After a tumultuous year, educators can use these strategies to facilitate community-building and help students develop deep bonds and peer connections

Four ways schools can boost authentic peer connections this fall

After a tumultuous year, educators can use these strategies to facilitate community-building and help students develop deep bonds and peer connections

This past school year, researchers Justin Reich and Jal Mehta asked over 150 teachers to interview their students about pandemic learning and what they think should happen next year. One of my favorite student responses was one that Reich shared on Twitter: “Please don’t be like ‘they missed so much social interaction; let’s give them [a] bunch of awkward conversation starters to create friendships.'”

The quote is on point because the scenario that the student describes isn’t hard to imagine. Teachers know better than anyone that students’ peer relationships are critical to their thriving in school and life, so it’s natural to want to follow a year of social distancing with a year of social connectedness. But how can already time-strapped educators make that a reality while avoiding the contrived situation described by this student?

Fortunately, a number of educators have learned important lessons about key moves to authentically nurture students’ peer connections. Based on the Christensen Institute’s recent research, here are four simple ways to help young people forge friendships–without rethinking the wheel, and without getting awkward.

1. Focus on community-building, and friends will follow.

Simple strategy: Allow older peers to facilitate or co-facilitate class meetings

Native American Community Academy, a K-12 charter school in Albuquerque, NM, is designed for Indigenous families. According to the school’s founder, Kara Bobroff (Navajo/Lakota), NACA is a place where strong relational culture across the school community is far greater than the sum of students’ individual friendships. “When you understand how your identity is shared with others, that’s where relationships are built,” said Bobroff.

Teachers and leaders in other schools can learn from NACA’s playbook by focusing less on one-to-one friendships, and more on community-building. Some schools use an advisory model to help nurture a sense of community among small groups of students. These advisory groups may be formed based on common elements of identity and interest, or deliberately diverse, and can even be facilitated (or co-facilitated) by older students. For example, in Peer Group Connection, a program from the Center for Supportive Schools, high school junior and senior peer leaders meet weekly with groups of ninth grade students to help them develop important social skills and academic habits.

If a school isn’t on board with forming a whole-school advisory structure, teachers can still deliberately build community using daily or weekly class meetings. More than just logistical check-ins, these meetings can be a chance to build trust and a culture of belonging. This video from EL Education shares one approach to the key elements in these meetings, which they call “crew.”

2. Use rituals to build common identity.

Simple strategy: Take five minutes as a class to write gratitude notes every day

Schools and classrooms that focus on community-building among peers tend to share one common ingredient: ritual. For example, Live Oak Wilderness Camp, a camp in New Orleans, LA, brings together young people ages 9-18 from 75 schools across New Orleans. What binds these young people together, across diverse backgrounds, is a common set of experiences and rituals at camp, ranging from bonfire songs to gratitude circles. The effect is that relationships become deeply rooted in a shared identity: “For the kids who stay with us [over time], ‘I am a Live Oak camper’ becomes a first-order part of their identity,” said cofounder Lucy Scholz.

Educators will recognize some form of this wisdom in the way schools develop “school spirit.” But rituals to strengthen shared identity can go beyond a mascot or pep rally chant. In fact, teachers and students can work together to create rituals that develop authentic shared identity and trust.

Former teacher Mike Fauteux demonstrated this when he worked with his students to co-design GiveThx, a tool that sets out to make one powerful ritual–gratitude practice–more equitable and safe for students. GiveThx is a text-based app that shares gratitude notes directly with the receiver rather than as a public-shout-out, because students who experience identity threat in their learning environments can feel unsafe or uncomfortable giving thanks. Creating identity-safe rituals to share gratitude is important because, as Fauteux says, the research is clear: giving thanks literally makes you friends.

3. Spark deep conversations, not small talk.

Simple strategy: Invite students to plan discussion topics and starter questions

If schools do go the route of designing one-to-one opportunities for students to get to know each other personally, the key is to make it real. One organization leaning into this philosophy is nXu, a nonprofit that partners with K–12 schools to equip youth to explore, articulate, and pursue their purpose with the help of supportive peers. nXu’s approach includes deep reflective work to support students in sharing things with one another that they normally don’t in school. Through this sharing, students discover their own assets and strengths.

One surprising lesson that nXu has learned is this: Even students who appear to know each other well can benefit from experiences of deeper sharing. “In one nXu session, two self-proclaimed best friends were talking about their individual long-term aspirations as part of our program,” Tamura said. “They turned to each other and said, ‘I had no idea that this was what you wanted to do!’ Initially, we were surprised that they didn’t know this about their respective best friend, but we’ve found over time that students…often do not have structured opportunities to connect more deeply and to learn about each other more holistically.”

Anecdotes like these demonstrate how experiences designed to give students opportunities for deeper sharing can generate meaningful peer connections–including ones that, while technically in reach at school, may not naturally spark. Schools can get started with this guide to building community through student-driven conversations, allowing students to identify topics of interest ranging from superstitions to social justice.

4. Put peers in charge of a bold goal–then watch them form bonds.

Simple strategy: Use peer learning or project-based learning to deepen academic learning and relationships simultaneously

Rather than focusing on helping students form friendships, task teams of students with solving a challenge they care about—and the friendships may follow naturally.

That’s the philosophy behind PeerForward, an organization that leverages peer influence to build college-going culture in low-income high schools. According to PeerForward cofounder Keith Frome, “When you make [students] accountable for an outcome, relationships form the way they would on a sports team or in a drama company. I might score 50 points in a basketball game, but my team still loses, so I lose. Longitudinal relationships are forged when you’re doing something meaningful with someone in an intense way.”

Educators can follow in PeerForward’s footsteps by working with students to define authentic challenges in schools that teams of students can tackle. Or, if that approach feels out of reach, peer learning in classrooms is a great place to start. In lessons designed for peer learning, students are dependent on each other’s participation and collaboration in order to complete the task. The jigsaw method is one peer learning strategy with substantial evidence of boosting student learning, and which can also foster peer relationships. Watch a video of the jigsaw method here.

There’s no question that boosting peer-to-peer support for students post-pandemic will be critical to their academic success and wellbeing. Doing so doesn’t have to be a major undertaking—but the best solutions won’t be contrived or awkward. Instead, they will focus on community-building and shared identity, helping students form bonds through deeper sharing and collaborative work.

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