December 16, 2020

How to strengthen school culture in 2021: Key insights from The Social Institute

By Micah Adams, Head of Content at The Social Institute

Top Headlines

  • The Social Institute’s “Culture Check” quantifies students’ self-reported emotional state of mind throughout the course of the semester.
  • At the start of the school year, 87% of middle school students and 76% of high school students said they received the support they needed to succeed this fall.
  • Students are four times more likely than parents to say they “almost never” talk about their online experiences.
  • TikTok ranks as the most popular app among girls while YouTube is the most popular among boys.

On the heels of a long semester in which entire school communities redefined resilience, The Social Institute is eager to take what we learned about students in the fall of 2020 to equip and empower our partners in 2021 and beyond. 

Through our anonymous Culture Check feature, gamified #WinAtSocial lessons, and national survey results, we’re building data-driven insights and recommendations for schools looking for innovative solutions to address social-emotional well-being. As schools wrap up the fall with an eye towards the spring, we’ve put together several key takeaways to help guide and inform how schools address social-emotional learning following the winter break.

Measuring student emotions

For the first time this year, The Social Institute incorporated an interactive “Culture Check” into our #WinAtSocial platform.  After logging in to play, students select one of nine different emotions based on how they are feeling in the moment. It’s completely anonymous and entirely optional. 

30% of all students selected “Meh” which made it by far the most popular emotion felt this fall. Both happy (18%) and excited (13%) surpassed reported totals for drained (9%), stressed (7%) and angry (5%).

Every school has access to its own “Culture Check” to assess its student body’s overall emotional state. In addition to viewing comprehensive responses, schools can filter by date, while individual trainers can drill down to see how their class responded on any given day. Want to see how emotions change in the weeks leading up to exams? Or in the wake of a particular period? Our Partner schools can now do it.

Students felt set up for success

Our #WinAtSocial LIVE lessons address timely, relevant topics and give students the opportunity to reflect on the biggest issues impacting their world.

The first lesson of the semester challenged students to consider how to best set up their school for success. In addition to brainstorming solutions, 87% of middle school students and 76% of high school students said they received the support they needed to succeed this fall.

As requested by many of our partner schools, #WinAtSocial LIVE also addressed reactions and emotions related to the 2020 Presidential election. 66% of all students said the election was more stressful than they thought it would be while 65% of high school students said their schools do not do enough to educate students on the election.

Ample academic research from 2016, 2017, and 2018 suggests that election outcomes in our modern politically-charged climate have lasting effects on stress and anxiety. So while the election may be over, the emotional toll is likely to carry over into the new year.

Talking about online experiences at home

Our biggest piece of advice for schools and families learning to navigate the forever evolving social landscape? Talk… a lot! 

Unfortunately, there appears to be a disconnect over whether or not that’s actually happening.

Our annual parent survey, which featured nearly 700 responses, asked how often they talk to their children about what they experience online. Over 50% responded either a few times a week or almost daily, while only 7% said almost never. We asked the same question to nearly 6,000 students and only 34% responded either a few times a week or almost daily, while 28% said almost never.

Every #WinAtSocial lesson – both Curriculum and LIVE – includes three family discussion questions to continue the conversation at home. In addition, we also offer a Family Social Standards Agreement that every family can customize to meet their own needs. When asked about technology contracts at home, nearly 80% of parents said they either had one (16%) or were interested in having one (62%). 

Understanding how students socialize online 

While it’s hard to overstate social media’s impact on students’ social-emotional health, one of the most common mistakes adults consistently make when talking about it is generalizing every student’s experience. Both gender and age play significant roles in how students socialize online. 

TikTok reigns supreme for high school girls in our annual survey as 54% listed it among their three favorite apps, the only one to receive over 50% of the vote. But for high school boys, that number dips to just 22%, ranking below Snapchat, YouTube, PC/console gaming, and Instagram.

It’s not exactly earth-shattering to disclose that students undergo massive transformations from middle school to high school. But in terms of social media and tech use, what does that look like?

While 80% of high school students report using Instagram every week, third-most behind Email and YouTube, only 39% of middle schoolers report weekly use. Breaking it down even further by grade reveals when that shift truly takes place. From 5th to 8th grade, the percentage of students using Instagram weekly rises from 10% all the way to 62%. 

As students evolve, so too do their online social habits, making it essential to understand the dynamic role that social media and technology play in social-emotional health. Be on the lookout in early 2021 for our entire breakdown of which apps resonate most among students.

What’s in store for Spring 2021?

The Social Institute is plowing ahead in preparation for a monumental spring semester. What exactly does that entail?

More parent resources! We’re overhauling and adding to our parent resources with a newly designed Parent Toolkit to further empower families and continue the conversation beyond the classroom.

More grades! Starting in January, TSI will offer a fourth-grade curriculum to address the rising need for earlier conversations about responsible tech use and device ownership.

More LIVE lessons! A few of the themes on deck for Spring 2021 include:

  • Learning from the fall to set up a successful second semester.
  • Exploring opportunities to enhance diversity, equity, and inclusion.
  • Analyzing the impact of cancel culture.
  • Practicing patience while eagerly awaiting the vaccine.
  • Reimagining Teacher Appreciation Week.

Our entire team at The Social Institute wishes everyone a safe and happy holiday season.

We’ll see you in 2021!


About The Social Institute

The Social Institute partners with schools nationwide to empower students, parents, and educators to navigate social-emotional health, social media, and technology positively through comprehensive, gamified lessons that meet students on their level as well as. We have partnered with forward-thinking institutions across the nation, including Ravenscroft School, Gaston Day School, Miss Porter’s School, Gilman School, Woodward Academy, U.S. Olympic athletes, Duke Men’s Basketball, ESPN, and others. For more information, contact us.