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West Jordan Journal

Connections improves social, emotional and academic outcomes

Nov 07, 2023 04:07PM ● By Jet Burnham

West Hills Middle School staff members have implemented a 19-minute solution to improve students’ social skills, emotional well-being, attendance and grades. Students begin their school day in Connections, a short class which smooths the transition between home and school.

“The purpose of it is exactly in its name—it’s connections,” language arts teacher Heather Reich said. “It’s to help students make a connection with a teacher who is not necessarily their teacher at that moment, more like an advocate. So it’s another set of eyes on the kid to help support them at school. It’s also to help them make connections with each other. The people in here are going to support you and be on your side.”

West Hills Middle School Principal Cynthia VanderMeiden said students and teachers need to have a good relationship before teaching and learning can happen.

“Our motto is ‘Connections precedes curriculum,’” she said. “The more that we can build those connections with our students and get to know them on a student level, one, the more we enjoy them, and two, they enjoy school as well, because we have a relationship outside of being graded.”

Students receive a citizenship grade for Connections but there is no academic curriculum or graded assignments. Instead, there are class activities centered on kindness, inclusion, suicide awareness, school policies, etc. The classes also read and play games together.

“It’s just little low stakes things so it doesn’t feel like something really stressful and like work, but it’s more like a fun get-to-know-you kind of thing,” Reich said.

Seventh-grader Kaden Edwards said, “It’s a great way to start our day, and it helps us socially. We get to connect with each other in that class, and play games with each other, so I feel like it builds our confidence.”

Reich said the class acts as a buffer, so students can let go of what happened at home and get settled in at school, so they are ready to learn by the time first period begins. 

Having Connections at the beginning of the day instead of an academically demanding class prevents many problems caused by students running late in the mornings, said administrators, who have seen improved social/emotional wellbeing, attendance and grades.

VanderMeiden said previously when students arrived tardy, they would miss out on academic instruction given in the first few minutes of the first class of the day.

“We’ve seen an increase in our grades overall because our first period is not affected [by tardies],” VanderMeiden said.

And because Connections teachers have the same group of students for all three years of middle school, they can have a relationship with the students and their families and are positioned to provide support and solutions for poor attendance patterns.

This is the second year West Hills Middle has begun the day with Connections. Reich taught a ninth-grade Connections class last year and is starting over with a new group of seventh graders this year.

“This group of kids is going to be with me for three years,” Reich said. “It’s really awesome because it really lets me build a relationship with them and lets them build relationships with each other. I love my Connections kids. I am so lucky to start my day with them.”

Reich’s students said they feel lucky to start their day with her, as well.

Teancum Brandley said when things are challenging or he has a hard morning before school, he can depend on Reich to start his day with some fun.

“She really just goes above and beyond trying to make everyone feel special,” he said.

 Kaden said, “It’s nice to be in a class where you can connect with others and [Ms. Reich] just makes it a really fun class.” λ