Late last year, Britain’s Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (OFSTED) published a series of reports on the variables that helped or hindered students’ ability to cope during the pandemic. The bottom line? Researchers observed the clear role that supportive relationships with both families and peers have played in how well students have fared.

The study underscores what decades of education and youth development research had already told us: support networks and learning are interdependent.

But “support” remains one of the more loosely-defined terms in education today. Which supports students actually need and where that support hails from are often ill-defined or grounded in broad speculation rather than specific data. In turn, school systems risk missing both rich assets and troubling gaps in students’ existing support networks.

Although school closures shed light on the central role that families and peers play, OFSTED’s findings can transcend the current crisis. In fact, they echo three key tenets of innovation theory that could inform innovative approaches to student support moving forward:

1. Supports and academics should be tightly linked—across the people providing each.

Based on our research, we hypothesize that merely expanding access to crucial support isn’t as powerful as offering those supports in close connection with academics. Some of the most successful of integrated support models that we’ve looked at, such as City Connects, explicitly connect teachers, student support coordinators, families, and service providers. In other words, they actively keep educators in the loop when it comes to wraparound services and family engagement. As a result, teachers’ academic decisions can be sensitive to the non-academic factors present in students’ lives. At the same time, the other members of students’ support networks can remain apprised of their academic progress and challenges. 

While that may not sound particularly novel, the coordination costs of truly integrating social and academic supports are far from trivial. This is especially true right now as schools face looming budget cuts and look to create efficiencies. But an effective student support strategy should be less about short-term efficiencies and more about long-term gains through better offerings. Although they come at a higher price, integrated approaches also appear to yield a disproportionately higher payoff. A number of cost-benefit analyses of City Connects, for example, suggest that implementation of the model is slightly more expensive than business-as-usual in schools, but over time, saves society significant money, by ensuring that funded out-of-school support programs are fully utilized and by helping learners persist and excel in school to successfully enter the workforce.

2. Supports should respond to individual circumstances rather than demographic traits.

What “good” supports consist of depend on the conditions in students’ existing support networks both within and beyond school. OFSTED’s researchers found that, perhaps contrary to conventional wisdom, children’s experiences weren’t necessarily determined by social class. Instead, they identified the key determinant as students who had “good support structures around them and have benefited from quality time spent with families and carers.” 

Findings like these undergird the notion that circumstances, rather than demographics, should drive innovation efforts. Schools need better ways to accurately detect, diagnose, and leverage the relationships at students’ disposal. Otherwise, they could be under-resourcing or over-resourcing students’ support networks in ways that don’t move the needle on student success.

Some of the most striking examples of this come from research and practice in the postsecondary space. Tony Jack’s excellent book The Privileged Poor outlines the dangers of grouping together all “low-income” students on the campus of the elite university where he conducted his research. Jack found that students’ prior experiences—whether they had attended selective private schools or lesser-resourced public schools—had significant impact on how different low-income students actually navigated and took advantage of campus resources. Without understanding these differences, Jack argues, “supports” can be redundant for some students, but insufficient for others. 

Another example of this appeared in a refreshingly candid annual report published by hybrid college leader PelotonU. Embracing the increasingly popular notion that two-generation strategies—that support both young and parent learners—could produce promising outcomes, Peloton offered free evening childcare services to its student-parents. But it turned out that evening care wasn’t exactly what its participants needed: “On average, parents used it for just three hours per week, though they spent 12 hours a week at the study space where childcare is offered.”In fact, it turned out that its students already had support networks who could offer childcare in the evenings.

Both findings illustrate how simply adding more resources won’t necessarily solve the support equation. Knowing students’ circumstances (rather than merely their demographic traits) and knowing who is and isn’t already part of their support networks can allow schools to leverage resources the students may have brought with them to school and match them with appropriate academic and nonacademic resources. 

3. Relationships can be reservoirs of—rather than one-time deposits towards—support.

Designing integrated systems of support that attend to students’ particular circumstances could mark important strides in ensuring that more students have access to the support networks they need. But the metrics against which these support systems are measured will determine the long-term potential of these innovations.

OFSTED’s researchers found that quality time spent with families and carers was a key variable in helping students to thrive, as was sustained contact with peers. This suggests schools and policymakers might benefit from shifting their mindset in what constitutes supports: investing in relationship-building time on the whole, rather than discrete services. 

This runs counter to student support models that often enumerate services delivered and short-term gains, but rarely measure relationships built. Tracking short-term metrics that track services delivered may be indicators of progress, but can inadvertently lead schools to routinely underinvest in relationships that could continue to bear fruit longer term. (This echoes a cautionary tale from the business world: short-term metrics such as quarterly profit can keep companies afloat, all while hampering longer-term growth potential.) Relationships can bolster a student’s well-being and opportunities down the line, not just at a single point in time.

To overcome this dilemma and to start to measure the health of students’ support networks over time, schools would be wise to more frequently gauge students’ stock of relationships and the quality of those relationships themselves. Frameworks like Search Institute’s developmental relationships measures can help gauge the quality of connections throughout a student’s journey. These metrics could in turn drive different forms of investment and innovation than those arising from shorter-term indicators.  

While this might sound like extra leg work, these otherwise missing metrics could be game-changers in ensuring that support structures remain intact year over year, and that students have what they need to cope. And ultimately, to thrive.