Leadership: Meeting Students’ Academic and Emotional Needs Simultaneously

Dr. Rick N. Bolling
Dr. Rick N. Bolling
Elementary/middle school principal; Ed.D. in Leadership
Young boy smiling and sitting at a desk across from a teacher.

It is essential for school leaders to consider the whole child when addressing student needs. Children are complex and bring experiences and traumas to the school each day. Adults still bring struggles daily, but are better equipped to focus on the task at hand. As students develop, schools must address all their needs simultaneously. An effective school leader understands this concept and knows it is impossible to run a successful learning community without considering and addressing students’ emotional needs.

Relationships are foundations of effective schools. A student must know that the teacher or principal cares about them individually. This productive relationship is often the prerequisite for the student caring about his or her own learning. Likewise, addressing a student’s emotional needs is a prerequisite for being able to address academic concerns. Emotional needs are rooted in survival and these needs will overcome a child’s mind if they are not addressed. As such, school leaders must build support networks within the school.

By working to get to know and advocate for students’ emotional needs, school leaders will build strong relationships. When the student feels secure in a safe learning environment that is conducive to learning, student academic growth will be heightened. The key is for school leaders to not see addressing emotional needs as an add-on, but rather the foundation for all other pieces. Effective school leaders care first and then help students rise to high expectations.

Determine Areas of Priority

When determining areas of priority, triage must be considered as the most pressing needs must rise to the top. In general, emotional needs must be met before academic needs. Students need focus to be able to grow and excel academically. It is difficult for students to focus with pressing emotional needs. Students who are afraid, lonely, scared, hungry, or anxious are not likely to make academics a top priority.

Furthermore, some emotional needs are truly survival needs. As such, crisis situations must have the ultimate priority. Students who are in potential danger and/or may not have basic human survival needs met at the current time must be given priority focus by school leadership.

Of course, schools are in the education business so meeting students’ academic needs should be a top priority. If the emotional needs are ongoing and not likely to rise to crisis level, a blended approach to meeting emotional and academic needs should be considered. For instance, if a child feels isolated and alone, the teacher can make attempts to get to know the student and draw them into class discussions. Building relationships with students will pay off in multiple ways. First, the student’s emotional needs will be met. Next, the student will be able to focus on key academic skills. Finally, the student will know the teacher cares and will want to do well. As such, the approach should be to work smarter with a genuine care for the whole child as opposed to adding additional duties. The leader should aim to build a school culture that focuses on the needs of the whole child to build a climate that is safe, nurturing, and conducive to learning.

Questions for Prioritizing

Who?

Students who are experiencing crisis situations in which the emotional needs border on lack of basic survival needs should take absolute priority. Examples would be students who are experiencing physical, verbal, or sexual abuse situations. Further, lack of adequate housing, food, and basic utilities present emotional needs at the crisis level. One final crisis scenario is when a student’s emotional needs leads to self-harm or suicidal thoughts. All of these situations take absolute priority and must be resolved before academic needs are considered.

Other students also need emotional needs satisfied in a timely manner which may include daily attention with less intensive intervention services. Students who need attention, reassurance, and calming also need their needs met as they move through academic content. All students who are at-risk need timely attention, but these ongoing needs can be met by school leaders, teachers, and other staff as academic instruction continues simultaneously.

What?

When considering what to do, leaders should prioritize people and relationships. Investments in getting to know students and all other stakeholders as individuals pays off both emotionally and academically. Students are more likely to feel supported and secure in an environment that knows them as people. In return, their minds will be more clear and focused. With limited resources and time often the sparsest of the resources, all activities must be proven to produce results. Considerable research links school climate and culture with increased student achievement. Further, research cites academic gains being linked to effective stakeholder relationships in a school.

When?

School leaders cannot create more time in the day, but they can use the time provided to its fullest for purposeful and relevant instruction that aims to meet both students’ emotional and academic needs. Aside from crisis situations, addressing emotional and academic needs should be woven together throughout the school day. Leaders need to build a climate where students are excited, motivated, and engaged in daily instruction. Further, inquiry-based learning should include dialogue that helps meet the emotional needs of students. Letting students know that their presence is valued is a simple way to build rapport and meet emotional needs.

In addition, transitions provide wonderful opportunities to check on students and address emotional needs. During transitions to lunch, class switches, and before school, leaders should talk to students and help work through any concerns. Effective leaders know they must be visible, model the way, and make good use of all time.

Furthermore, academic assignments can be more project-based. By helping students build social skills, the students will become more emotionally intelligent. In this process, schools do not Band-Aid emotional needs, but rather teach self-help and coping skills.

Where?

Emotional and academic needs must be met in all areas of the school community. School leaders can model the way and have expectations for all staff to help students grow. All faculty and staff can build relationships with students that meet emotional needs.

Also, meeting students’ emotional needs is not limited to the school building. Attending student games and social events goes a long way toward letting students know that school personnel cares. These efforts will help meet students’ emotional needs, while building relationships that will lead to heightened academic achievement.

How?

In general caring for a student’s emotional needs is more important than addressing academic needs. People are thought of and remembered for how they made you feel not how much academic content they imparted. Yet, it would be naïve in an accountability world to speak only about meeting emotional needs, but meeting these needs will make meeting academic goals much more realistic. As such, time investment in meeting a student’s emotional needs is not an add-on, but rather a foundation and investment.

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