classroom equity

5 tips to promote equity in the classroom through a focus on students’ relationships

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Jul 22, 2021

For as long as schools have existed, educators have been well-aware of the importance of supporting the whole child. This means that students’ access to caring, trusting relationships—who they know—is as imperative for their learning and wellbeing as what they know. And research validates what educators have known all along: Students’ “healthy relationships and a growth mindset…are much more predictive of long-term success than a school’s impact on test scores.”

The challenge for educators is to take this commitment to relationships and turn it into a set of reliable and sustainable practices that ensure all students—not just the most outgoing or well connected—have access to strong relationships. Recently, my colleague Julia Freeland Fisher and I released a playbook to help schools make that a reality. In “5 Steps for Building and Strengthening Students’ Networks,” we highlight a range of relationship-building strategies that can be adapted in the classroom, and provide a guided worksheet to help educators customize a plan for putting their students’ relationships front and center. Taken from the playbook, here are 5 questions teams of educators can ask each other to ensure that each of their students, no matter their background, has access to positive and diverse relationships, inside and outside the classroom:

1. Do no harm: Whom will your efforts benefit and whom can this process hurt or harm? 

To help ensure equity is infused throughout your efforts, reflect on how students’ identities are integrated into your planning and data-collection process from the beginning. This can include students’ racial and ethnic identities, socioeconomic status, and/or learning and thinking differences. One strategy educators can adopt is a Critical Mentoring agenda to ensure that connections are made in a way that celebrates students’ strengths and amplifies the value of the relationships that they already have access to in their everyday lives. For example, Generation Schools Network partners with students, parents, and the community to co-design a learning ecosystem that both understands and honors students’ unique backgrounds, and introduces students to varied career pathways via local businesses.

2. Get to know who your students know: Who are the people in students’ lives, both inside and outside of school, and what resourcessupports, information, opportunitiesdo they provide?

Different students will have different needs and interests, and in turn, will require different sets of relationships to meet those diverse needs. Students’ ability to access these different relationships and mobilize them as their needs and interests evolve over time is referred to as their social capital. Discovering and documenting—what some practitioners call “mapping”— the relationships students have access to both inside and outside of the classroom can uncover untapped assets for, and overlooked gaps in, their social capital. The CERES Institute provides a set of tips for engaging students in the relationship-mapping activity, as well as a summary of best practices for gaining maximal insights on students’ existing relationships. 

3. Ensure each student has access to new connections, too: Does each student have the ability to forge diverse connections to access new opportunities? 

Mapping students’ relationships to identify gaps and untapped assets in their social capital is a needed first step. The next step is to help students build out those relationships: more connections unlock more opportunities to receive support across a wide range of needs and goals. Every time a “new” person, or visitor, comes into contact either virtually or in person with your students in the classroom (for something like a career day, a demonstration, etc.), frame that exchange to both visitors and students as an opportunity for forging connections. For example, try to structure two-way conversations where students can share something about themselves, and offer both the new connection and the student a way to keep in touch that’s within school safety protocols.

It’s also important to invite visitors into the classroom that hail from a diverse range of backgrounds and experiences that reflect the student population you serve. For example, an online platform, CommunityShare, helps educators in K–12 invite community members into classrooms and provides platform capabilities that help in creating enduring relationships between students and guests.

4. Empower students with the agency and skills to build their own networks: Are you arming students with the skill sets and mindsets to continue to reflect on, build, and mobilize their networks outside of your classroom? 

A students’ ability to mobilize a network of diverse relationships to support them as their needs and interests evolve is perhaps the most overlooked benefit of nurturing student agency. Knowing how to cultivate and maintain networks enables students to leverage a reservoir of relationships throughout their lives. To support young people equitably, educators can create intentional opportunities for students to develop the skills and mindsets to drive how and when to mobilize individuals within their networks as resources in school and later in life. For example, teachers can take a page from iCouldBe, a free virtual mentoring program that connects high school students to online mentors who guide them through college and career curriculum. The program deliberately teaches their students skills such as how to write a professional email, how to ask specific individuals within their network for help in reaching their goals, and knowing how to research different careers online. 

5. Measure what matters: What does successful social capital building look like? 

While most educators know that “relationships matter,” actually measuring students’ relationships can benefit students in two critical ways. First, measurement ensures that access to relationships isn’t left to chance and, therefore, every student can equitably access the social support needed. And second, measurement can help improve upon relationship-building strategies both in real-time and over time. For example, Cajon Valley Union School District, a public school district that provides K–12 students with career-related learning, ports virtual volunteer industry experts into its classrooms to ensure students are growing connections. The district measures growth of their students’ relationships by tracking the number and type of industry professionals students are exposed to through the Nepris platform.

As a result of this measurement strategy, Cajon Valley was able to calculate that K–8 students collectively experienced 69,000 views of live industry chats or experiences in just over two years. As a result, 54% of middle school students reported gaining confidence in their abilities for a future job if they “personally know someone who has done this job.”

By taking a purposeful and equitable approach to integrating students’ relationships in classroom efforts, educators can ensure all students feel supported and engaged on their education journey and graduate with the knowledge, skills, and networks that drive success.

Mahnaz Charania, PhD is a senior research fellow at the Christensen Institute. Her work focuses on studying disruptive innovations in education that amplify equitable opportunities for students to achieve social and economic mobility. In her current role, she leverages her deep expertise in measurement and evaluation to drive innovations that expand students' social capital.