President's Message

Relationships Matter

By Todd A. Savage

Volume 44 Issue 2,

By Todd A. Savage

Schools can make or break kids; they can be their safe havens or places they try and avoid. How connected students perceive themselves to be to adults and peers at school can make all the difference in terms of their ability to succeed. School connectedness, defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the belief students have that adults and peers care about who they are as individuals as well as about who they are as learners, has been shown to:

  • Increase academic achievement of individual students
  • Augment one’s perceptions of self-efficacy and school competence
  • Enhance one’s ability to regulate emotions and behaviors
  • Improve the overall behavioral profile of school
  • Lead to more positive self-reports of mental health functioning (e.g., lower levels of depression)
  • Boost positive perceptions of the overall school climate

The importance of positive school climates, particularly from the perspective of school connectedness, cannot be overlooked nor underestimated. It’s all about relationships; nothing else matters if we do not connect with the people we serve in schools.

Thus, the importance of positive school climates, particularly from the perspective of school connectedness, cannot be overlooked nor underestimated. As my mentor in graduate school continually emphasized, it’s all about relationships; nothing else matters if we do not connect with the people we serve in schools.

Of the many skillsets school psychologists possess, our ability to build relationships rises to the top; however, some challenges affect our efforts. My son’s kindergarten teacher often repeated a piece of wisdom that you have, perhaps, seen in social media: The kids who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving of ways. While I believe my relational skills to be relative strengths, there are kids I have encountered on the job whom I have disliked from the outset, which, I have no doubt, influenced the establishment of rapport and how I carried out my work with them. So much for school connectedness. Ultimately, I realized the issue is mine; what is triggered by kids I dislike are my insecurities and the holes in my awareness and knowledge about the experiences of others. Being honest with myself allowed me to take personal responsibility and do what I needed to do professionally to afford every student the respect to which she/ he/ze is entitled despite my shortcomings. Doing so changed my practice and, hopefully, led to positive impact in optimizing students’ potential for success academically, socially, emotionally, and behaviorally.

Each year I worked in the schools, I, along with my fellow school-based mental health colleagues, would engage the entire school faculty and staff in an activity to assist us in getting a handle on which students were connected to the adults in the building. We would put up pictures of every student either in the gymnasium or the cafeteria; from there, we had all adults (e.g., teachers, administrators, custodians, kitchen staff, bus drivers, support staff, and others) put a sticker next to each student they could identify by name and about whom they knew one or two pieces of personal information. The school-based mental health staff, administrators, and I would scan the distribution of stickers to determine which students appeared to be connected to adults in the building and those who were less so. This assessment allowed us to facilitate connections between students and adults, which ultimately contribute to a positive school climate.

The relationships among the adults in the building and the foundation of connectedness throughout the school community also need to be addressed. Establishing, fostering, and growing these relationships is imperative as problems in relationships at this level may trickle down to the student level. And while we, as adults in the building, can talk the talk, if we’re not walking the walk, students may not take us seriously in our efforts to connect with them. We lead by example, not necessarily by what we say. School psychologists have a role in connecting adults in the building beyond the natural touchpoints of how we interact with one another (e.g., multidisciplinary teams). While this role will vary from building to building, our relationship-building skills make school psychologists the go-to people in this regard.

I’m not proud of my previous naïveté and ignorance, but they did serve as a wake-up call that has guided my practice to this day. The resiliency literature consistently demonstrates that all it takes for a child to weather tough personal circumstances is the presence of one important adult in her/his/hir life. Mrs. Karen Altstadt, one of my fifth-grade teachers, was this person to me and I have had the good fortune to reconnect with her as an adult to let her know how much I appreciate what she did to connect with me during a challenging time in my childhood. The message I deliver to my own graduate students is to behave as though they are that one person, that Mrs. Altstadt, for every student they encounter in the field.

Whatever role you have as a school psychologist, I invite you to think about what you can do differently to strengthen the connections you make with students moving forward. Many kids make it through another day because you are there for them, whether or not you are aware of it. Thank you for what you do!

Relationships matter. Tell us who was your Mrs. Altstadt and what you do to connect with students at #ConnectTheDots and @nasponline

Todd A. Savage, PhD, NCSP, is the president of the National Association of School Psychologists