We all want to matter. We want attention, relationships, engagement, and respect. Feeling that we matter can counter depression and ease feelings of stress. We like being in places where our presence seems to matter and we make a difference.
On the other hand, when we feel ignored, not useful, unappreciated, and like we don’t have strong connections we tend not to make a strong emotional investment. We may eventually drift away in favor of circumstances and contexts where we feel needed, appreciated, and respected.
The desire to feel that one matters is not exclusive to adults. Students typically have the same feelings. The difference is that children and young people often don’t have the freedom to choose where they spend their time and may not always be allowed to physically drift away from situations where they don’t feel as though they matter. Of course, school can be one of these places.
We may assume that these students aren’t academically successful. We may speculate that students who feel they don’t matter are loners, behavior problems, disinterested, and disengaged. Of course, students who fit this profile may feel as though their presence and participation don’t matter to us and classmates. However, many students who seem well-adjusted and academically successful often still feel that they don’t matter in school.
Fortunately, we are in a unique position to counter student feelings that they do not matter. In fact, when we create and nurture conditions that contribute to feelings of “mattering,” we can transform learners’ experiences from disconnection and “going through the motions” of school to learning engagement, commitment, persistence, and satisfaction. Let’s examine five conditions we can nurture that signal to students that their being in our class matters.
First, we can create a sense of belonging. A sense of belonging begins with our communicating to students that they are valued and appreciated. Belonging grows when we demonstrate a belief in their potential and we offer our trust and support. Belonging blossoms when we encourage students to build connections with one another. We can sustain a sense of belonging for students when we create a classroom culture that encompasses these elements.
Second, we can build an environment of acceptance. We can assure students that they can be themselves and don’t have to pretend to be accepted and successful in our class. Of course, we also need to create conditions where students understand and accept each other’s unique identities. When acceptance moves to valuing and appreciating uniqueness, students’ sense that they matter grows even more.
Third, we can create a sense of shared purpose. Not every task or assignment must have a distinct and obvious purpose, but students need to know what we’re trying to accomplish and how they can contribute to shared success. We can help students see how they play a role in making the class successful. We also can point out to students that we cannot be successful unless they are successful, so they truly matter.
Fourth, we can make it a habit to notice. When something happens in students’ lives and someone notices, comments, or asks a question, they hear the message that they matter enough for others to pay attention. Often what may seem like a small change in behavior and performance can be a clue to problems and even trauma students may be experiencing. The reassurance of someone asking what is wrong and what they can do to help can be a strong signal that the student matters.
Fifth, for students who need even more assurance, we can create roles and responsibilities. Some students need even more proof and ongoing reassurance that their presence matters in our classroom. We can think of the skills and interests these students present and offer them roles and responsibilities that are consistent with their talents and that position them to help the class succeed. For younger students, these tasks may be as simple as distributing materials and monitoring supply inventories. Older students might assume roles such as discussion timekeepers and technology support aides.
Reassuring students that they matter may seem like a small thing. Doing so is not costly or overly time consuming. However, from the perspective of our students, knowing we care and they matter can be all it takes to set them on a path to academic and life success.