Adapted from Mindful School Communities (Mason, Rivers Murphy, & Jackson, 2020):
• Build strong, healthy relationships. In addition to creating a sense of safety, healthy relationships between staff and students are the key ingredient to cultivating community. Focus on student and family strengths in communication. Authentically get to know all of the members of the community and become the welcoming presence for all families. Consider replacing punitive measures that divide, like suspensions and expulsions, with discipline practices that heal, like restorative justice circles or mindful moment rooms.
• Actively create a sense of belonging. Directly teaching students empathy by using evidencebased mindfulness practices like those we describe on page 28, for example, can reduce the bullying or alienation that is often a barrier to student belonging (Gordon, 2019). Elementary school teachers can enhance belonging by having regular classroom meetings where students share about their interests and experiences. Middle and high school teachers can encourage belonging by limiting competition-based individual activities in favor of group projects and games. All schools can increase belonging by adopting norms around respectful language and behavior and celebrating students and teachers who make the school community a better place.
• Emphasize a common purpose and ideals. Once school leaders have listened to the voices of all of the community members and devised a shared purpose for the school community, spread it far and wide. Make sure that everyone who enters your school knows your values. These can be made clear through mottos, purpose statements, and other ways of broadcasting them, such as signs, banners, student artwork, newsletter titles, and more. A school’s online presence can also be a great way of advertising its shared purpose and values.
• Provide regular opportunities for service and cooperation. Make sure that students and staff understand that you will get through these tough times by everyone playing an important part. Create chances for students to work together during school to better their nuclear community, and outside the school, to better the larger community. For example, 5th graders may welcome kindergarteners to school by reading to them, or high schoolers may engage in service-learning projects, perhaps by growing a garden to feed some of those in their city without homes. If students are still learning primarily in a virtual world, they can be engaged in creative online service-learning projects.
• Provide developmentally appropriate opportunities for autonomy and influence. Having a voice in creating an agenda, classroom norms or rules, and expectations is intrinsically satisfying and helps prepare students for the complexities of citizenship in a democracy (Schaps, 2003). Instead of posting rules for students to follow, create them together at the start of the year, whether you’re in a classroom or behind a screen.
Building community starts with school leadership that values the voices of everyone in the group, because they know that each voice is valuable. Find more opportunities to bring diverse student and family voices to the table this school year. In a New Yorker article about safer schools after COVID-19, senior editor Amy Davidson Sorkin (2020) reminds us how imperative student voice is: Above all, perhaps, the [decision-making] process should involve students. Their perspective deserves respect in sorting out what aspects of school culture are most valuable, and how they might safely be sustained. Students, particularly the older ones, are ultimately going to have to be trusted to follow social distancing mandates on their own. Faced with the threat posed by school shootings, high schoolers have at times shown more of a capacity for leadership than politicians; in this crisis, too, they may surpass the adults around them. In some areas, schools and families have been interacting more often than ever before as teachers are virtually brought into families’ homes. In other places, teachers have not been able to connect with certain students, much less their families, since early March due to a host of reasons, including access to technology, illness, parental work schedules and childcare arrangements, and student disengagement. Almost all educators are seeing the value that stronger school-family connections could bring. As schools focus on strengthening their communities this fall, remember that parent/ guardian voices are essential contributors to school communities and student well-being.