Today’s students face a variety of pressures ranging from the prevalence of social media to the aftermath of pandemic isolation – two of many factors that can impact student well-being in the school community, and in turn, affect academic growth.
Support from educators and peers can mean the difference between struggling and thriving in the school environment. To support independent schools’ focus on engagement, belonging, and social and emotional skills, data can help inform educators’ decision-making in effectively building healthy communities and supporting student well-being.
Measuring Well-Being Offers Actionable Insights
In collaboration with Character Lab, ERB developed the Check-In Survey in 2022 to help member schools take the pulse of their communities. The 15-question survey, which takes less just 10 minutes to administer, assesses student attitudes about their level of academic engagement, emotional well-being, and sense of fairness and belonging. By repeating the assessment throughout the year, schools can identify areas for improvement and identify trends at the individual and cohort levels.
During the 2022-2023 school year, 14 ERB member schools piloted the Check-In Survey with over 2,000 students in grades 4-8. They also provided ERB with additional demographic data—including self-identified race, ethnicity, gender, financial aid status, and any learning disabilities—to gain further insights into students’ perceptions and challenges. The study, explored in detail in an upcoming ERB white paper, revealed both persistent challenges and powerful takeaways for educators.
1. School cultures vary significantly.
Academic engagement, or the degree to which students report being interested and engaged in their classes, is a key predictor of long-term outcomes. The ERB pilot study revealed significant differences in overall academic engagement among schools, suggesting a wide range of distinctive school cultures. The study also found a lesser but still significant degree of variation among schools in students’ sense of fairness and belonging, while emotional well-being varies relatively little across schools.
2. A sense of belonging supports emotional well-being and engagement.
Across schools, a strong sense of belonging predicts both increased emotional well-being and academic engagement, a pattern that aligns with existing research in the area. Students who feel comfortable and relaxed at school are happier and less stressed, which means they are more likely to engage deeply with their classes.
3. Growth and development also impact academic engagement and emotional well-being.
The age range studied in the pilot—grades 4-8—is a time of pronounced change for students due to adolescence. While students’ sense of fairness and belonging did not change significantly across grade levels, emotional well-being and academic engagement both track closely with age.
Across pilot schools, students’ emotional well-being declined significantly in sixth grade but remained steady through eighth grade. Academic engagement, on the other hand, fell each year starting in the sixth grade. This finding is consistent with national trends, which show that engagement with coursework tends to go down each year.
4. A sense of belonging is critical for students of color.
In nearly every school surveyed, students of color and white students reported statistically identical levels of belonging at school, a remarkable achievement. However, while all students are happier and more engaged if they feel a sense of belonging, the effect is more pronounced for students of color. If students of color don’t feel they fit within the school community, they are more likely to experience declines in emotional well-being and academic engagement. This may be because their sense of exclusion reinforces existing concerns about being “different.”
5. Engagement and emotional well-being vary by gender.
Girls and boys in the pilot survey reported feeling similar levels of fairness and belonging. However, girls showed higher average levels of academic engagement than their male classmates. They also showed lower levels of emotional well-being than boys, with more stress and more frequent swings between happiness and sadness. This gap in well-being also grows steadily wider starting in sixth grade, suggesting that adolescence may pose additional challenges for girls.
“I have long believed that our schools can be truly excellent only to the extent they are attentive to every dimension of student well-being. That process starts with benchmarking and tracking how students feel about several key dimensions of their lives.”
— Dominic A.A. Randolph, Former Head of School at Riverdale Country School; Co-Founder of Character Lab
Using Data to Inform School Culture Initiatives
As the pilot data show, the intersection between fairness and belonging, academic engagement, and emotional well-being is complex and mediated by factors like age, race, and gender, with individual school cultures playing a significant role. More than ever, school leaders and teachers need accurate, specific data about their students’ attitudes about well-being to design and iterate programs and personalize instruction that will foster student growth.
Learn more about the Check-In Survey and how ERB can support your school’s culture-building efforts. We will publish a white paper in the coming weeks with the complete findings of the pilot study, which will be available to ERB member schools.
Learn more about ERB Check-In Survey to quickly take the pulse of student attitudes about their emotional well-being, academic engagement, and fairness and belonging in their school community. You can also request information about becoming an ERB member school and our portfolio of assessments and measurement tools to inform whole student growth.