It’s hard to walk into an unfamiliar room—even when the stakes are low. We’re willing to bet that most people will scan the room for a familiar face or a comfortable spot or a soothing activity (snack table, anyone?) before entering. We need that little grasp of comfort, even if it’s just staking out a comfortable spot to stand or sit.
Now let’s revise the scenario—let’s say you don’t know a single soul in the room. Let’s say there are no available seats in a room full of seated people. Let’s say you’re under-dressed. Let’s say there’s no welcoming platter of food. Let’s say this is part of a special coterie of people crucial to your financial wellbeing.
Do you think you’re set up for success? Do you think you’ll have a positive experience? How will that inform your behavior? Your psychic state?
A sense of belonging is a basic human need, just like the need for food and shelter. It enables the ability to see value in life and to cope with challenges. A sense of belonging makes us feel like there is a community behind us. It can make us feel relaxed and receptive and motivated.
Sound like a good state of mind for learning?
It sure is. A sense of belonging, like so many other nonacademic and contextual factors such as integrity, has a huge impact on classroom learning. Research has unveiled that a sense of belonging is core to academic success. And we teachers need to pay attention and make sure our classrooms are inclusive in order to support learning.
Education Week did a survey of 528 educators. The results speak for themselves, as Education Dive reports:
- 41% say it is challenging or very challenging to make their students feel like they belong in the classroom, particularly when it comes to concerns students express that include their sexual orientation, gender, race, socioeconomic, ethnic, and disability identities.
- 80% of those surveyed said they thought a sense of belonging in the classroom is important for student success, highlighting how integral teachers are to building a positive learning environment and school culture.
- And 49% said they need help to find helpful strategies.
Educators are on the front lines affecting positive change. We can make a difference by creating a sense of belonging in our classrooms. We can greet students at the door, just as we could have greeted your under-dressed self at the door of that function and ushered you to a newly available seat.
Unfortunately, not doing so also makes a difference by facilitating negative student outcomes.
In an Edutopia video series on “How Learning Happens,” Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, President and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute says, "When that sense of belonging is there, children throw themselves into the learning environment and when that sense of belonging is not there, children will alienate, they will marginalize, they will step back."
Motivation, persistence, and academic performance have a direct correlation with feelings of belonging, but this sense of belonging decreases in secondary schools.
What happens when a student doesn’t feel like they belong? And who might they be?
Without a sense of belonging, loneliness can seem insurmountable, hindering personal growth, motivation, and original thinking. Furthermore, a low sense of belonging results in delinquent behaviors, such as cheating.
In our diverse classrooms, students come to us from different backgrounds and experiences. For example, some are from single-parent homes and others may not have a history of academic success. There’s a historical record of specific groups of students who have experienced long-term exclusion—students coming from different ethnic or language backgrounds than the majority student population, students with disabilities, or students who identify as LGBTQIA+.
These are marginalized student populations who shouldn’t be on the margins—who likely have been on the margins for so long that they’ve internalized their lack of belonging. The inputs from media and stereotyping and other messaging places them at a disadvantage. They likely feel less valued. They likely feel less heard. They may feel the world and, by proxy, a classroom isn’t safe to share their ideas or participate in the learning process.
So how can we address this lack of belonging?
In a Learning & the Brain blog post entitled “The Psychology of Belonging (And Why it Matters),” Myra Laldin states:
“Research has shown that having academic material mirror students’ home life and culture helps them relate to the curriculum and take ownership in learning, improving academic achievement in a significant way. Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT) aims to address these challenges. It makes an effort to legitimize all cultures. It gives students the space to take ownership of their cultural heritage. It shows them the value of maintaining this heritage and to do so with pride. There is an effort to create an environment where there are no subtle or overt pressures for students to disavow their own culture and assimilate to the majority culture.”
What might other tactics be? We’d like to share with you a list of 7 ways to give students a sense of belonging in your classroom:
- Make introductions immediately and get started on the right foot.
Introduce yourself. Write a personal note about what your class is going to be like this year. Personalize your course syllabus. Get to know your students’ names as soon as you can. If you have access to their pictures, memorize the names before the first class. Do an ice breaker. If you have trouble memorizing, an ice breaker can help by providing a personal narrative for each student, which can help you match names to faces.
- Prioritize high-quality teacher-student relationships
Schedule office hours or one-on-one meeting times. Make sure to get to know your students, and to allow them space to discuss their needs and individual questions.
- Create a supportive and caring learning environment
Model vulnerability and resilience. Talk about your own stories of failure and resilience. Commend student strengths.
- Be sensitive to students’ needs and emotions
Not all students learn in the same way. It may take some students time to learn to speak up in class in a group discussion—consider other ways they can participate in discourse, such as via a class blog or via journaling.
- Set standards and expectations for discourse
For instance—talk about the language and help your students to learn, the language in which you expect classroom discourse. Each student is different, so the commonality here will be the educational materials and assignments and the discourse thereof. Actively challenge stereotypes that students might be internalizing.
- Show interest in students
This isn’t necessarily about knowing every detail of their weekend, but really practicing this interest within your pedagogy as an educator. Practice active, student-centered learning. Consider having students choose books. Consider assigning an essay centered on their experiences and opinions.
- Foster a sense of community in the classroom by establishing classroom respect and fair treatment.
Encourage the voice of your students. Invite your learners to brainstorm Ground Rules for your classroom. Establish these rules together. Get student buy-in. If there are a couple of ground rules on which you are firm, write those in to start, and encourage your students to provide supplemental rules.
A sense of belonging is important in our diverse classrooms where students come from all walks of life, backgrounds, and experiences--while we are different, we are also equal and deserving of inclusion and respect. We want to give students a safe and supportive space that enables learning. Bottom line: we all belong.