We all want to raise happy, healthy kids who find purpose and meaning in life. Our kids go to school to learn and achieve academically, but what contributes most to their happiness?
“Every study I have read shows that a lack of the ability to develop and maintain relationships is the leading cause of people being unhappy,” says Michael Earls, Head of School at Aim High School, a private school in Farmington Hills for students in grades 6-12 with learning and social differences. “People who have the ability to reach out and make meaningful, long-lasting relationships are the happiest. It’s a huge piece to work on.”
Students typically attend Aim High School after experiencing larger, traditional school environments where they may have experienced bullying and isolation. Because they are rebuilding trust in social relationships, Earls and the educators at Aim High School work hard to incorporate social learning in the classroom.
“It starts with smaller conversations facilitated by our teachers in the classrooms,” Earls explains, adding that required communications classes help students learn skills like appropriate sharing — especially on social media — and why what you say can trigger an emotional response.
“It starts in the classroom because those are real relationships, and they are no different from what they’re trying to build outside of the classroom,” Earls says. “When you are working with a teacher or a peer and you make a mistake or cross a boundary, you can make amends and move on.”
But social learning doesn’t stop there, Earls says. Because educators at Aim High School understand that social skills must be practiced in many environments, students participate in “Create Community” events, where they go out into the community to test their real-world skills.
Socially successful in the community
Once a month at Berkley Coffee in Oak Park, Aim High students perform stand-up comedy, read poetry or lead art discussions. Or, a talented group of students perform as a band. A tech crew supports all the sound and video design.
“It’s a beautiful night. Always packed,” says Earls. “It’s a great thing for families to see their kids and our students perform.”
Through a partnership with a local credit union, a cohort of students interns twice a week, learning a variety of office and customer service skills. “They have to wear correct attire and they can’t have their cellphones with them. They job shadow in different departments and it’s very good for them,” Earls says.
Even though Aim High is a small independent school, students participate in robotics and esports, competing against other schools in these two very popular competitive leagues.
“Our esports team is really successful and it’s an important club for our students. They must be at practices and treat teammates and competitors accordingly. If they cross a boundary, they could lose their spot on the team,” Earls says. In a high-emotion situation, students learn that when they are competing in public — and not from their living rooms — they learn how to win and lose gracefully.
“All of these experiences show how creative we are, as a small school, to seek out different opportunities and experiences to help our students build important skills. These aren’t typically available to small schools and they don’t always make sense for small schools,” says Kelly Fitzsimmons, Director of Administration and Advancement at Aim High School.
Rebuilding trust in relationships
The small environment at Aim High School is just right for students who didn’t necessarily find success in a traditional large school environment. Here, they can start building social confidence in the classroom through meaningful relationships.
“Our students learn that their teachers care about them as people. They help them make that first connection, which leads to second connections and third connections. This is so important to students who were overwhelmed environmentally in a larger school and come to us in survival mode,” Earls says.
When Earls and his colleagues reflect back to when this year’s graduates joined Aim High, they’re proud of how far they have come. Attending Aim High has been life-changing.
“They came here in pain and in trauma. We recognized them as talented and valuable and worked with them and supported them. Now they are happy and performing in public and are proud of themselves and what they have done at Aim,” Earls says.
Parents who are seeking answers to why their child is not successful in school may wish to consider the small, safe environment at Aim High School. “If a student can’t feel safe socially, they can’t focus academically,” Earls says. “When they know they won’t be targeted or bullied or labeled as a bad kid who can’t do the work, amazing things happen. They can counteract that negative energy and change how they feel about themselves.”
This change often surprises parents, says Fitzsimmons.
“During admissions, parents come in and say their child has never enjoyed going to school. Sometimes, there’s even a high level of drama or the child has shut down. They believe they can’t be happy in school,” she says. “That changes quickly when parents see their child smiling and talking about what’s happening at school. Sometimes you just have to put the academics on the back burner and work on the happiness and feeling valued components. All the rest follows.”
Learn more about Aim High School. Visit aimhighschool.com.