Educational leaders have a responsibility to address the social-emotional needs of high school students.
Through the years, expectations for schools to perform—and to do so at high levels—have increased exponentially. This has caused schools to no longer depend on past traditional ways of educating students but instead has pushed schools to strive for best practices, evidence-based interventions, and strategies to meet student needs both in academics and in social-emotional areas. Educational leaders are having more conversations with classroom teachers about instruction, curriculum, and pedagogy than ever before, and yet students are still struggling with academic success (Harrison, 2019).
Adding to the stress of expectations of high performance, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the momentum that students may have had, and a sense of apathy and hopelessness has encroached on their drive to stay connected to their school and the school community (Yorke et al., 2021). The pandemic has brought the issue of mental health to the forefront, becoming an area of increased concern among school leaders: How are schools going to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic while trying to meet the increased social-emotional needs of their students?
There were concerns about the mental health of high school students even before the pandemic. High school students found themselves inundated with pressures of an unknown future, career decisions, self-identity, and trying to become a productive citizen in society. Anxiety and depression affected a high number of students, especially those who lacked the social-emotional supports to guide them through sometimes turbulent high school experiences. Students wanted to feel a sense of belonging, of value, and of connectedness (Abramson, 2022; American Psychological Association, 2020).
The question, then, is this: How can educational leaders juggle the responsibility of increased expectations for student academic performance while also addressing the social-emotional needs of their students? To answer this question, let’s first review the research before addressing what, who, and why.
Yorke et al. (2021) emphasized how educational leaders will continue to struggle to raise high school students’ achievement unless they address the social-emotional support that these students need. In researching the importance of students’ social-emotional learning, mental health, and well-being during COVID-19, Yorke et al. found that social-emotional learning (SEL) research policy and practices that are aimed at having a huge impact on student development and education were not considered a high priority. Their research emphasized the vital role that SEL has on student development in and outside of the school environment, the positive effects that SEL has on students’ mental health and well-being, and the positive impact that SEL has on academic deficiencies in learning and outcomes.
Korpershoek et al. (2020) conducted a meta-analysis study and discovered that secondary students’ sense of belonging is strongly related to their self-concept and found that students who have a higher sense of belonging tended to have higher academic achievement scores. Similarly, a meta-analysis research study by Allen et al. (2018) identified what schools need to know to foster school belonging among their students. The Allen study examined 51 other studies associated with 10 themes related to a student’s sense of belonging:
- Academic motivation
- Emotional stability
- Personal characteristics
- Parent support
- Peer support
- Teacher support
- Race and ethnicity
- Extracurricular activities
- Environmental/school safety
The findings of the study identified the strongest predictors of school belonging to be based on teacher support and personal characteristics.
Bonell et al. (2016) studied 40 secondary schools in England to examine the relationship between a student’s lack of commitment to learning and the school community. Their findings showed that lower levels of student academic commitment were associated with increases in reported school misbehavior and smoking.
SEL, mental health, and commitment are all key factors that influence academics in high school. Each of these studies emphasized that students who have a sense of belonging and are connected to their school community perform better in the classroom and will experience positive social and emotional well-being. Educational leaders are charged with finding ways to connect their students to each other and to the school community. The impact of what a student does outside the classroom may indeed have a huge effect on how a student performs inside the classroom. While schools are created for academic learning, we also need to consider the social-emotional needs that extracurricular activities address with our secondary students.
The increased need for mental health, SEL, and a sense of belonging among high school students rests on the shoulders of the educational leaders. Research highly supports the positive effects of meeting the social-emotional needs of students, but putting in place the tools required to meet this need can be challenging.
Martinezetal.(2016) explored the connection between student participation in sports, clubs, and arts and students’ perception of school climate. The study gathered data regarding 15,004 U.S. high school students from 28 different schools across 11 states. The findings of the study suggested that but they also learn “teamwork, dedication, success, failures, the ability to manage time, and the ability to build positive relationships with other students, coaches, parents, and community members. These qualities will make these students better all-around students and people” (Craft, 2012, p. 71).
Extracurricular activities are a great tool through which students gain a sense of belonging and connectedness while at the same time receiving support for their social-emotional needs. When students feel connected to the school, they gain a sense of belonging and a feeling of purpose. When students feel that they belong and are valued, their intrinsic motivation kicks in and they have a desire to do well in school.
What can educational leaders do to get students connected with their school and school community? What can encourage students to gain a sense of belonging? Research shows that extracurricular activities play a critical role in a student’s life and can positively impact the mental health and academics of students. Where, then, can educational leaders begin their plan to introduce extracurricular activities?
Step 1: Identify the “What”
What is your philosophy for providing extracurricular activities to students? Many administrators state that they encourage extracurricular activities for students but do little to support them. If you do believe that extracurricular activities are critical for students, then consider whether the activities offered match the passion of your students. Consider what your school has to offer and what your school could be offering by taking into consideration what passions and talents the school staff has that can expand the extracurricular activity offerings.
Once you have your list of extracurricular activities, consider conducting a survey of your student body to see what they desire and have for passions. Don’t forget to allow them to identify their own extracurricular activities and hobbies. Here are some extracurricular activities and clubs—some of which are nontraditional—to consider:
- American Sign Language
- Board Games
- Community Service
- Juntos Aprendemos
- Peer Counseling
- Performance (acting, singing, instrumental, and so on)
- Principal Advisory
- Radio and Broadcasting
- Skating and Longboarding
- Video Gaming
- Water Polo
When I became a principal,
I noticed that many students wanted a creative outlet to make an impact on their community. I also wanted to see my students involved in the community. Because of my own skills in theatre, I created a drama ensemble that combined music and drama, and impacted a social concern. This group wanted to tackle bullying and harassment, so we wrote a choral reading that addressed these. This group went on to perform at area schools,
a few state conferences, and a national conference, and they were given an award for peace by the state. Wow! We never thought our efforts would reach such a large audience, but it shows what can happen when passion and a desire to impact the community come together. Along with the great success of this extracurricular activity, the students involved were academically successful. Not every school will reach these heights, but that’s not the point. Rather, when schools offer extracurriculars that match their students’ desires and passions, success will follow—both in and outside the classroom.
Step 2: Identify the “Who”
For extracurricular activities to be successful as well as make a positive impact on students, it is important to consider the who—who will the adults be that will supervise and be involved in the extracurricular? Which adults in your school or community have a knack for connecting with students? While some schools are able to pay stipends for these positions, keep in mind that when pay is the enticement to supervise a club, you might secure someone with the wrong motivation. Consider how you can recruit the right people for your students—people who are skilled and passionate about the activity. Here are a few examples:
- Have a clear description of each club and the role of the supervisor/advisor.
- Be sure to have a process for including an extracurricular activity on the salary schedule.
- Make it a priority to engage both students and staff in extracurricular activities.
- Begin by building your leadership teams. How might each member supervise a club of their choosing or a club that students want to participate in?
In addition to finding the right adult to supervise extracurricular activities, the leaders must be diligent in connecting kids to the extracurricular activity’s opportunities. The who is not just the adult—it is also the students the extracurricular activity is intended for. Look for students who may be a good fit for an activity but not yet be involved in one. Consider how you can connect with and interest those students. If you are not sure where to start, look at your attendance and behavior data to see what kids are not connected. Where you start, though, really doesn’t matter—so long as you start somewhere. A focused effort on connecting students to the school through extracurricular activities will create a positive culture and climate in your building and increase student achievement in the classrooms.
Step 3: Identify the “How”
After addressing the what and the who, consider what needs to be done to get this initiative off the ground: How will you implement a successful and ongoing robust extracurricular activities program? There is not a magical way to do this. One approach would be to set a building goal of having 100 percent of the student body involved in one or more extracurricular activities. While hitting that 100 percent may be a high goal, reaching close to 80 percent involvement by your student body should be considered a great success.
Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it will take your entire building to encourage students to be involved. Here are some simple but important steps in how to get students involved:
- Hold an activities fair where students can explore and be encouraged to sign up for ones that appeal to them.
- Have an “invite a freshman” event to make incoming students aware of the activities the school has to offer.
- Hold community events showcasing the extracurricular activities.
- Review your policies and amend them so that participation in extracurricular activities is possible for every student— not just the academically successful ones.
- Invite local businesses to sponsor individual clubs by donating materials or funds to support club activities.
- Be sure supervisors/advisors are making the extracurricular activity inviting, emotionally safe, and welcoming for anybody.
- Simply ask the students—all the time, every day—to get involved. Make sure you have extracurricular activities that allow students to join at any time.
When addressing the social-emotional needs of the students, educational leaders have to take into consideration the whole experience of schooling—inside and outside the classroom. Educational leaders must put into practice the active process that is needed to connect students to the school community and their classmates. Doing so takes purposeful leadership from the administration that will emphasize that instructional successes extend beyond the classroom and into extracurricular participation.