For many of us, the holiday season provides an opportunity to reflect on the importance of our relationships and to focus on sustaining connection to our community. As the pandemic forces us to limit social contact, many have come to realize now more than ever, how important meaningful connections are. For students, whether they are gathering in a classroom or connecting online, being part of a warm and welcoming school community is critical to their success: they must feel safe, valued and a sense of belonging. Supportive, responsive environments have tremendous benefits, including strengthening student engagement, increasing daily attendance, and building positive student-teacher relationships.
In the excerpt video, “A Welcoming Learning Environment Benefits Students, in School and at Home,” students at the Salem Academy Charter School, a trauma-sensitive demonstration school, share their positive experiences feeling welcomed by their school community. In the video, Stephanie Callahan, the Head of School at Salem Academy Charter, states: “One of our core values at the school is structure and consistency. And, so what you see in the morning when we’re greeting students, welcoming them into the school, you also see when teachers are greeting students at the door to the classroom and welcoming them in. It’s part of a check to make sure we’re welcoming kids but also for me or for the teacher to be able to notice what’s going on with kids.” (Watch the full video, “What does a Trauma-Sensitive Middle/High School Look Like?”)
Educators play an essential role in creating a welcoming community for students, especially during these challenging times. An inclusive learning environment, one that creates a sense of belonging and connectedness, helps students to feel cared about and supported. When learning in a classroom, these conditions are created through thoughtful attention to everyday interactions –smiling and greeting students, having lunch with students, or joining in a game at recess. However, online, it takes more time, planning and creative thinking to establish and maintain belonging and connectedness. Learning remotely can generate feelings of anxiety and isolation. For students to enjoy a successful virtual educational experience, creating a welcoming online space is as important as creating a safe and warm classroom.
When a school offers a warm and supportive community that engages students and families, enriching learning opportunities abound. Students are more likely to be engaged in learning when they know someone cares about them. Families are more likely to make sure their children are in class – or in front of the computer – when they know the school community is prioritizing students’ safety and well-being.