioning. It is administered each year as part of the provincial accountability framework. The survey allows schools to measure change on a yearly basis and allows for comparison across schools. However, these surveys are only given to grade ten students; it was believed that a more inclusive measure of student feelings and attitudes towards school was needed for purposes of assessing the impact of this intervention. To allow for the collection of further information, parents were first advised about the special efforts that were being made to welcome students and to increase the level of connection they felt with the school. Parents were asked to allow their young person’s name to go into a pool of potential survey respondents. Consent was received for 143 students to participate. Student names were divided by grade, and each name in each grade was given a corresponding number. A random sampling process was used whereby one third of the names were chosen randomly for each of three survey administration times, from each grade, thus identifying students to complete the survey.
The short survey was administered on three occasions between December and June. Students were asked to respond to the following three questions using a 5-point rating scale: (1) There are adults at my school that take an interest in me. (2) Student feedback is valued at my school. And, (3) I would recommend my school to others. After making their rating, students were asked to indicate the rationale for the rating.
As described previously, data were gathered from several sources. The findings are presented here in the following order: APORI student survey results, the project student survey quantitative data, suspension data, student survey qualitative results and finally teacher comments. For this evaluation, we could establish baseline levels of our key indicators ex post facto and then use subsequent administrations of the instrument to track change. The project-related student survey was developed and employed to triangulate the APORI data. These surveys were administered to a smaller group of youth across all grades. The purpose was to establish that the effects found were not solely related to the grade 10 cohort, but were representative of perceptions of students across the entire grade configuration. Suspension data is collected at the school level from year-to-year and enabled comparisons from pre-to post-intervention. Finally, students were asked to provide some narrative on the project-related student survey, describing why they made the response selections they did.
The APORI survey is an objective, credible measure, designed by Alberta Education and administered to all grade ten students who are present at school on the appointed day. The APORI measures numerous indicators of school functioning. This study utilized the portions of APORI that addressed student perceptions of school as a safe and caring place, dropout rates and school completion rates.
Safe & Caring: The data shows continuous improvement on the ‘safe and caring’ construct. In APORI, five items measure the construct of ‘Safe and Caring Schools’. On three of the five items (“I am treated fairly by adults at my school.” “I feel safe at school.” And, “I feel safe on the way to and from school.”), consistent improvement was shown over the life of the study. Improvements were illustrated by trends in the data that rose from 79.7% on the previous three-year average to 81.3% in May 2010. In terms of ‘Achievement’, the overall ratings went from ‘low’ to ‘intermediate’ with the ‘Overall Evaluation’ rating changing from ‘being an issue’ to ‘acceptable’. Other related constructs are ‘Citizenship’ and ‘School Improvement,’ where there were notable upward trends on items such as: “At school students follow the rules. At school students help each other. I am proud of my school. And, I would recommend my school to a friend”.
Dropout Rate: On the APORI summary, there was a dramatic decline in the dropout rate. The rate of 2.4% compared to 5.5% in the previous year with the provincial average being 4.3%, was very significant—a remarkable change. On the Achievement rating of the dropout rate, there was a change from ‘intermediate’ to ‘very high’. Outstandingly, the ‘overall’ rating went from ‘issue’ to ‘excellent’.
School Completion Rate: Although significant improvement in school completion rates would not be expected in such a short time span, the decrease in premature departure from school (dropout rate) indicated that more students were being retained in High School than was previously the case, and that they were working towards HS completion. There is evidence of upward movement in this area; this statistic will bear watching over the next few years.
As mentioned earlier, grade ten high school students complete the APORI survey. To extend the feedback opportunity across all grades, students from our respondent pool completed a three-question survey at three intervals between December and June. Of the students chosen at random from the pool to respond to the survey, 77% completed the survey at time one and 66% completed the survey at times two and three. The trend across the three administrations shows greater than 90% of youth surveyed either agreed or strongly agreed that there were adults in the school who cared about them. When asked if student feedback was valued, greater than 80% either agreed or strongly agreed that it was. Finally, when asked if they would recommend their school to others, greater than 85% either agreed or strongly agreed that they would.
Comparison of data year-over-year shows a significant drop (30%) in suspensions, overall. Analyzing suspensions by gender, the drop in suspensions for boys was 36.3% while the suspensions given to girls dropped 17%. This result is consistent with a recent review examining factors related to high school completion in Alberta (Schmold, 2010). In his review, Schmold identified gender as a significant factor in early school leaving with the reasons for boys’ school leaving extending beyond academics into social interaction difficulties.
When high school data was broken into specific causes for suspension, there was a 45% decrease in acts of aggression or bullying and a 48% decrease in suspensions related to substance use (alcohol, drugs, smoking). The table below shows the year-over-year shift in suspension numbers sorted by gender and either aggression or substance use as the behavior leading to the disciplinary action.
The project related student survey had two parts. Using a 5-point scale, respondents were first asked to rate their response to the statement. They were then asked to provide some narrative about why they made the selection they did.
The word interest in the first question was typically interpreted to mean caring. Students reflected on what caring meant to them within the school context.
“There are adults here at school that take an interest in my education and care whether I succeed” (Grade 12).
“If my grades are lowering the teachers care and will confront me about it and they will try to help me get them higher again” (Grade 9).
Teachers were described as showing caring in two basic ways: a) by providing help with learning tasks or by b) building a personal relationship with the young person perhaps based on learning but reflective of knowing something about them as people and caring about their success.
“I feel that almost all the teachers actually care about how the students feel. I also think that there are many teachers you can turn to for personal support” (Grade 10).
“The teachers here actually care about our education and they try to get to know the students” (Grade 9).
“There are a lot of teachers that care about our lives. Like my coach and they take an interest to know what’s going on and care” (Grade 11).
The construct of caring and the demonstration of care through the action of relationship building speaks to the significance of adult involvement in the lives of the students. These youth appear to be responding to what Neufeld (2004) calls “the invitation to exist in the presence of another”.
The second question was designed to tap into students’ experience of having influence in their school. Interestingly, some respondents interpreted the question to be about receiving feedback from teachers and indicated their appreciation for this. The largest group of respondents believed student feedback was valued and referred to the ways in which it was collected either by teachers; surveys such as this one, or by the administration of the school.
“The school is always taking surveys, the teachers usually make conversations with students, not only and just in the classroom” (Grade 11).
The proof of the value of student feedback was again taken as action; in most cases the action of being heard.
“I find that student feedback at my school is valued, when (I) have given my opinion on something I am usually heard” (Grade 12).
In many cases, being heard was sufficient and did not have to translate into other actions. Some respondents, however, made statements related to how their feedback was taken into consideration in decision making.
“This is what makes B C such a good, safe, comfortable and recommendable school, student comments and feedback are taken into consideration, to make this school a better place for everyone” (Grade 9).
The third question was based on the hypothesis that students who are connected to their school would feel positive about recommending it to others. For the most part respondents indicated they would recommend their school to others and, although a few pointed out that they wanted their friends at school with them, most pointed to what they thought were positive aspects of their school experience such as supportive relationships, good programs, and sports.
This preliminary program evaluation was designed to investigate how intentional and purposeful efforts to ‘collect’ students might affect their feelings of connectedness to school. Connection to school is believed to be a vital factor in academic success and school completion (Doll & Cummings, 2008; Neufeld & Mate, 2004; Schmold, 2010). Connection to school is one construct measured by schools using the Alberta Education APORI survey. Using this extensive collection of data, it was possible to track shifts in students’ perceptions about their school experience. Key constructs related to connectedness are believed to be school attendance and student perceptions that the school environment provides safety. In addition, the perception that others care about the student; the belief students have that their opinions matter; and students’ willingness to recommend their school to others are other indicators of connection.
A concerted and purposeful effort by staff to collect students; that is to make a meaningful connection by regularly greeting students and creating relationships with them that are not solely based on curriculum is believed to significantly impact students’ feelings of connection to school. Overwhelmingly, student-reported perceptions were that adults at school took an interest in them. This interest was termed ‘caring’ by many student respondents and caring meant personal interest in their success at school and as people. This perception was further supported by the APORI results indicating a significant shift in the dropout rate that may be taken to mean that more students are staying at school.
Another observation was the shift in suspension rates and most notably shifts related to suspensions due to aggression or substance use. This finding is consistent with the literature on resiliency (Brendtro & Larson, 2006), attachment (Nuefeld & Mate, 2004), and substance use in adolescents (Bryant & Zimmerman, 2002; Hawkins, Catalano, & Miller, 1992) and further confirms that enhancing social connectedness at the high school level yields significant positive outcomes for students.
An intervention of this magnitude is not without challenges, and it is important to acknowledge these limitations. First, although there were formidable examples of how to successfully collect kids, no steps were taken to evaluate the frequency and consistency with which teachers implemented their collecting activities. This act was left to their professional judgment and brought to their attention at regular intervals to keep it fresh. Second, no efforts were made to control for other possible independent variables. Third, this preliminary investigation is not longitudinal: the design and data collection procedures would lend themselves to further evaluation. These initial positive findings, however, lay the groundwork for more extensive, more rigorous study of the intervention in the future.
A body of literature supports the significance of attachment in positive youth development. Future research might address some current limitations regarding assessing the implementation of the concepts and establishing comparison groups to more clearly understand specific activities that impact outcomes. In addition, following youth through their high school careers and beyond to measure successful transitions into adult roles might also be instructive. Finally, using attachment principles (Neufeld & Mate, 2004) to target specific areas of risk for youth, for example substance use, might lead to effective school strategies for prevention.
At times, teachers feel overwhelmed with all they are asked to do for and with students, particularly when it comes to addressing their social/emotional development. This study shows that some simple teacher behaviors can have profound effects on High School students, especially those ‘at risk.’ Specifically, if teachers wish to support student’s mental health by making them feel valued, with positive relationships with you, and their acquiring the view that school is a safe place where they belong, these straightforward and modest ‘collection’ strategies should be intentionally applied:
1. Systematically get know your students, by taking a personal interest in them, ensuring that none are missed.
2. Greet your students at the classroom door with eye-contact, a smile, and a nod of the head. When you greet them throughout the day, do the same.
3. Let your students know they are valued by what you say, by friendly gestures, and by sharing extra-curricular and other activities with them.
4. Ensure that your classroom is a safe place where you can provide direction to students both verbally and by your actions.
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