Maria Vasquez finally had the opportunity to walk into a school building this spring. A high school freshman in suburban Atlanta, she was immediately embraced by her teachers, school staff, and counselors, and told to reach out if she had any questions or concerns. Now at school, Maria is feeling surprisingly overwhelmed, disconnected from her school community, and not confident at all in reaching out to the adults who she sees as very committed to helping her adjust. (Note: To protect the identity of individual students, Maria Vasquez is a fictional name. However, this narrative is a real student experience as related to the author.)
The coronavirus has been an unprecedented test for teacher-student relationships, and Maria’s teachers are doing a great job making sure that students know they are surrounded by caring and supportive adults. But for all the good intentions, there’s something missing. As school buildings continue to open up to students, leaders must be mindful that simply offering students’ community doesn’t mean they will know how to activate it. To ensure students like Maria are equitably supported for success, her ability to mobilize relationships in service of her needs is essential.
The power of student agency: Looking beyond academics to prepare students for life
Nearly 91% of students are now receiving in-person instruction either part-time or full-time. As schools continue to innovate toward empowering young people to feel and be successful in their learning journey, activating student agency—the capacity to to set, initiate, and reflect on one’s goals in service of their learning—is imperative. But activating student agency solely in service of academics may be leaving an important opportunity on the table.
In his recent book, The Power of Student Agency: Looking Beyond Grit to Close the Opportunity Gap, educational sociologist Anindya Kundu asserts, “Agency is based on the recognition that sometimes young adults…need help. Rather than going it alone and relying strictly on individual effort and hard work, individuals with agency think critically about where and when they need help.” Kundu continues to articulate how all students can develop social capital by activating—or mobilizing—and utilizing mentors and social networks in their learning journey.
A key takeaway? Nurture an environment that facilitates students’ ability to articulate their needs and activate relationships in service of those needs. 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. Even in the most well-intentioned school environments, like Maria’s above, simply putting relationships within reach without building students’ capacity to activate them may inadvertently shortchange students from accessing support when they need it the most. In contrast, teaching students the value of social capital enables them to be active builders of their relationships. Knowing how to cultivate and maintain networks enables them to leverage a reservoir of relationships throughout their lives. To support young people equitably, schools must 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 their life journey.
For schools ready to prioritize developing students’ skills to mobilize relationships, it’s critical to have a measurement strategy in place. Luckily, early efforts are showing what that looks like. And although nascent, these early efforts are beginning to show evidence of closing the opportunity gap for youth and working adults alike. Here are three guiding questions—grounded in research—to help schools equip students with the skills and mindsets to shape how they build, maintain, and activate relationships:
1. Are students aware of their own social capital and why networks matter?
Early innovators are recognizing that access to relationships and skills to reach out to adults must go hand-in-hand. For example, trovvit, a digital portfolio and networking platform used by K–12 schools to help students capture what they are learning and whom they are learning with, asks students: “If you hear the term social capital, what do you think it means? Can you give an example?” This question primes students to begin considering the value of a network and begin actively building connections as they invite professionals to provide feedback on real-world projects. This digital portfolio further enables students to build diverse, online networks created in the course of these experiences. trovvit not only offers young people access to opportunities that may be beyond their reach, but also the chance to mutually build emotional and cultural competencies as they maintain relationships over time.
2. Do students have the relationship skills to engage or re-engage with others?
Many programs deliberately weave exercises into their curriculum to teach students skills such as how to initiate conversations at social events, how to write emails introducing themselves, and how to authentically follow up with people they want to stay connected to. For example, iCouldBe, a virtual mentoring program that connects high school students to online mentors who guide them through a college and career curriculum, measures whether students are acquiring the essential skills associated with their academic and career goals by asking them to indicate the extent to which they agree with the following statements: “I know how to write a professional email,” “I know how to ask for help in reaching my goals,” and “I know how to research different careers online.” In addition, students have visibility into the network map built from their interactions with mentors so that they can see the diversity of their relationships grow and evolve.
3. Do students have the skills and mindsets to mobilize diverse relationships to expand their career opportunities?
Programs that are measuring students’ ability to mobilize relationships are increasingly engaging their students in practice sessions to build skills and mindsets around career-building social capital. For example, Basta, a nonprofit that works to bridge the employment gap for first-generation students, provides coaching to students on their career search process and brokers connections through which students can apply their skills in mobilizing networks. Its post-program survey also assesses a student’s ability to build and access networks. For example, students are asked to indicate agreement with the statements: “I see value in and am comfortable with the concept of networking,” “I feel comfortable building relationships in an informal networking setting,” and “Participating in BASTA has increased my confidence in my ability to build and leverage a professional network.”
Transitioning students back into schools from an ongoing pandemic is uncharted territory. But educators committed to ensuring all students are socially, emotionally, and academically supported must begin to measure the ways in which students are able to ask for help. This means prioritizing an often-ignored set of skills: student agency to activate diverse relationships as their needs and interests evolve. This way, students like Maria can continue to learn anytime, anywhere, and with the confidence that they can ask for the support and resources they need to thrive. Additional survey and data collection approaches to measure students’ ability to mobilize relationships can be viewed in the Appendix of our report, “The Missing Metrics,” which highlights early innovators designing and measuring for students’ relationships.