DOD wants kids to feel connected
There’s something to be said about feeling wanted and like you belong, said Alicia Eckert.
Weariness overcame the Naples High School junior when she faced classes in yet another school, in yet another town, in yet another country.
“I just felt like I couldn’t start over again,” said Eckert, 16.
But she overcame the exasperation and sought out the school clubs, activities and friendships that would give her a sense of belonging at her school, she said.
Turns out, she was on to something.
The Defense Department has hired the Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health to teach public school administrators in U.S. school systems that cater to military students how to foster that “connected” feeling. That way, the roughly 1 million military pupils feel wanted in their schools, officials said.
The benefits of feeling connected go beyond just attaining good grades, said Dr. Robert Blum, a Hopkins professor.
“We’ve seen from our research that young people who feel connected to their schools not only do better academically … but smoke cigarettes less, drink alcohol less, are less likely to have early sex, are less likely to be violent, and less likely to attempt suicide,” Blum said in a phone interview from Baltimore.
“They do better by every measure we looked at.”
The behavioral differences between pupils who feel connected and those who don’t produce tangible data.
“The differences are huge,” Blum said. “For example, young people who feel connected to school are half as likely to report suicidal thoughts, one-third less likely to use illegal substances ... and twice as likely to not be smokers.”
Stateside public school systems aren’t the only ones slated to benefit from the Bloomberg School’s work.
“It is critical for us to create an environment where every student is valued and appreciated,” said Frank O’Gara, spokesman for the Department of Defense Education Activity, which oversees the military’s school system.
“Any research or recommendations that will help us in that endeavor will be welcomed.”
DODEA operates 219 public schools in 15 districts in 13 foreign countries, seven states, Guam, and Puerto Rico, according to the agency’s Web site.
The concern of transitioning students “is not a new issue for our DOD schools,” O’Gara said. “For many years, DOD schools have worked transition issues for students who move regularly across schools’ district boundaries.
“Our educators and staff ... understand the importance of connectedness and are always looking for new ways to help students adjust to new environments and enjoy a sense of belonging,” O’Gara said. “This is particularly important in these times when military students are directly impacted by transformation and deployments.”
The good news is, Blum said, it doesn’t require a lot of capital, just initiative.
Initiative like teachers from one school contacting another to share information about the students on the move, or a peer- to-peer program where student sponsors welcome new students before they arrive, Blum said.
“It can be as easy as an adult in the school saying, ‘You matter and we expect great things of you,’ and kids can do much better,” he said.
In order to thrive, students need to feel secure in school — not just physically, but emotionally, Blum said.
“Intellectually, they need to feel safe that it’s OK to raise your hand and be wrong,” he said.
“What is it about a school that makes the difference? A handful of things: One, there are adults in the school who express they care about me and care about my education; two, schools have high expectations for academic performance; and three, I get the support I need to meet those expectations.”