In the rush to start the year, create routines, and begin the learning journey, it can be easy to overlook an important contributor to student success. We need students to focus, commit, and persist in their learning. We want them to feel safe and comfortable. We need them to take risks and overcome mistakes and setbacks. Yet, unless students feel as though they are accepted and belong, they are not likely to give their best effort. On the other hand, when students feel as though they are valued and part of a community, learning is easier, self-doubt is less of a distraction, and engagement becomes a natural process.
Unfortunately, a sense of belonging that extends to everyone in our class does not just happen. Students who come with confidence, a record of academic success, and significant social capital may assume they belong and will require little reassurance. Other students who have experienced feelings of not fitting in, who have been excluded in the past, or who may just lack confidence will need more intentional support.
The good news is that we can nurture a sense of belonging through many of the practices and procedures we engage in daily. However, we need to be intentional and strategic in our efforts.
Here are seven ways we can introduce, build, and sustain a sense of belonging, regardless of our students’ backgrounds and past experiences:
First, learn students’ names and pronunciation early. Knowing students’ names and saying them accurately sends a message of value and importance. Until we know and use students’ names, we are not likely to have a positive influence on whether they feel they are accepted and belong. Also, we need to be careful about assigning and using nicknames. Some students may come to us with and prefer a nickname, but we need to confirm this information.
Second, include students in developing class rules and norms. When we allow students to have a voice in how the class will operate, what is and is not acceptable, and how they will treat each other, we send a message that they share ownership for the class. While we need to be in charge, what students think matters. Of course, students are also more likely to internalize and follow rules and accept norms for which they have had input.
Third, frame the work of the class as teamwork. Certainly, learning happens one student at a time, but peer support and encouragement can also be helpful to the learning process. We can set shared goals and plan activities that position students to work together and support each other. Common enemies and shared purposes can be powerful forces to build a sense of belonging.
Fourth, connect personally with each student. Listening to and observing students can provide a wealth of insights to begin conversations, offer encouragement, and inquire about interests. We can also notice and greet students outside of class in hallways, at extracurricular events, and in the community. Being noticed and recognized can be powerful messages of belonging.
Fifth, model showing acceptance and valuing all students, especially students who may be marginalized. When we sensitively use students within an example, comment on a strength, and lift up their contributions, we send a message to other students about what we notice and value. Our modeling can give the student confidence and lead others to shift their relationship with them.
Sixth, assume that all students can find learning success. What we believe about students matters more than we may realize. If we do not believe that a student is capable of success, we are less likely to continue to nudge and encourage their learning to ever-higher levels. We are more likely to accept less than their best work. Further, we need to focus on learning over grades. All students can learn, even though students may start at different places, some may need more time, and others may follow different learning paths. We need to respect each student’s learning, even though the nature and amount may vary.
Seventh, do not tolerate ostracism. What we choose to ignore can send a message that is as powerful as what we choose to support. We must be proactive to avoid ostracizing behaviors and respond immediately when we sense or see it. Ostracizing behaviors can be more frequent among students at certain ages and stages of development than at others, but it is cruel and hurtful at any age.
We need our students to focus, commit, and persist in their learning. There will be challenges and setback in the weeks and months ahead. When we assure students that they belong and will be supported and successful, they can give their full attention and effort to learning.