What Is an Advisory Period and How Do Schools Use It?

Some of us may recall our high school homeroom, that short class before first period during which the teacher took attendance. Announcements were also made, either by the teacher or over the loud speaker. Often, not much else happened.

But over the past several decades, many schools have retained that nonacademic time and — rooted in the belief that students do better when they feel connected to their teachers and schools are more personalized — replaced it with “advisory.”

A lot happens in advisory. New students get help opening their lockers. There’s academic help and discussions about how to deal with bullies. Some advisories last for 20 minutes, some for 50. Some meet every morning, others once a week. Some schools use a curriculum specifically for advisory classes; others let teachers create their own plans.

But the goal is always the same: Help students establish a closer relationship with a trusted adult in the school.

“When kids get to middle school they need a place where they are welcome and accepted. It’s such an uncertain time,” says Todd Brist, principal of Watertown Middle School in South Dakota. “We know kids need it, more than ever post-pandemic. Before they can learn they need to know they have an adult advocate and a home base.”

[READ: Supporting Your Child’s Transition to Middle School]

Making sure each student has a “parent” at the school is top priority for advisory, says Brist. The other priorities? Academic and behavioral support, study and social skills, relationship support, and digital citizenship.

The benefits of advisory, educators say, are mostly intangible. The period isn’t graded and most of the activities focus on building relationships, between students as well as between student and teachers. But the time it takes to develop a meaningful advisory period is worth it.

Helping Students Build Connections

Research backs up the idea that students do better in school when they feel more connected to their teachers and to the school overall. It’s less clear whether advisory specifically leads to better academic outcomes. But educators say it’s critical, especially in middle school.

Brist, who is the author of the forthcoming book “Successful Middle School Advisory,” stresses that advisory teachers are not school counselors, but they should work closely with those professionals. An advisory teacher may be the first to notice that a student needs help, and can pull counselors in to assist.

At Hampton Bays Middle School on Long Island in New York, middle schoolers start every day with 15 minutes of advisory led by teachers that students will see later in their academic classes. But for that 15 minutes, the teacher might focus on time management, good social media habits or handling friendship challenges.

“A big focus for us is that kids have a go-to person,” says assistant principal Diane Fox. “It could be their advisory teacher or another teacher. But during the first month of school we ask them all to identify the person they’ll go to if they need help.”

The approach has paid off, Fox says. Once, a student at Fox’s school approached her advisory teacher privately and said she was worried about her friend. She seemed depressed, the student said. When a school counselor did a wellness check with the friend, she admitted that she was struggling.

[READ: Understanding School-Based Mental Health Services.]

“It’s just as important to have advisory in high school,” says Fox. “But in middle school it’s important to let kids know they’re not going through things alone.”

From Academics to Self-Awareness

At Hampton Bays, teachers decide for themselves how to use advisory time, based on what their students need. Students who need help with academics might spend the time with that subject area teacher to get help. If there has been interpersonal drama, the teacher may spend time talking about healthy friendship skills.

Other schools follow a curriculum. At Sergeant Bluff-Luton High School, near Sioux City, Iowa, a team of teachers develops an advisory course framework, which includes state assessment preparation, community service and a self-awareness inventory. Students use this assessment to find out what their learning styles are and what college or career interests they may have.

[READ: How Schools Incorporate Social-Emotional Learning]

Freshmen there are assigned to advisory classes of just 16 other students. Grades are mixed and the group stays together for the full four years, adding new students as others graduate. The class works as a team, competing with other advisories in the school on academic and engineering challenges. At the end of the year, they compete in a “Jeopardy!”-style schoolwide quiz game. The winning class gets a trophy.

“We’re trying to create a community within our building,” says principal Jason Klingensmith. “We have fun and do academic things to build a sense of camaraderie, belonging, accomplishment and pride.”

A Space for Deep Conversation

A good advisory program isn’t always easy to set up, educators say. Some parents, when they hear that time will be spent on subjects that aren’t graded, complain that crucial minutes are being wasted.

But educators say that advisory periods are an effective way to systematize support and make it routine.

“You’re going to spend the time helping kids no matter what,” says Brist. “Do you want to do it upfront, in an organized way? Or retroactively when students are struggling? This way we address issues proactively and we’re all singing from the same sheet of music.”

Teachers may need support too when leading advisory. As content-area experts, they may not be as experienced with the kind of skills these classes focus on. In some districts, teachers get professional development to lead advisory courses. In others, tips and techniques are discussed in staff meetings.

“We emulate activities and icebreakers to get kids talking,” says Fox. “Parents are seeing it, too — the decline in social skills and mental health. They’ll ask us if we can have more of these conversations with their kids.”

In many schools, advisory is a time for deep conversations about issues within the school and community. These may be related to acceptance and diversity, Brist says, and they could touch on topics such as sexual identity, race and gender. Overall, advisory is the place where important subjects that aren’t in the academic curriculum can come up.

“It’s about the ‘unwritten curriculum’,” says Brist. “Schools have a big responsibility to take these (topics) on in 2023.”

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What Is an Advisory Period and How Do Schools Use It? originally appeared on usnews.com

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