It’s tough to make progress on school safety and the factors that feed into it—namely, kids’ feelings of connection to their schools and their attitude toward themselves—if you don’t know the emotional temperature of your building in the first place.
At the beginning of the academic year, the Collier County School District administered a school climate survey that was developed by Boston-based Panorama Education, a 7-year-old firm that specializes in using data to improve “social and emotional learning.”
SEL refers to self-awareness, responsible decision-making, social-awareness, self-management and relationship skills—the attributes that drive one’s success in school, careers, family life and other endeavors. Increasingly, those are also the attributes that researchers are looking at when they study youth violence. The children who commit atrocities are not the ones who feel confident, resilient, empathetic and connected.
Collier schools administered school climate surveys to students in grades 3-12 at the start of the academic year; they’ll ask students to take another at the end of it. In between, school principals and district administrators have analyzed the responses (they’re looking at school-wide data only, not individual answers), and they’re figuring out what more they can do to help kids develop social skills and tighten relationships with each other and their teachers.
“There is compelling evidence that kids perpetuate and experience much less violence when they are engaged and they feel connected to their schools,” explains Sam Moulton, the Panorama research director.
In Collier, principals might take individual initiatives depending on their school’s outcomes, but all of them will work toward teaching students the concept of “grit.”
“We’re going to encounter challenges, but how do we as a school community or as an individual show ‘grit’ to overcome that challenge?” explains Peggy Aune, the associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction. As one strategy, schools are posting “gritty galleries,” bulletin boards celebrating students who’ve overcome an obstacle.
Panorama has been around for seven years, and in that time its researchers have watched partnering school districts closely for signs of change. They point to one standout school, MacArthur Elementary in Long Beach, California, which saw dramatic growth both in students’ self-esteem and in their academic performance.
The first time MacArthur students took the Panorama survey, just five out of 10 believed they could increase their intelligence and talents. The principal and teachers saturated kids (and their parents, too) with the concept of “growth mindset,” helping young learners understand that they could grow, improve and learn—even if they made mistakes along the way. Within two years, the scores for “growth mindset” jumped by 33 percentage points, and other SEL domains, such as self-management and social awareness improved, too.
Grades went up as well. English/language arts scores increased 19 percent and math ones 17 percent.
“If you make a little intervention—if kids have a stronger relationship with their teachers—they feel like they belong and try harder on homework and do better overall in school. It’s a cascading effect,” Moulton says.
In Collier, even at the high-performing Barron Collier High School, Principal Jose Hernandez says he’s using the Panorama survey results to refine aspects of his school’s environment. Kids overall feel good about their high school, and yet the scores on adult-student connectivity were a little lower than Hernandez expected. He’s hoping some of the school’s new programs, such as the We Dine Together club and Renaissance student recognition efforts, will tighten relationships throughout the building. “How else can we ensure kids have those connections?” Hernandez asks himself. “The bottom line is we want to see growth in that baseline data.”