The Challenge of Advisory and Why it’s Worth the Effort

Successful advisory programs can have significant positive impacts on student engagement

By: Matt Pearsall


Does this sound familiar?

Advisory programs? What a waste of time! Students just goof around.

Advisory programs? Great idea, but who's going to put it together? I'm way too busy already.

Advisory programs? What we need is more time for academics, not less.

Advisory program? My last school had one but it didn't work. Be careful!

Advisory programs are one of the cornerstones of the middle school model, but if you're thinking about starting an advisory program at your school, you've probably heard one of the above statements. To be honest, there's truth behind each of them. Advisory programs are hard to implement, and if a program has problems, things can quickly go downhill. Students won't take it seriously, staff will resent the prep they have to do and the time it takes away from academic classes, and eventually the advisory program will be canceled and everyone involved will carry forth the story of its failure as they move through their careers. This is more or less my experience teaching advisory, it's my wife's experience, it's the experience of numerous educators I've spoken with, and according to the academic research on advisory programs, it's a common experience across middle level education.

But it doesn't have to be this way. Successful advisory programs are out there in all types of schools, and when you hear from staff how it can change a school environment and support student success you'll realize why advisory programs are worth the effort.

What are Advisory Programs?

In 1989, a report from the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development highlighted the growing awareness among researchers and educators that adolescents who attend schools intentionally organized to create personal connections between students and staff are more successful both in school and later in life. Since that time, schools serving adolescents, and especially those serving the middle grades, have worked in various ways to create opportunities for students and staff to build these connections. The Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE) recognizes that this is a key component of adolescents' education. In This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents, AMLE states that "Academic success and personal growth increase markedly when young adolescents' affective needs are met. Each student must have one adult to support that student's academic and personal development." One of the most common strategies used to foster these important personal connections is the advisory program.

Advisories are regularly scheduled periods within a school schedule set aside for staff to work closely with students on things not normally covered in academic classes. These programs vary tremendously from school to school, both in what they focus on and the amount of time devoted to them. Usually they center around creating a space where students can form closer bonds with staff and students than they would in their academic classes. Advisories also allow schools to foster a more personal connection between students and their education.

The theory of advisory programs builds on the idea that as students enter adolescence their need to build healthy relationships with school staff grows. Research points to many positive outcomes for students who have a personal connection to their education. They are more likely to have stronger academic outcomes, better attendance, higher academic expectations, positive self-concept, and make healthier social and lifestyle choices.

Just when students need these connections the most, forming them becomes more difficult. Instead of a single classroom and a single primary teacher, students have multiple teachers, and each of those teachers may be responsible for 150 students or more. This makes it difficult for teachers to forge relationships with their students, especially those who need the relationships the most. Making this even more difficult, adolescents are, well, adolescents, and may resist forming relationships with any adults, especially school staff. Advisories help to counteract this trend by creating a dedicated space where students and staff can put the work into establishing these relationships.

Advisors are able to get to know their students, monitor their academic progress, and build a relationship that may allow them to intervene in discipline issues more effectively than school administrators. Advisory also offers students the opportunity to form close bonds with their peers under the guidance of their advisory teacher. As adolescents increasingly turn to their peers for social validation, the environment of an advisory class affords them a safe place where they can practice developing healthy, age-appropriate identities through peer discussion and personal reflection. For students who come from troubled backgrounds, this is particularly important, as an advisory class may serve as the only place in their lives where they can practice this in an emotionally safe environment. In fact, advisory programs offer a host of benefits to adolescents that are struggling with adversity in their lives. While advisory programs have shown a positive effect on student attendance in general, research suggests that this effect is more pronounced with students who are academically struggling.

Are Advisory Programs Worth the Effort?

While, in theory, advisory programs can play a key role in supporting adolescents, the reality of advisory programs is much messier. More so than any other core tenet put forward by AMLE, advisory programs have proved difficult to successfully implement and maintain. Much of this stems from the lack of a single set of best practices to use as a blueprint for setting up advisory programs.

What's Your Experience with Advisory?

Building advisory programs is hard. It can seem like a daunting challenge with few concrete guideposts to follow. Learning from experience makes it easier. If you've been a part of a successful advisory program, share your story with your colleagues. Share it on blogs, in social media, or at conferences. Get a soapbox and shout about it from street corners. Contact me (mpearsall@cfchildren.org) with your story and I'll help you shout. Your knowledge and experience is extremely valuable to those who are working to establish advisory programs.

Establishing a successful advisory program means looking beyond what others have done—even others within the same district—and customizing a program to meet the needs and address the challenges of students and staff at the building level. Students at one school may need support in attendance, while another school may need support building positive peer relationships. Advisory coordinators at one school may have the time and resources to organize detailed activities, while at another school they may scramble to come up with lessons during their lunch period. One district may mandate 100 minutes of advisory time each week, while another may only allow 20 minutes.

The lack of best practices for implementing advisory leads to many thorny questions for people looking to launch a new program. What will you teach in advisory? What will engage your students? Will there be lessons, discussions, or projects? Who will create the advisory materials? Will those people have the time and resources to create high quality materials? How can you get staff buy-in? The answers to these questions vary from school to school, but addressing these issues up front is critical to the success of advisories and is exactly what makes building successful advisory programs so hard.

It's hard, but not impossible. While there's no off-the-shelf solution to these challenges, you don't need to start from scratch. Here are some tips for building a successful program:

Listen. Find schools with successful advisories—find out what they do and what they did to get there. Use their experiences as inspiration.

Don't reinvent the wheel. There is quality published advisory curricula available; use these resources as building blocks for your custom program.

Be patient. Take the time to create a strong plan for your advisory program and gain support for it among building staff before implementing it.

Yes, Advisories are Worth the Effort!

Despite the challenges, advisory remains a prominent part of middle level education. The issues it addresses are real, especially for high needs populations and students facing difficulties in their lives. It's why the district I taught in never gave up on advisory, and it's why my wife's school is looking to try it again.

When successful, these programs can have significant positive impacts on many key indicators of students' engagement with their education, from decreased referrals and less staff time devoted to behavior management to increased attendance and a greater sense of belonging and community.

Perhaps it's because of this potential for positive impact that schools like mine, my wife's, or maybe yours, keep returning to advisory. When it works, it can have such a profound effect on schools and student success.


Matt Pearsall is a program developer at Committee for Children who now uses his teaching experience to write curriculum for the Second Step program. While he misses the energy and challenges of teaching, he relishes creating materials that can help thousands of teachers and their students every day.
mpearsall@cfchildren.org
linkedin.com/in/mattpearsall

Published in AMLE Magazine, October 2017.

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