Five Simple Ways to Boost Social Capital in Schools

Guest post by Nathan Boyd, director, African American Student and Parent Services for South Bend Community School Corporation

Whether it’s Snapchat, WhatsApp, Instagram, or the app du jour, our kids are digitally connected to one another in more ways than I can count. Despite their virtual connectedness, kids seem to be more isolated and alone these days. Their sense of belonging and esteem is lacking, which has detrimental effects on their personal and academic success. How can school leaders help students connect to one another in the real world?

Robert D. Putnam, author of Bowling Alone—a book about “social capital”—defines the term as the “connections among individuals—social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.” Simply put, social capital has great value. Our social networks improve our lives and make us more productive by creating a nurturing support system that provides greater access to resources and motivation to succeed.

In my time as an administrator, I’ve learned the importance of developing social capital in students. Students with high social capital are typically high achieving and very capable. They belong to teams and extracurriculars that improve their overall well-being. When they encounter a challenge, they consult their tribe and get ideas, resources, and motivation to help them succeed. Students with low social capital are considered by some as lower achieving. They can be mistaken for those who keep to themselves and show more signs that resemble depression. When they encounter a challenge, they are afraid to ask for help, exert less effort, and give up more quickly than their classmates who have stronger social capital.

Schools are a great place to teach students how to forge and maintain beneficial personal relationships. How can schools develop social capital in students? Here are a few strategies that South Bend Community School Corporation uses:

  1. Cultivate trust.Trust increases children’s willingness to seek out others for support. Focus on ways to help our children build trust with both adults and peers. Be open and honest with students. If you had a difficult time when you were a teenager, open up to students and let them see the real you. Be reliable and fair. Do what you say you are going to do, and treat kids in the same way. And, show students you trust them. For example, give them time for independent learning in the classroom, and trust them to use it wisely.
  2. Capitalize on unstructured relationship-building moments. Frequently, schools offer many relationship-building opportunities during structured school activities. While these are important, don’t forget about unstructured times such as lunch, before and after school, and in the hallways. Some of the best opportunities to build relationships are these unstructured moments when students are more at ease and more likely to talk without the pressure of the classroom environment. As a school leader, greet students in the lobby in the morning. Walk the hallways during class changes. Eat your lunch with a group of students in the cafeteria. Encourage your teachers to hang out in the hallways between classes and socialize with students.
  3. Engage students in extracurricular opportunities. Sports and activities are some of the easiest ways to help students build social capital.These shared experiences provide a common bond for students to get to know one another as well as offer regular meeting times to connect. But students sometimes need a little push to get involved. Students with low social capital may not even know how to try out for a team or when a club or activity meets. Be sure your school communicates these opportunities to students in systematic and repeated ways so that they know how to get involved.
  4. Encourage students to support one another in person. Nothing makes kids feel better than when a family member, friend, or mentor shows up to support them at a sporting event, performance, or another activity. In-person support not only makes students feel good, it also promotes social growth. Sometimes, all kids need is an invitation to get them to attend. Know what is happening at your school and invite students to these events. When you see them in attendance, be sure to thank them for coming, and ask them to come again.
  5. Show students that social media can be a positive resource to connect people.While the digital world can sometimes thwart the development of social capital, it also has the potential to connect others in a positive way. When used properly, relationships can be developed in the digital world. For some of our shyer students, the digital world helps them communicate their thoughts and feelings that they may not be able to express in person. So, model responsible digital citizenship. Give shout-outs to people and their successes on social media. Promote teams and activities that might be of interest. Extend invitations for students to connect in person.

Building social capital has positive consequences in the lives of our students and school communities. It is increasingly imperative that we concentrate on relationship-building in our urban school environments. The efforts schools make to form and strengthen relationships will help all students, regardless of race or social emotional status, flourish throughout their academic careers and beyond.

How do you build social capital within your school?

Nathan Boyd is the director of African American Student and Parent Services for South Bend Community School Corporation. As a former school administrator of 13 years, he prides himself on being a champion for children. He is the 2012 ISCA Principal of the Year, the 2012 National Blue Ribbon of School Excellence Recipient, and the NASSP 2017 Indiana Principal of the Year. Follow him on Twitter @Principal_Boyd.

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