How to Cultivate a Sense of Belonging in Schools
Teachers can create opportunities for students to develop a sense of identity within a supportive environment.
Belonging is a fundamental human need. People search for a sense of connection with the people and places in their lives. Students spend a huge portion of their time during childhood and adolescence at school, which makes it essential that the learning environment cultivates a sense of belonging for students. A recent review by Kelly-Ann Allen and her colleagues of the academic research on belonging found evidence of our need to connect embedded in our genetic code.
The biological need for belonging means it has implications for our physical health: sleep quality, cognitive longevity, cardiovascular functioning, and immunity strength. Belonging also impacts mental wellness (a lack of belonging can cause depression and antisocial behavior), affects academic performance (course persistence and grades), and even has lifetime benefits (such as career satisfaction and community engagement). With so many benefits to improved belonging, Allen and her coauthors offered a new framework for understanding how we can build school environments where students can connect with teachers and peers.
Students need to be able to do the things required to connect with others: engage in conversation, listen to different perspectives, and navigate the environment while observing the cultural norms and values of their setting. Belonging is something we do, which means it involves skills that students can practice. Skill practice presents an opportunity for coaching.
Skills to develop their sense of identity: How can students practice understanding who they are in the community? One strategy is to use self-writing strategies with students to help them connect their lived experiences to their work in the classroom.
Skills to identify with their cultural background: How can students bring their personal experiences into their learning? These personal connections are important in all subjects. In science, teachers should protect student choice even as they address the Next Generation Science Standards. Additionally, teachers can build class discussion that values students’ prior knowledge and cultural experience. In reading, include literature sources from a variety of sources, time periods, and authors. For instance, Kiven Meco Luzano, a teacher in the Philippines, uses local poems and songs as central texts in his reading curriculum. In math, student-created memes and cartoons representing math concepts can provide a window into student interests and personalities.
Students need to have chances to practice belonging. This includes opportunities with groups of people, opportunities at different places in the school, and opportunities at various times of the day. As teachers and school teams look at when and how students move throughout the school, they can ask how they are offering a variety of opportunities for students to engage in belonging. They can then identify when and how to provide more chances for students to belong.
Opportunities to belong in a place: How can we make physical space for students to claim their place in the school community? Different kinds of belonging each require different approaches to support. “Inclusive belonging” increases connections between students in different social groups. Common areas, like a school gymnasium or auditorium or courtyard, are powerful places for students to gather around a common interest. These spaces could host school functions, volunteer opportunities, or community events like guest speakers or presentations.
Students also need opportunities for bonding within social groups, especially as a way to support historically marginalized groups. A recent paper on Black education spaces illustrates how protecting and honoring places for Black students to congregate and socialize, even informally, can be a means of building student belonging.
Opportunities to belong in a time: How can we bring a flexible and responsive approach to how we use class time? Research looking at the impact of strict lesson sequences showed how prioritizing an assessment schedule pushed out student choice and opportunities for teacher responsiveness.
Teachers can proactively schedule time during class for students to practice belonging. This might look like incorporating relationship-building prompts in small group discussions interwoven with content-focused prompts. Remember to provide structure for sharing and listening, as well as class norms of respect and safety for students who choose to share.
Teachers can also respond to opportunities for students to belong when they see them. This might include something simple, like class participation in school spirit events. It could also be something more substantial, like facilitating class engagement on an issue of concern. For example, if students are interested in local public transit, the teacher could help connect future lessons to the issue or help them find public engagement events where they can get more involved.
Motivations AND Perceptions
People have different motivations and perceptions of belonging: They want to experience belonging in different ways and in different amounts. Similarly, people think about their own sense of belonging in different ways. These differences are influenced by many factors, which include the physical environment, their culture and lived experiences, and variability over time. However, teachers can think about some of these influences as they try to identify ways to support student belonging.
Motivations are personal and sociocultural: How can we support students in their pursuit of belonging as it makes sense for them? This includes each teacher recognizing how their own perceptions of belonging are shaped by their lived experience. If a student is not exhibiting motivation to share in a large group discussion, how could they express themselves in a more private format like personal writing or small groups?
If a student is not motivated to engage, it may be a sign that they need help. Teachers should always know their legal requirements for reporting and the best way to engage mental health professionals with the training and certifications needed to provide mental health services.
Perceptions are shaped by context and can be changed: How can we help students develop healthy understandings of their experiences with belonging? Everyone experiences a lesser sense of belonging at times, and teachers can provide support for normalizing periodic feelings of not belonging. They can also help students frame their experiences to understand when the causes of those feelings are internal or external to themselves.
As teachers think about the long-term impact of belonging, they should focus on building inclusive and supportive environments in schools. Single events may be helpful to establish a culture of belonging, but the results will come from what we can do day after day, the whole year round.