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Making connections: A forgotten but essential education need

Making Connections Blog For 18.01.22 Web

Dr Amanda McNamee Senior Mental Fitness Scientist, Fika

Over the past two years, young people have missed out on a world of experiences, education and events. It’s fair to say all areas of their lives have been impacted. But as a nation, we have focused on education as the most significant loss. The Government’s Education Recovery Plan is making efforts to ensure that no child is left behind – but what about the social skills young people sorely need to catch up on?   

The importance of connection with others 

While it is critical that educational gaps are plugged, social skills – which are vital in enabling young people to get on in life and forge successful careers – need to be developed. 

In fact, one need that spans all areas of life, which was arguably the hardest hit for our young people during lockdown, is connection with others. Young people have missed contact and face-to-face social experiences with peer groups, friends, family, tutors, educators and coaches.  

Connection builds confidence and trust between people, it’s the foundation of the bonds we form and build upon. It is also an essential school and workplace skill that is positively linked to motivation, behaviour, learning and engagement. There is a wealth of neuroscientific evidence that the sense of belonging that comes from connectedness has a significant positive impact on learning, retaining, and applying knowledge and skills.  

Connection, retention and social interaction 

Of equal importance, connection has been presented as one of the top three predictors for student retention. It helps to promote academic persistence, which in turn increases student retention rates.  

Similarly, a lack of connection experienced through constant virtual engagement can result in an increased sense of isolation and fatigue which can negatively impact wellbeing and academic success. Specifically, time management and attention can fall victim to prolonged periods of virtual learning and reduced opportunities for social interaction. 

Connection is particularly important for students of colour from underrepresented social groups, as it fosters a sense of belonging and improves retention. First-generation and economically disadvantaged students are also at high risk of dropping out and benefit especially from increased connection.  

Bell (2008) found that there is one factor that students point to again and again when asked why they are leaving and that is people. For this reason alone, we cannot support our young people's post-pandemic educational recovery by focusing exclusively on education. We need to take a more holistic view to support social, emotional and educational recovery as part of the one effort. 

To ensure the success of education recovery, we need to implement structured mental fitness training alongside offering tutors support with the academic learning effort. In a recent study by Rasco (2020), students receiving an intervention to promote peer-connection were significantly less likely to drop out than their peers in the control group. This suggests that there is a place for this type of training in education, to benefit learners and the institutions where they are enrolled. 

Introducing an evidence-based intervention 

As part of a Foundation year of Mental fitness, Fika and NCFE have partnered to deliver an evidence-based intervention in Mental Fitness to 69 FE centres. The curriculum comprises seven skills trained at key times of the academic year: connection, confidence, motivation, positivity, stress, focus and meaning.

Following a return of face-to-face education, connection was the first skill delivered to learners. Returning to the classroom had the potential to be daunting and knowing that connections and relationships make the world go round, we knew learning the skills and techniques to connect with others would be essential for keeping mentally fit and facilitating a positive return for learners.  

Staff at one FE college told us: “It’s daunting forming new relationships at college anyway, but coming out of Covid has made this even harder for learners. The connection course helps to foster and support these friendships”.  

During eight weeks from September to November 2021, 17,870 FE learners completed over 45,000 connection exercises, equating to 3,800 hours of learning. These learning hours resulted in a 14% increase of learners’ average connection scores. It is worth noting that this education and training involved learning psychologically evidenced exercises to develop connection skills, and not just facilitating small-talk in the classroom.  

Learn more about Fika and how NCFE is supporting staff and learners across FE with mental fitness training.

Written by Dr Amanda McNamee, Senior Mental Fitness Scientist at Fika 


Pym et al., (2011) 

Does belonging matter?: Exploring the role of social connectedness as a critical factor in students' transition to higher education  

Rasco et al., (2020) 

(PDF) Student Retention: Fostering Peer Relationships Through a Brief Experimental Intervention  

A lack of connection experienced through constant virtual engagement can result in an increased sense of isolation and fatigue which can negatively impact wellbeing and academic success.

Dr Amanda McNamee, Senior Mental Fitness Scientist at Fika