Many educators ask how to use advisory groups to support success in middle school and high school. I’ve been asked if a study skills curriculum is effective in advisory, or a social-emotional learning (SEL) curriculum, or an experiential education curriculum. They might all be useful resources, but the best purpose of advisory isn’t found in a curriculum or mandated standards or a test. The purpose is best derived from your students. Advisory is about fostering advisees’ progress, not strictly following a curriculum. Try thinking of advisory as helping advisees connect to school, connect to each other, connect to their advisor, and connect to their own aspirations.
Embracing that view will help prevent advisory from being implemented as if it’s a class, no matter what kind of class. It’ll also help prevent advisory from being implemented as if it’s study hall or casual hangout time. Advisory should be a place where advisees get frequent practice in some of the skills found in study skills class or SEL lessons, such as goal-setting, communicating, or reflecting, but the biggest impacts come when those skills are practiced in the context of good relationships and authentic, meaningful topics and tasks.
Connecting to school
Connecting to school is crucial because kids who feel a sense of safety and belonging are more likely to attend consistently and participate effectively. Our brains are constantly checking our surroundings to see if we are physically safe, socially safe, and emotionally safe. If our brains sense a challenge to our identity, social standing, or health, our brains will be busy monitoring others and protecting ourselves. Optimal emotions for learning, such as relaxed alertness, will be elusive. So effective advisories should be a safe home base, helping advisees feel known rather than anonymous, and promote positive peer culture throughout school.
To foster a basic sense of safety and greater sense of connection and involvement to school, consider including
- Discussions and input on school policies
- Planting, painting, decorating, or other projects that help advisees feel ownership and pride in the physical surroundings of school
- Discussing school climate issues, perhaps treating advisories as focus groups following a climate survey so that advisees are helping interpret the data and creating proposals for improving climate
- Encouraging advisees to join teams or clubs and to attend events, supporting their struggles and progress, celebrating their accomplishments
- Well-crafted activities, presentations, and discussions that are done school-wide, or assemblies accompanied by discussions before and after in advisory, on bullying prevention, cyber-safety, or other specific issues that impact school climate
Connecting to each other
Teens simultaneously want to fit into their peer group and are developing their individual identities. Advisors can shape a community that welcomes differences within shared experiences and supportive parameters. A cornerstone of that atmosphere is developing a constructive culture of conversation (see Teaching the Whole Teen, pages 62-64) in which discussions are inclusive and supportive. Advisors can then model discussion formats and support advisees to identify topics and lead discussions. Additionally, advisors can introduce and establish routines for peer support on academics and personal challenges. Consider implementing advisory components that foster advisees connecting to each other, such as
- Inclusive conversations on meaningful and timely topics, with advisees’ input and even facilitation
- Rituals for birthdays, holidays, before and after vacations, designed by and led by advisees
- Collaborative service projects that foster a sense of personal and group efficacy and empathy for others
- Supporting each other through academic challenges, illnesses, life events, big decisions
If difficult personal, community, and world topics are avoided, we’re modeling that everyone is on their own dealing with public or private challenges and tragedies, that adults won’t support teens to make sense of events and build support systems. Advisory groups are ideal places to show quite the opposite – that resilience involves conversation, reflection, deliberation, problem solving, and connection to others.
Connecting to you, their advisor
“Strong, supported, and sustained relationships with caring adults provide an important space for youth to experiment, try out roles and behaviors, and receive feedback that helps to build an integrated identity.” (Nagoaka, Farrington, Ehrlich, and Heath, 2015) Each advisee is an individual needing to be noticed, supported, and advised. When you know your advisees well, you’ll be better able to offer useful suggestions and you’ll notice needs for referrals earlier; advisees are more likely to accept that help and feedback, and trust you enough to seek support. You can connect with advisees individually through
- Frequent friendly smiles
- Two-minute check-ins
- Regular individual conferencing on goals, strategies, projects, and progress related to their aspirations
Connecting to their own aspirations
Russell Quaglia (2014) explains that aspirations are not just dreams of the future. Dreams with no actions are hollow hopes. Aspirations are dreams combined with steps to reach them. Advisors can support both aspects – imagining a positive future and building the skills and attitudes to make progress toward that future. Young people with goals and passions and action steps headed in a future orientation can better weather setbacks and self-motivate.
Resources that include flexible goal-setting templates, reflections about learning habits, stories about persistence and varied pathways toward success can be helpful in this category, as can field trips, speakers, and interview projects. Also utilize resources with reflections and exercises that foster resilience through problem-solving skills, positive self-talk, and other coping skills. To help advisees explore, identify, and connect to their aspirations, advisory planning teams can look into:
- Explorations and reflections about interests – What do advisees like to do? What are they proud of? What do they wish they could do?
- Activities and projects having to do with the community and larger world – What issues do advisees care about? How would they like to make a difference? Who in the community do they respect? What roles can they envision for themselves?
- Explorations about career options – How would advisees describe an interesting day at work? Is it inside or outside? What are they wearing? Would they prefer to work with things, ideas, or people? Who do they know who loves their job? What careers can they imagine themselves in?
- Group routines and individual exercises for setting goals, identifying strategies to meet those goals, monitoring and adjusting the strategies, self-assessing, and continually learning and practicing problem solving and coping skills
- Individual advising to support the goals, strategies, and self-assessment, regularly employing asset-based feedback and coaching practices that foster positive visions and actions
- Doing internships or shadow-ships, with follow-up discussions in advisory
Advisory is an unfamiliar structure for many educators, a structure that needs planning and leading, but not the kind of planning or leading appropriate for classes. Schools the embrace the opportunities that implementing advisory offers to maximize relationships, voice, and connection see the benefits in student success and behavior, and in teachers learning new approaches that are effective in academic classrooms as well as in advisories.
For more information on planning effective advisory groups, see The Advisory Guide: Designing and Implementing Effective Advisory Programs in Secondary Schools (Poliner & Lieber, 2004). For examples of exercises, reflections, and discussions serving many of the suggestions above, see The Advisory Guide and Teaching the Whole Teen: Everyday Practice the Promote Success and Resilience in School and Life (Poliner & Benson, 2016).