One of the most powerful levers to increase student engagement and amplify learning is to ensure that learning experiences are connected to and reflective of students’ lives. When we consistently demonstrate an interest and acceptance of each student for who they are, it nurtures what’s referred to in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as their fundamental need for love and belonging.
We can intentionally cultivate this sense of belonging by designing learning experiences that help us get to know our students better and help them learn more about themselves and each other.
Students decide very quickly which classes make them feel secure and which teachers make them feel like they matter. It’s critical, therefore, that we continually nurture our students’ sense of belonging through how we interact with them and how we get to know them, and through the learning experiences in our classroom. When we carefully weave these three components together, it creates a foundation that supports students’ overall sense of well-being, so they can focus on learning.
Throughout the school year
We can begin by not only learning each student’s name, but also learning how to accurately pronounce their name, what students prefer to be called, and their preferred pronouns. It can be helpful to assign students seats so you can create a seating chart with phonetic spellings of their names and their pronouns until you commit them to memory.
With this system in place, you can create activities that enable you to learn more about your students through questions and activities, even some that get them out of their seats. You can design these and similar activities so that they align with your curriculum; as students are learning, you’re learning about them.
This might include calling them by their first name often, asking them when you greet them at the door or during brief moments about yesterday’s soccer game or how the auditions went for the school play, and continually forging connections between your life and your students’ lives as you become partners together in learning.
Students who know their teachers care about who they are and what matters to them are students who show up eager for class and primed for learning.
During scheduled Intervals
One way to prioritize belonging is to develop a lesson-planning habit that includes asking ourselves questions such as these:
- In what ways will this lesson enable students to learn more about themselves and others?
- How is this lesson reflective of students’ lives?
Certainly, not all lessons will result in an affirmative response to these questions because some things are worth learning even if they don’t answer these questions. Yet, these questions offer the opportunity in the planning stage to ensure that the instruction is meaningful for students, whether socially, emotionally, or academically.
We can also design regularly scheduled engaging practices that build community and help students connect to themselves and each other. Some ideas include eliciting student input for a weekly Monday morning share consisting of videos, memes, or quotes, or a Friday wrap-up song or activity that gives students an opportunity to have their interests reflected in the classroom and creates a pathway for them to connect to one another.
Another idea is to implement attendance questions, such as “Would You Rather” or “This or That,” which also help teachers get to know their students, enable students to get to know each other, and build a positive classroom culture. Teachers can implement quick check-ins that offer students time to reflect on their progress and well-being with questions such as these:
- What’s one thing you’d like me to know about your life right now?
- How could this class better meet your needs?
- Name one way that something about our class affirms who you are or supports you to become who you want to be.
Teachers can then be responsive to students’ needs based on this feedback that further affirms how much our students both matter and belong. Social and emotional learning activities shouldn’t be another thing to do; they should simply be a part of what we do every day
Teachers who are passionate about deepening students’ sense of belonging can create or adapt activities that align with their curriculum to further help students connect to themselves, which is essential because, as Brené Brown writes, “Our sense of belonging can never be greater than our sense of self-acceptance.”
These activities can consist of identity exploration, passion projects, or researching topics that matter to them, and speaking or writing about them to authentic audiences. We can encourage students who discover interests they feel strongly about to partner with like-minded organizations to help them connect to their sense of agency and work toward meaningful change through collective effort. One or two of these in-depth opportunities during a school year that are both personally fulfilling and self-reflective can deepen students’ sense of belonging.
Developing planning habits that prioritize belonging strengthens our relationships with students as it makes them feel seen and understood. When students feel like they belong, they are more likely to actively engage in the life of the classroom, but even more important, it contributes to their overall well-being so they can grow and flourish into capable, confident, and independent adults.