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5 Elements of a Thriving School, According to K-12 Experts

Sarah Whedon, Ph.D
Sarah Whedon, Ph.D
5 Elements of a Thriving School, According to K-12 Experts



What does it mean for schools to thrive? How do we approach that question in the context of the many challenges that have arisen for schools in the last couple of years?

Our 2022 Thriving Schools Virtual Summit addressed these questions by bringing together K-12 speakers, including Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, Jessica Minahan, and R. Keeth Matheny. They shared presentations centered on prioritizing empathy, relationships, and social-emotional learning (SEL) to support thriving students and thriving schools.  

Thousands of district leaders, educators, and education experts joined in to learn and reflect together. Throughout the Summit, rich discussions built connections and community among educators, both within the sessions and on Twitter

The Summit began with Panorama’s Takeru Nagayoshi, 2022 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year, inviting all participants to share a word or phrase they associate with a “thriving school.” The top five words participants shared were:

  • Relationships
  • Inclusive
  • Community
  • Safe
  • Joy

Thriving Schools Summit Word Cloud

Word cloud depicting words Virtual Summit attendees associate with thriving schools


The Summit speakers shared inspiration and actionable takeaways for creating thriving school environments anchored in relationships, inclusivity, community, safety, and joy. Read on for five principles that support thriving schools, according to our Summit speakers (and magnified by participant Tweets).

Support educator resilience with the Adult SEL Toolkit


1. The challenges of the last few years have created opportunities to learn (Tweet this )

There’s no question, the last couple of years and the ongoing impacts of the pandemic have presented enormous challenges for everyone working in schools and school districts. 

In her keynote on accelerating learning, Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, President and CEO of The Learning Policy Institute, encouraged educators to seize the opportunities created by these challenges to learn and innovate beyond school structures that no longer serve students’ needs.

Dr. Darling-Hammond said, “Talk with your colleagues about what the new normal should be. What have we learned in the pandemic? What have we tried that has worked?” 

Schools may have been delivered a truckload of lemons, but Dr. Darling-Hammond reminded us there’s still the opportunity to make lemonade. She highlighted the 3 Rs for thriving schools: relationship-centered, restorative, and responsive.



2. Teachers are the true heroes of education (and many are struggling) (Tweet this )

Teachers, counselors, and other support staff are the frontline workers of education, with the potential to change the course of a students’ life.


Tweet showing Becky Oglesby, 2020 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year, and Stacie Lawler, 2020 Idaho Teacher of the Year, talking with Takeru Nagayoshi, 2020 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year.

Teachers are brilliant, caring, hardworking people who can encourage and lift each other up. 

In her address as part of the Teacher of the Year Panel, Juliana Urtubey, 2021 National Teacher of the Year, said, “We can create beautiful spaces where all kids can thrive. Teachers, you are the ones who are doing this work, and I could not be prouder to be alongside you.”

Many teachers are also struggling under the weight of pandemic challenges and inadequate resources. They need strong support from district leaders, including support to build their capacity for SEL.


3. When in doubt, always return to centering student impact (Tweet this )

With so much need and resources often stretched thin, it can be difficult to know how to prioritize actions and interventions. A core principle here at Panorama—and one we heard repeatedly at the Summit—is to always center student impact. This principle can help guide decisions, large and small. 

Dr. Danielle Duarte, co-author of Hatching Results for Elementary School Counseling, in her talk on school counselors as leaders, reminded us of this central value: 

“This work is for the students. We all have students who have truly impacted us, and hopefully the other way around too.” 

Thriving school communities are formed by supporting the well-being and success of many individual students. 


4. Academic success and social-emotional learning go hand-in-hand (Tweet this)

Numerous studies have shown that SEL contributes to academic achievement. Strategies for building thriving schools must integrate social-emotional learning and academics. 

Dr. Christerralyn Brown, Technical Assistance Consultant at the American Institutes for Research Center on Multi-Tiered System of Supports, suggested a holistic approach to planning interventions during her presentation on multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS): 

“When selecting a validated intervention program, ask: Does the intervention target students’ academic and behavioral needs?”


5. Schools thrive in relationship with families and communities (Tweet this)

Schools don’t have to do the work alone. Partnerships with families are a powerful and necessary resource in building thriving schools.

Keeth Matheny (“Coach Rudy”), a 2021 Social and Emotional Learning Leader of the Year, spoke about partnering with families to support SEL. He called out the winning combination of family partnerships and SEL programs: 

“Strong parent partnerships and strong SEL implementation combined equals student success.”

Coach Rudy’s recipe for family communication includes equal measures of information, communication, accessibility, and representation. 


The Magic of Thriving

In recent years, educators have faced trying times, but there’s a lot of light in our school communities, too.

The Summit speakers offered actionable guidance for working with students, implementing effective MTSS programs, collaborating with families, and supporting thriving teachers and schools. 

Takeru Nagayoshi reminded us that through all of this, “The magic of those in the education field is that we always find ways to thrive.”


And that magic is reason for optimism. Jessica Minahan, co-author of the The Behavior Code: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Teaching the Most Challenging Students, encouraged us in her keynote on teaching challenging students, “All these things do work. Please be optimistic—but it takes all our work together.”


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