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We know that students try harder, persist longer, and are more successful when they feel valued and accepted. Some students enjoy popularity among their peers and naturally feel as though they fit in. Some students gain acceptance through academic success. Still others may excel in the arts, athletics, or other areas.

However, success does not always translate into feeling a sense of value and belonging, especially in the classroom. What we say, how we relate, and the messages we send to students matter, regardless of students’ stature in other contexts.

In fact, we send hundreds—maybe thousands—of messages every day that students perceive and interpret in order to understand whether they matter and belong in our eyes. In innumerable small ways, we communicate what we think, how we feel, and what—and who—we value.

Unfortunately, what we communicate is not always intentional or even a conscious action on our part. We can develop habits that stand in the way of our communicating to students that they matter, and we can overlook opportunities to communicate to students how much we value them.

Now is a good time to take a few minutes to reflect on how we convince students that they are important to us and that they matter. Here are ten elements we can use to get started.

First, notice and greet students. Whether when they enter the classroom, when you pass them in the hallway, or when you encounter them at activities or in the community, noticing students matters. Greeting students by name, supported by a smile, can mean more than we realize.

Second, make eye contact. When listening to and speaking with students, we can be distracted by the task at hand or what we need to do next. Stopping what we are doing, making eye contact, and giving our full attention communicates respect and attentiveness. When students experience that attentiveness, they understand that they matter.

Third, be courteous. Saying “please,” “thank you,” “excuse me,” and other common courtesies may seem obvious, but in our hurried and pressured world, we can forget that students are as worthy of our respect as any adults with whom we interact. Showing respect tells students they matter.

Fourth, be quick to say “I’m sorry.” It may not seem like much, but when we are willing to admit our mistakes, take responsibility, and apologize to students, we communicate that they matter enough for us to want to make things right with them.

Fifth, assume good intentions. What we believe about students has an impact on how we interpret what they say and do. If we choose to think that students are well intended and typically do not want to misbehave or even be disrespectful, we are likely to inquire and explore rather than accuse or criticize. Starting with a premise of positivity reduces the need for students to defend themselves or push back.

Sixth, treat missteps, mistakes, and errors as opportunities for learning. Some of the most powerful learning in life comes in response to mistakes and even failure. We tell students they matter when we respond to missteps and mistakes with inquiry and instruction rather than shame and punishment.

Seventh, explain the “why” of learning. When students understand why they are asked to learn and how what they learn will be useful, they are more likely to invest in learning. Meanwhile, taking time to engage students in the reasons for and value of learning communicates respect and valuing.

Eighth, refuse to give up when students struggle. Students are often quick to give up on themselves when learning is not easy. They may have a history of struggle and assume that they are not capable of learning challenging things. Our patience, persistence, and belief that they will succeed can send a strong message that they are valuable and capable.

Ninth, be curious. Students come with a variety of experiences, backgrounds, and family circumstances. Showing interest in who students are beyond inhabitants of our classroom sends a message of worth. Further, the more we know about students, the better able we are to make connections and help them find relevance in what they are learning.

Tenth, search for students’ gifts and talents. Some students may excel in academic areas. Others may be talented artists or athletes. Still others may be gifted leaders. However, every student has a potential gift. When we are “tuned in” to the talents students may possess—including talents beyond the obvious—and help them to discover and develop what makes them special, we send a message that students can become more than they are and might imagine.

Some students require little convincing and reassurance that they matter and fit in. Others need to hear explicitly and consistently that our classroom is a place where they are valued and included. Fortunately, we hold the power to make our classroom a place where everyone can belong and feel safe.

Thought for the Week

In response to the uncertainty and disruption in which we find ourselves, researchers and experts say that the number one skill for survival and success in today’s environment is adaptability.

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