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Building caring campus by strengthening students’ sense of connectedness

Michelle Chan

Educational Psychologist

Building connectedness for stronger resilience

 

     How can students enjoy a healthy school life? One of the keys is to help them feel connected to school, which is also vital for their mental well-being. Students having a sense of connectedness feel connected to a group in which they are being cared for and accepted by the adults and peers. Studies have shown that students with a strong sense of connectedness to their school are less likely to engage in high-risk activities which may pose threats to health such as smoking, drug abuse and assault. They are also less prone to emotional disturbances or suicidal thoughts, and have higher attendance and retention rates as well as better academic performance.

 

Curriculum planning for positive day-to-day interactions

 

     To develop students’ sense of connectedness, schools may increase the engagement of different stakeholders (including students, parents and community members) and, in parallel, foster a campus culture that stresses communication, trust and care. It is quite impossible to create a sense of bonding by simply one or two goodwill activities. Rather, it is the genuine day-to-day interactions between teachers and students that make them feel connected. Structured teaching of interpersonal knowledge and skills (including listening and communication skills, conflict resolution, play skills, sportsmanship and empathy) and emotion regulation (including comprehension, expression and management of emotions) is needed for building connectedness among students. These elements can be incorporated into the formal curriculum while different strategies (such as co-operative learning) can be deployed in daily teaching to help students master and apply the skills. Schools may also, based on students’ personality traits and interests, set up groups of various kinds (such as interest groups, uniformed groups, choirs, sports teams and volunteer groups) and organise co-curricular activities so that friendship can be forged between students and teachers as well as their peers who share common interests.

 

Class or grade-based activities for creating collective memories

 

     To enhance students’ sense of connectedness at school, class and grade-based activities should be designed in a way that allows day-to-day interactions and sharing that involve every one of them. Teachers may display all of their students’ work in the classroom, emphasising that no piece of work is superior to others and that every student as a member of the group should have mutual respect for one another. In addition, celebratory activities can be organised from time to time to create collective memories for students. Some may ask, “What else can we celebrate other than birthdays?” In this regard, teachers can make the best of their creativity. They may, for example, celebrate punctual attendance or homework submission by the whole class for a week. It is also important to make students feel recognised because they will open up themselves and express their feelings and thoughts only when they feel secure. Establishing a sense of connectedness may be more difficult for students with weaker social communication skills or traumatic experiences. Schools and parents should therefore spend more efforts and time to help them develop mutual trust among themselves.

 

Appropriate use of games for boosting mental fortitude

 

     School is a place for learning. Positive emotions as a catalyst will help make learning more effective. As such, teachers are encouraged to use activities and games in teaching to foster interactions with and among students. Indeed, apart from evoking positive emotions, games can foster rapport among players. Since games are generally accompanied by rules for winning and losing, with effective feedback from teachers that emphasises the importance of using strategies and making efforts, they will provide a good opportunity for students to develop a sense of connectedness and strengthen their mental fortitude. Students will learn to co-operate with others, face challenges together and experience failures, whereby they can practice emotion regulation and understand it is the efforts and strategies that matter throughout the game.

 

Home-school partnership in caring for our children

 

     Emotional education is an integral part of enhancing mental health. Emotions like happiness, anger, sadness and joy are part of human nature. They are neither good nor bad and serve their own important functions. It is only when we are aware of our feelings at the moment can we realise the need to deal with our emotions. Depression is an emotion that is usually associated with suicidal behaviour. Schools and parents should take an early opportunity to teach children how to identify the symptoms of depression so that they can seek help as soon as possible. It is normal to feel upset and disappointed when things do not go our way in life. We can see it as an opportunity to understand our own expectations and appreciate who and what matter to us. Students in prolonged emotional distress are more likely to have mood swings. They may feel helpless, display physical symptoms like sleep problems and appetite changes, or develop persistent negative thoughts such as feeling themselves worthless. It could be a sign of depression if negative emotions have exerted significant impact on their everyday life. If not dealt with in a timely manner, such emotions may induce a loss in concentration and motivation to learn, leading to a decline in academic performance, or, in worse case scenarios, suicidal ideation or behaviour. During challenging times, such as after long holidays and before and after tests, examinations and distribution of report cards, schools are encouraged to, on one hand, organise activities to strengthen students’ sense of connectedness and, on the other hand, remind students to pay attention to their negative emotions and use appropriate means to alleviate them. Schools should also encourage students to seek help and let them understand that experiencing negative emotions at times is normal.

 

     Schools and parents are advised to watch out for students with mental health needs. To facilitate early identification of and care for these students, relevant resources, such as the resources pack for supporting students facing class resumption, the pamphlet on “How to Help Children with Depression” under the “Caring for Children’s Mental Health” Parent Education Series, and the factsheet for parents: Safeguard Children’s Mental Health – Prevent Youth Suicide, are made available for reference on the “Mental Health@School” website (mentalhealth.edb.gov.hk/en/).

 

     While we are still living in the shadow of the epidemic, we should stay positive and optimistic at all times and help our students lead a healthy and happy school life by giving them care and support.

29 September 2022