Concerned about student mental health during the COVID pandemic and some of the civil unrest of the past few years, the School District of Philadelphia developed an online student wellbeing survey.
“Being majority Black and Brown students, we recognize that these two incidents were magnified for our students,” says Shannon Ellis, Executive Director of School Climate and Culture Initiatives for the district, who administers the survey. “So it’s definitely a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and just understanding why our students need to feel loved and supported and welcomed and seen and appreciated.”
“We saw nationwide this increased need and then also attention to social-emotional wellbeing for students,” adds Dylan Van Duyne, an equity training specialist for the School District of Philadelphia, adding that the district piloted the survey in the 2020-21 school year. “What we saw during COVID was that we can't simply focus on academic outcomes. We also have to think about what student belongingness looks like in this online world.”
The Student Well-being Survey is a five-minute school climate assessment that each student (in grades 3-12) is asked to complete. In short, the survey explores how students feel about their experiences and relationships at school. Currently, nearly two-thirds of the district’s students complete the survey.
The data gathered by the survey is used to identify groups that may be struggling and facing challenges, and then guide equity efforts and social-emotional supports.
Creating A Wellbeing Survey
After the original series of survey questions was developed by Abigail Gray, the district’s deputy chief of school climate and culture, one of the initial challenges of the process was getting student participation, even with top leadership buy-in.
“When we initially rolled out the survey, we were administering the survey monthly, and we learned that that was too frequent for schools to have teachers have students complete the survey and then for us to give them the data back,” says Ellis. “It just was too quick.”
The survey is now administered quarterly through the student online portal, which has boosted participation. It is available to be taken for a set period of time, and can be completed during school hours, through a student’s phone, or from home later.
Having a quarterly survey allows for the progress monitoring to be built in, says Van Duyne. “It's not like we're asking teachers to take on a huge new lift of creating their own novel survey,” he says. “We already have four windows for this survey, so we're able to see quarter-to-quarter what that growth looks like.”
Survey questions are aligned with the five social-emotional competencies--relationship building, social awareness, problem-solving, self-awareness, and self-care. These are broken down into three categories: adult-student relationships, peer relationships, and self development. Each category has four to five questions per category.
The adult-student relationship questions are designed to determine if a student feels as if an adult from the school cares about them or says something positive to them, both of which are part of forming positive relationships.
For example, as a result of data from the survey one school successfully implemented a “2x10” strategy in which a staff member talks to a student for two minutes per day for 10 days in a row about non-academic subjects. The school’s scores have increased positively since then.
While monitoring the responses to the peer relationship questions for high school students, the district found that peer relationships have a statistically significant relationship with STAR (standardized testing and reporting) data. Having positive peer relationships seems to correlate to better academic performance on assessments.
“So I think that speaks volumes and it might be intuitive, right?” says Van Duyne. “Like okay, we know that students are going to come to school for the attendance piece, as they do better in school when they have strong relationships with their peers, but then to actually see that trait’s correlation to STAR scores has been useful.”
Due to the interruptions in in-class learning due to the pandemic, students have struggled with social-emotional aspects of their education, in particular, their self-regulation and self-development. Learning to navigate those situations is an ongoing learning challenge for many students.
“One of the questions is, ‘I learned something to help me deal with my feelings,’ which is different from the question, ‘I was able to deal with my feelings in a healthy way’,” says Van Duyne. “What are the skills that we're teaching in school so that students when they encounter that tricky emotion–whether it's anger, whether it's sadness, whether it's frustration–they have a skill that they can use to be able to process that in a healthy way.”
For example, the district recently saw that some of the student-athletes were struggling, so the social-emotional learning team, led by Ellis, spent time with the athletic directors to better educate them about the SEL support available for students.
Advice for Districts Looking to Create a Wellbeing Survey
For other schools considering implementing a student wellbeing survey, Ellis suggests making sure survey questions are easy to read/understand and developmentally appropriate. Also consider questions that are specifically related to your school or district. “For example, one question that we changed is last year we asked ‘I was afraid of another student.’ And we're actually changing it this year to ‘There's too much fighting at my school.’ And that is because some students can be afraid of other students for other reasons other than the specific climate of the school.”
Another question recently changed is “I was treated unfairly because of my race, gender, etc.” It’s now been split into “I was treated unfairly by an adult . . .” and “I was treated unfairly by a student because of how I look, dress, talk, or act.” “And yes, that does encompass culture,” says Ellis, “but we know that our students can understand that better.”
When administering a survey like this, Van Duyne encourages transparency, communication, and collaboration. “My advice would be when creating the surveys, make sure you're not just hearing from principals, assistant principals, you're not just hearing from teachers,” he says. “We're also hearing from climate staff, counselors, and community members about what the specific questions are on the survey.”
That transparency extends to the staff and even the students themselves, who can access the data through the school portal. “Our high school students are very interested in the survey data, and how their schools and how we as a district are responding,” says Ellis. “We go back to the Student Advisory Board meeting and show them their suggestions or things that we are looking to do, and we show them what we actually did districtwide to respond to the survey data.”
Van Duyne also points out that once you have the data, it’s critical to disaggregate it to really drill down on how to use it to boost equity and support students. The data for each survey is posted by the School Climate and Culture department for public viewing on the district’s website. “We had a leader in our network who said, ‘Okay, I'm finding that it is Black and Latino females in my school who are reporting the lowest adult student relationship scores,’” he says. “So then from that, she had a series of student focus groups where she learned from the voices of the students and then that was something that she then shared back with the whole staff.”
Ultimately, anything to help students feel better about themselves and their mental health is all part of ensuring success in school and beyond.
“We understand that when people feel loved and we feel safe, and we feel supported, that we will perform better,” says Ellis. “And we want to graduate students who can go out into the world and live their best lives and thrive.”