Belonging and Connections Are Key to Success at School | Trafalgar Castle School
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December 04, 2023

Belonging and Connections Are Key to Success at School

Melissa Nowakowski

As adults, thinking back to our school years, many of us could say that the classroom was where we first discovered our sense of belonging. At the same time, many of us weren’t equipped with innate skills that supported our understanding of our thoughts and emotions or how our classroom lessons would impact our lives in the future—those skills had to be honed through years of trial and error. 

Today, with mental health at the forefront, such skills are crucial, and thankfully, today’s young people have access to tools and systems through Social Emotional Learning (SEL).

SEL is an educational approach that fosters the development of unique interpersonal and emotional skills to help students build self-awareness, understand and manage their emotions, cultivate positive relationships and make responsible decisions. SEL empowers students with the emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills necessary for success in various aspects of life by developing emotional regulation, positive relationship-building and increased engagement with classroom content. 

The SEL concept first came into the spotlight in 2002 when Psychologist Martin Seligman highlighted the positive impact of SEL on academic achievement. Since then, hundreds of studies have shown that students who participate in SEL have higher levels of “school functioning,” reflected in everything from their grades and test scores to attendance, homework and achievement extending beyond the school walls.  

At Trafalgar Castle School, SEL has long been woven into the very fabric of the School.

“Finding one’s sense of belonging sometimes takes time, and one would assume that in a small school, that’s easy. Yet what we know about adolescence is that building connections often requires learned skills,” says Kate Hebdon, Deputy Head of Trafalgar Castle School. “When a student feels comfortable in an environment built on strong relational connections, they can learn and thrive in academics, essential life skills and overall well-being. SEL is rather intrinsic here at Trafalgar Castle School. The intentional opportunities created in the operational aspects of the School are foundational for our students to build a strong sense of belonging.”

“Social Emotional Learning is crucial as it supports the development of each student holistically.” adds Shantel Clark, Dean of Students, “Cultivating emotional intelligence, resilience, and positive interpersonal skills is important work that we do here at Trafalgar. Our students can build their confidence in a small-by-design environment. Social Emotional Learning creates a supportive and empowering school community as students mature into adulthood.” 

There are many ways in which Trafalgar Castle School weaves SEL into school life. Beyond connecting with one’s peers in their own grade, an established House System ensures students in Grades 4 through 12 are cross-pollinated into one of four Houses. These Houses collaborate and participate in school spirit activities and challenges together throughout the year.

Then there’s Trafalgar’s Advisor program, which was developed to create a safe place for expressing emotions and fostering social and emotional development. Led by Trafalgar faculty, the program brings together a small group of students from grades 9 through 12 for twice-weekly “check-ins” with each other and purpose-built activities that connect to community building and self-care. 

“Having Advisor twice a week ensures that an adult checks in with students in a capacity beyond class time.” Hebdon explains, “Often, Advisors are the ones who notice if a student is struggling and can connect that student with the care they might need from our Dean of Students or Dean of Academics.”

In addition, students participate in a Peer Support Group that facilitates small group activities and discussions to further encourage meaningful connections. Assemblies bring the school community together around core values, often hosting inspiring guest speakers from a wide array of professions, and the “Big Sister/Little Sister” mentorship program enhances a sense of belonging and community across Lower, Middle and Upper School. The School’s Prefect group encourages social connectivity among their fellow students and provides guidance and leadership, while the Trafalgar Activity and Spirit Council (TASC) leads fun activities to create enthusiasm and foster school spirit. Then there are clubs and ‘Take Time Thursdays’ when like-minded students across all grades come together for activities based on similar interests. These events and programs are embedded into the day rather than the edges of the day.

“Students learn to connect with other students who are older or younger and across grade and social landscapes,” says Hebdon. “Intentional opportunities to find one’s place is important as students develop a sense of themselves in relation to what school and community means to them.”

“We are incredibly fortunate as a school community to have so many entry points for our learners to practise and develop social-emotional skills.” Clark adds, “These intentional experiences in Grades 4 to 12 are the building blocks students need to discover who they are as human beings. Our important work here is helping to support our students in this discovery.” 

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