Making connections and building community is an inherent part of elementary school – from checking in on emotions during circle time to learning how to play well in class activities. As our kids grow older, however, the focus of instruction shifts to academics. Yet, we have many examples of middle and high schoolers who feel marginalized, unable to successfully connect with their peers and appropriately communicate their feelings. They show us the need to promote intentional connections throughout the school day.

For example, this week, in a Central Florida High School, a 9th grader brought a loaded gun to school. A fellow student reported the gun to authorities via an app, Fortify Florida, specifically created for this purpose. The reporting student was able to physically describe the teen who had the gun. Fortunately, due to the classmate’s diligence and courage to stand up for himself and his fellow students, yet another school shooting was averted.

Ninth graders are particularly at risk because they feed in from different middle schools and may not know one another. The beginning of the school year is filled with acclimating these new students to the academic expectations of high school. Even when there may not be time in the school day for dedicated social emotional learning, teachers and administrators must help students connect with their teachers and build relationships with one another. This need isn’t just limited to ninth graders, however. At every grade level the pressures of academics sometimes overshadow the importance of providing students with the social tools and opportunities to practice building community.


Why Connection is Important

Getting to know peers beyond appearance, first impressions, and rumors helps children and teens to see beyond the stereotypes. A popular athlete may have a parent at home who is sufferingfrom long COVID. A teen struggling with dyslexia, who peers ostracize, may be an amazing artist and share an interest in anime. In helping students get to know each other beyond the surface, we reduce the chances of teasing and marginalization. Finding commonality can help to bridge differences, encourage more respectful conversation when perceptions may differ, and lead to the development of friendships.

How to Weave Opportunities for Connection into the School Day

Opportunities to connect can be created both throughout the school day and in extra-curricular activities. This video clip, from Edutopia, provides concrete ideas for weaving in opportunities to connect and calm emotions throughout the day. The power of relationships makes a significantdifference in school culture.

Learn more here:  Maslow before Bloom


Now that school is underway, continue to provide opportunities for students to find commonality with one another. Some ideas include brief, interactive “Ice Melters” (activities where students can begin to find things in common) such as:

Would you Rather Questions for Kids

Would you Rather Questions for Teens

Ice Breakers for High School

Building Emotional Connections 

To build emotional literacy, provide ongoing opportunities for emotional check-ins with students. Through these metaphors, students learn they are not the only ones who may have big or strong feelings.

  • If the way you feel today were a food, what would you be? Comfort food like mac and cheese, spicy like a hot pepper, tearful like onions?
  • If you were a weather forecast, what would you be? Partly sunny, occasional thunderstorms?

For middle and high school:

  • If your mood were a song, what would you be?
  • IF you were a GIF what would you be?
  • High, low, Spaghetti: students share from their week a success, challenge, something funny.

Research tells us the importance of creating an environment where students feel safe with the teacher and with one another for optimal learning. This article from shares the science behind best practices.


Laying the groundwork where students feel safe in our very uncertain world provides connections that encourage children and teens to be curious and take risks, helping them to learn and grow far beyond academics.

Photo credit: Shane Rous, Unsplash

Written by Carol Miller, LCSW