Even now, three years after the start of the COVID shutdowns, it is evident that the pandemic has had a significant impact on students’ social-emotional well-being. Many students have experienced increased stress, anxiety, and feelings of isolation. Additionally, disruptions to daily routines and social support systems during the shutdown also contributed to these challenges.
More than ever, students are struggling with social-emotional skills in school, particularly in areas such as self-regulation, empathy, and relationship-building. While it is easy to dismiss social-emotional skills as “soft” skills, it is important to note that issues with these skills can lead to difficulties in academic achievement and behavior at school as well as lessening students’ overall mental health and well-being. So how do we help students develop these skills and foster communities where our students have a sense of belonging?
There are several ways to help students develop self-regulation, empathy, and relationship-building skills. Some strategies include teaching mindfulness techniques, encouraging active listening, providing opportunities for collaborative learning, promoting positive reinforcement, and modeling positive behavior.
One of our programs, Synergy Day, is designed to help students build relationships and break down barriers to create a positive change on campus, inspire acts of kindness and compassion, and lower incidents of violence. It provides students who don’t normally interact on a day-to-day basis a chance to learn how much they have in common with one another.Throughout Synergy Day, facilitators guide students through activities designed to give them the opportunity to boost their self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationships, and decision-making skills.
This year, we have had the pleasure of facilitating several Synergy Days at Charter Oak High School in Covina, CA. It has been amazing to see how the students connect with each other and form new– hopefully lasting– bonds.
Recently, we checked in with Natalie Cook, the Activities Director for Charter Oak HS, to talk about why her school chose to bring Synergy Day to the students and how it has impacted their campus so far.
TY: Why did you choose to participate in Synergy Day? What were the issues on your campus that you saw needed to be addressed with a program like this?
Natalie: We chose to participate in Synergy Day because there was a lack of connection between students when they returned to in-person learning. We had discussions with other schools that had similar programs and saw the impact a program like Synergy Day could have on a campus that desperately needed to create connections between students.
Last year, there was an increase in fights on campus which stemmed from misunderstandings or judging other students without ever taking the time to get to know them. We felt like Synergy Day gave us the tools to facilitate discussions about stories which has allowed our students to ask questions and have conversations instead of jumping to conclusions about others.
TY: What positive impacts have you seen post-Synergy with the students who have participated?
Natalie: Our entire Leadership class went through Synergy Day in the fall, which has led to more productive conversations and decision-making within the class. It has allowed our students to step into leadership roles by facilitating family group discussions where they lead a group of their peers through Synergy Day activities and discussions.
Allowing our student leaders to become facilitators has empowered students to have these conversations in a safe space because they feel free to open up without the threat of judgment from teachers or other school staff.
During our Spring Synergy Day, we invited students from every corner of campus life to attend, which allowed students to share their stories with others who they may have never noticed around campus. This has led to students from different groups having conversations in the hallways and making connections with students who may have never met without an opportunity like Synergy Day. Yesterday, I had a student run across campus to give me a hug because he now had a caring adult who knew his name, knew his story, and, as a result, he felt like he belonged to our community.
TY: Why would you encourage other schools to participate in Synergy Day?
Natalie: Synergy Day provides a dedicated space for students to open up and share their stories with people who are willing to do the same. It creates connections and community for students who might feel left out because they don’t fit into the traditional groups on campus, such as the athletes or ASB. It has created such pivotal moments for our students to dream about how to change the culture on campus by creating connections with students outside their normal friend group. It is students creating a support network with their peers, so they know without a doubt they are not alone.
We have seen the benefit of teachers being participants in Synergy Day and then being able to coordinate/facilitate a Synergy Day, which has allowed me to share the responsibility and weight with another teacher who buys into the importance of Synergy Day. When a teacher first experiences Synergy Day as a participant, they understand the impact it has on our students.
Our students are still riding high from Synergy Day. They are seeking out the people they connected with on campus so they can maintain those connections. Teachers are asking students about it, and they are talking about how they can see a change in certain students’ behaviors already.