School Culture

Cultivating Belonging in the Elementary Classroom All Year Long

Feeling like part of a larger classroom community improves students’ grades and their self-confidence.

May 29, 2024
jacoblund / iStock

A sense of belonging is critical to a student’s academic and social development. Typically, there is a strong focus on belonging that occurs at the beginning of the year; however, we know that as the year progresses, students can experience feelings of isolation and “othering,” as they navigate social dynamics, learning, and individual growth. As teachers, we can cultivate a culture of belonging in every facet of what we do that helps students to feel more connected. By exploring strategies focusing on identity, connection, care, and community, teachers can foster a culture that supports students’ meaningful learning, beginning in the classroom and extending to the broader school community.

Educational research points to the importance of students’ sense of belonging directly correlated to academic achievement. Beyond that, research also shows that students who feel a sense of belonging are more confident in school and have less anxiety, depression, and overall stress that carries into young adulthood. This, coupled with students having a healthy sense of identity, is an important factor that helps students become more connected to their school, contributing to an overall positive school experience.

Beyond the research is the day-to-day experience expressed in how children engage and interact in the classroom. Do students feel they can be their authentic selves? Do students feel they can actively contribute? Are students encouraged to be who they are, or are they called upon merely to conform and comply? These are important questions to consider when thinking about how our classrooms can bring about a true sense of belonging.

For educators and school leaders, here are some strategies to make students feel a sense of belonging in your classroom.

5 Ways to Build a Culture of Belonging

1. Conduct classroom greetings. Create a classroom routine that includes a greeting for each student. This is a great way to begin or close out the day, allowing every student to be recognized and appreciated. Classroom greetings offer an opportunity to show attentiveness to students, building a reflective practice for the day. When this happens, students feel they are essential to the group. This is an important opportunity for the teacher to assess a student’s energy and if there is something to take note of that could potentially impact the remainder of the day.

2. Provide a sense of ownership. Do your students feel like the classroom belongs to them? Your classroom should be like a second home, as opposed to a space they are just visiting. When a child feels that they are an outsider, they expend energy processing their psychological safety, which takes away from meaningful learning. They should see themselves reflected in the classroom. This is so important in cultivating belonging, because you can’t be what you can’t see, and the classroom should reflect aspects of all of the students’ identities.

Examining what’s on the walls, the books on the bookshelves, and more is critical when it comes to students’ feeling represented. From language to names to cultural heritage representation and the sharing of lived experiences, the identities of students must be reflected.

As children learn who they are and develop their identity, this process can be supported through classroom engagement. Activities that cultivate belonging are key to self-pride, respect, and appreciation for each other’s backgrounds. Engaging in identity development where identity is named, acknowledged, and appreciated is critical to expressing the value of diversity in a nonsuperficial way.

3. Make the most of circle time. Circle time is a great way to begin and end the day, where students come together to be in community with each other. Circle time can be utilized to discuss challenging topics, reflect on the day, or have an opportunity to hear from every student. Various activities can be built into circle time that teach the values of respect, active listening, showing appreciation for each other, and encouraging each other—a great way to model empathy.

4. Develop classroom agreements. Classroom agreements are important tools for setting classroom expectations for student engagement and community building. Students can collaborate on classroom agreements where they decide on a set of expectations for how they will enter the space and how they will engage with each other. This is a great activity to begin the school year and can be revisited as the year progresses. Classroom agreements are important in setting boundaries for students when they are expressing their thoughts and opinions or working through moments of frustration and conflict.

5. Start a buddy program. Belonging can extend beyond the classroom and into the school by establishing a buddy program between grade levels or within another classroom. Buddy programs that develop an ongoing meeting time are important for strengthening peer relationships, cultivating joy where students are excited to see each other, and expanding their engagement with other students at school. This supports making students feel that they belong, where they are comfortable and it’s safe to take risks. Buddy programs support building a stronger community because students get to know each other more intimately, across classrooms and grade levels, building consistency and continuity within school life.

Cultivating a culture of belonging is essential to every student being seen, valued, and heard. This important and necessary work shouldn’t be relegated to just the beginning of the year; it’s something that needs to be woven into the fabric of the classroom so that students feel belonging every day at school. When we incorporate these sustainable practices, students play a role in shaping the most optimum environment for them to learn in.

With more conversations on the distractions of technology and its impact on the mental health and well-being of students, classrooms must remain spaces of curiosity, growth, and safety. Building bridges of belonging in our classrooms instills confidence, empathy, and respect for differences, along with an unwavering responsibility to leave your school community better than how you found it.

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Filed Under

  • School Culture
  • Culturally Responsive Teaching
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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