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Creative Caring: A Back-to-School Success Strategy
Gallup Blog

Creative Caring: A Back-to-School Success Strategy

by Valerie J. Calderon
Chart: data points are described in article

Not one student should slip through the cracks when it comes to having a caring adult at school.

For the 55.5 million students who attend the nation's elementary and secondary schools, going back to school after the summer break generates a range of emotions, from anticipation and excitement to trepidation and fear. Principals have a complex leadership challenge in meeting the educational needs of this large, diverse population of students, and it can be difficult to know which strategies to prioritize for the new school year.

The Gallup Student Poll -- an online survey for students in grades five through 12 -- provides important clues to what students most need to be engaged at school and ready for their future.

Everybody Needs a Caregiver

Results from the 2016 Gallup Student Poll Snapshot Report suggest that, regardless of the school type, location or configuration, showing care for kids can make a big difference in their engagement at school.

Nine items are included in the Gallup Student Poll Engagement Index, which measures students' involvement in and enthusiasm at school. Younger students are more likely to agree with each of the items than are older students, and one of the largest item-level differences occurs for the item, "The adults at school care about me."

While the majority (about two-thirds) of students surveyed "strongly agreed" or "agreed" that the adults at school care, about one-third of surveyed students were either neutral or disagreed, suggesting that many students will show up on the first day of school this fall unsure whether the adults at their school care about them.

Further, students grow more skeptical that adults care about them as they journey through school. While two-thirds of fifth-graders surveyed strongly agreed that adults at school care about them, only about one in four 11th-graders said the same.

Further analysis revealed that having a caring adult at school is linked to a greater likelihood of self-reported excellent grades at school, and this relationship is strongest for high school students.

These findings reflect results from the 2016 Gallup Student Poll, a survey that provides insights into how students experience their lives in and out of school. Gallup conducted the survey via web Sept. 26-Oct. 28, 2016, and included more than 3,000 public and private schools and more than 900,000 students in the U.S. and Canada who opted to participate. Because schools opt in to the survey, these results are not necessarily representative of all K-12 schools or students in the U.S.

Younger students are not the only people who benefit from a caring school culture. Gallup's research with colleges and universities shows that having caring professors is one of six key college experiences linked to important alumni life outcomes, such as employee engagement and well-being, suggesting that caring teachers may be important for K-12 students as well.

Additionally, Gallup's workplace engagement research shows that having a supervisor or someone at work who cares about you is a critical employee need. Teachers and staff need to feel cared for to cement their engagement with work and maximize their chances for success.

One Chance to Make a First Impression

Schools can make a positive first impression during this back-to-school season by finding ways to demonstrate care for students. When Gallup asked people to describe their most influential teacher, "caring" and "compassionate" were at the top of the list of words to describe that difference-maker. But sometimes it can be difficult to know the best ways to care for struggling students.

As one education expert put it, students (and grown-ups) arrive at school with an invisible backpack filled with weighty needs. Principals have the big job of honoring teachers and staff who find creative ways to care for students. Physical or mental illness, financial or family-related stressors, or any number of other challenges may influence the ways students experience their days at school. Having compassionate conversations that steer students toward new goals and successes can help encourage ongoing learning and growth.

Informal conversations between Gallup consultants and middle school students revealed a few good ideas for what might work. When asked, "What could adults do to help make a great first day of school?" one boy said, "They could applaud when we walk in." A soon-to-be sixth-grade boy offered, "They could not yell at us and be kind." Another girl suggested that a red carpet would be nice.

These students from a tiny corner of the U.S. education world struck profound notes with these eminently practical recommendations. These ideas cost little or nothing to implement, but the potential return on student engagement is big.

Let students know in tangible, observable ways that they are valued and cared for. Because, as a wise woman once said, at the end of the day, they won't remember all we taught them, but they will remember how we made them feel.

Optimize Your School
Engage students to help them get the most out of their education.

This fall, the Gallup Student Poll will be available for a nominal fee to schools in the U.S. and Canada from Sept. 24-Oct. 26, 2018.

Does your school know the best ways to measure and build engagement among students, staff and parents? Gallup can help you find out.

Daniela Yu, Ph.D., Sr. Researcher, Predictive Analytics, provided analysis for this article.

About the Gallup Student Poll

The Gallup Student Poll is an online survey for students in grades five through 12. The survey includes four elements with links to desirable student outcomes: engagement, hope, entrepreneurial aspiration, and career and financial literacy. The Gallup Student Poll will be available this fall for U.S. and Canadian schools for a nominal fee from Sept. 24-Oct. 26, 2018.

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