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Step One: Social-Emotional Learning. Step Two: Academic Success

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Guest post by Caralee Adams. Originally posted on College Bound.

As educators from middle school to high school and college try to figure out the secret to improving academic performance, the idea of building relationships with students is a recurring theme.

An article in this month's Association for Middle Level Education newsletter makes the case for carving out time for advisory programs to help schools improve interpersonal relationships and promote cooperation in achieving student and school goals.

Ellen D'Amore, a 7th grade science and math teacher at LaMuth Middle School in Painesville, Ohio, developed an award-winning advisory program that begins with a focus on social/emotional awareness and gradually moves to academics.

In the program, in which small groups meet one or two hours a week, teachers reach out to parents to better understand the students as individuals. Then there are personal-inventory exercises with students and activities to improve self-esteem.

Next, the program transitions to listening skills, communication techniques, and group dynamics that often enable students to deepen their friendships with others in the class, D'Amore writes. A sense of community develops as the advisory group works together to create a motto, plan a celebration, and choose a final project that supports a local charity.

In the beginning, some teachers had expressed concern about the new program and getting too close to students through advisory, but that discomfort faded, she writes. Counselors were still available if kids needed extra personal support. D'Amore says her students have commented that they feel the advisory class is a "little family." And she agrees.

There have also been tangible results. In the two years since her school started the program, student grades have improved, attendance rates increased, and behavior referrals decreased.

As students progress to high school and college, they continue to need small groups and personal connections to encourage them on their academic journey.

The recent study of smaller high schools in New York underscored the value of tight-knit communities and close teacher-student relationships. High school redesign efforts celebrate connections with students and personalized learning.

College-readiness efforts are expanding to include an emphasis on life skills, such as communication, problem-solving, and resilience.

Experts are recognizing that student success is about more than rigor. To make it through challenging coursework to graduation and beyond, students need personal support, social skills, and sound study habits that can be nurtured through advisory programs and other efforts that focus on students' social-emotional health.

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