In the tumult of shifting to virtual school during the pandemic, one of our children came bouncing out of her room full of energy. This was a noticeable shift from her usual subdued mood after a full day of Zoom school.

What was different? Her teacher had left the digital meeting room open for three extra minutes so that students could connect with one another after their lesson. “It was like being at our lockers in the hallway again!,” she said. This seemingly simple act had reinvigorated her connection and engagement to school in a way that carried her well beyond that brief encounter.

To learn from students themselves about their wholly unusual 2021 back-to-school experience, YouthTruth (where one of us works) surveyed over 11,000 middle and high school students in 103 schools across 32 school systems in 11 states. (You can see all the results from our four-part series here.) Attuned to the power of those proverbial three locker minutes, students who have come of age through the pandemic are imploring us to design the school experience to build in the time for them to build friendships and “IRL” connections.

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What we offer here are five lessons drawn from students themselves and in their own words. Students wisely remind us that schools have the power to activate friendships, which can, in turn, catalyze engagement, belonging, and persistence for learning.

And years of research echoes their insights—we know that learning happens most powerfully in the context of relationships with peers and teachers. Friendship and social time are not a distraction from, but rather at the heart of, students’ experience of school and their ability to engage with new content and ways of thinking. Each lesson we share here is followed by a handful of recommendations for how to get started in your learning setting.

Help students practice social skills

In describing their return to school, students recognized in-person relationships as the best thing about coming back. At the same time, they described the challenges of engaging with their classmates and explicitly asked for help to “break that ice.”

As one 11th grader put it, “Everyone feels really isolated even when someone is right next to you so there needs to be something that can break that ice. . . . The school can do something. I don’t know what that is but the effect needs to thaw that ice that is holding people back from expressing their true feelings.”

  • Check-in Circle for Community Building

    Students sit in a circle, center themselves with a Mindfulness Moment, and use a talking piece to respectfully take turns answering a question about how they are doing.

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How can you help students to “thaw that ice”? Classrooms that center social and emotional learning (SEL)—a lifelong process of learning how to better understand ourselves, connect with others, and work together to achieve goals and support our communities—have been shown to benefit both the academic and social and emotional growth of students. Schools can begin to integrate social and emotional practice into their classrooms by utilizing the SEL 3 signature practices (for adults, as well). The first of these practices is opening the space with a welcoming or inclusion activity. This might look like greeting every child by name, doing a morning check-in, or having a community circle to begin class time.

Give students time to connect during school

Students also asked that adults recognize their interactions with peers as assets both inside and outside of the classroom. Many students explained that they are more engaged when working collaboratively, while others bemoaned schedules and structures that separate them from their friends.

One 10th grader commented that being back at school and yet still isolated from his friends “makes me feel really sad and lonely, causing a whole domino effect on my school work and academic performance. I think giving students more time to interact with other students (while still being COVID safe) would decrease that feeling of being all alone and not being able to reach out or make friends.”

How can you provide students time to connect? Schools can consider routines such as morning/afternoon meetings or advisories to bring students together intentionally to support both their academic and social and emotional growth. These rituals often begin with a greeting activity or incorporate interactive practices or games that allow for cooperation and practice of social and emotional skills. Students are also pushing us to think about how best to ensure safety while also attending to the social and emotional health needs of having unstructured time and spaces for connection, like recess and lunch.

Remember the importance of “the fun stuff”

After two years of online schooling and canceled events, students reported feeling unmoored from their school community and their friends. They are keenly aware that they have missed dances, concerts, theater performances, sports games, and school trips—which are, of course, exactly the sorts of memorable experiences that cement enduring friendships.

They asked us adults to, as one 12th grader put it, continue to do fire and lockdown drills but not to let these drills crowd out “more fun and safe things, such as rallies, dress up days that everyone can participate [in] …  stuff like that to unite students together.”

Where can you find ideas for “the fun stuff”? Turn to your students via student leadership teams, surveys, and focus groups to hear more about how they imagine building meaningful rituals that are both safe and responsive to this deep need for connection. Students can also help bring these new rituals to life and think about ways to sustain them over time by pairing up across grades in leadership teams that organize community service events, celebrations, student-led performances or podcasts, or even graduation events.

Give students the chance to be a friend

In reflecting on their return to school in fall 2021, students also expressed a renewed gratitude for their friendships and for reciprocity. They explained that they not only want friends to provide them support, they also want the chance to be a friend and to help others.

As one 12th grader wrote, “What my school can do to help me during this period of change is make me feel like I’m not alone, and that people actually care about me and let people know that I am here as a friend, because during the Covid time I became very antisocial and I wanna be more open to more friendships.”

  • 36 Questions to Help Kids Make Friends

    Pairs of students take turns asking and answering sets of questions, helping them to form a new friendship.

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How can schools scaffold friendships? During the pandemic, schools found that often it was peer-to-peer mentorship or outreach efforts that helped students who were disengaged during virtual learning reconnect to school—important strategies to continue in any context. Once in school, collaborative work in classrooms and cross-aged buddy programs are ways that students can deepen their sense of community connections.

“Please slow down”

Finally, students were keenly aware that time is a precious commodity in school. And many pointed out the ways that their schools seem to be valuing efficiency over all else as they are being pushed to “catch up.” To this, students resoundingly ask us to “slow down,” particularly to allow them time to tend to their friendships, which they see as directly connected to their own mental health and ability to learn.

As one 11th grader described, “Six classes every day and large amounts of work for each one while also having other commitments outside of school and maintaining relationships with family and friends especially is really hard. Everyone is often stressed out which makes it harder to keep friendships fun which is the best part of school.”

How can you square the call to “slow down” with all the demands of school? As students shift from virtual to in-person learning or from grade to grade, allow time for the processing of those transitions, what was gained and learned, and what was missed or lost (adults, too, need time for this type of processing in staff meetings or professional learning sessions).

Recognize that community building, creativity, and just plain fun are not “wasting” time but are instead creating fertile ground for deeper, connected learning to take place.

So, as we walk down the hallways of our schools and see our students laughing and enjoying one another, know that this interaction is, in fact, the often invisible first step in our lesson plans, catalyzing academic and social and emotional growth in all of our students.

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