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Beginning of term activities to support inclusion and belonging

Audrey Campbell
Audrey Campbell

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As educators, one of our primary goals is to create an environment where every student feels valued and included, with a strong sense of belonging. The beginning of a new term offers a unique opportunity to establish the tone for the rest of the academic year, setting both students and educators up for success.

From active allyship and empathy to meaningfully supporting LGBTQIA+ students in the classroom, there are numerous ways for instructors and administrators to create a safe and encouraging space for students to learn and thrive. And whether it is the start of a term or the middle of an academic year, there is always an opportunity to reflect on best practices and implement strategies to support inclusion and belonging.

In this blog post, we'll delve into the significance of inclusion and a sense of belonging, explore a variety of engaging activities to promote these values in the classroom, and discuss how they contribute to academic integrity.

What does inclusion mean?

In today's diverse and dynamic educational landscape, the concept of inclusion has risen to the forefront of pedagogical philosophy. “Inclusive systems provide a better quality education for all children and are instrumental in changing discriminatory attitudes,“ shares The Open Society Foundation. “When education is more inclusive, so are concepts of civic participation, employment, and community life.”

Embracing inclusion in the classroom is not just a trend, but a fundamental necessity for fostering a truly enriching and equitable learning environment. It goes beyond mere accommodation; it reflects a commitment to acknowledging and valuing the unique strengths, experiences, and perspectives that each student brings to the educational journey. When instructors purposefully create an inclusive classroom, they open doors to a multitude of benefits, particularly for students with disabilities and those from diverse backgrounds.

For students with disabilities, an inclusive classroom dismantles barriers to learning and provides a platform for equitable participation. When instructors implement adaptable teaching strategies, students with disabilities can fully engage with the curriculum, enabling them to showcase their abilities and talents.

The National Longitudinal Transition Study examined the outcomes of 11,000 students with a range of disabilities and found that more time spent in a general education classroom was positively correlated with:

  • fewer absences from school,
  • fewer referrals for disruptive behavior, and
  • better outcomes after high school in the areas of employment and independent living (Wagner, Newman, Cameto, & Levine, 2006).

Moreover, an inclusive classroom nurtures a sense of belonging and self-worth, empowering these students to contribute confidently to discussions, projects, and activities. By embracing diverse learning needs, instructors not only cultivate an atmosphere of compassion and empathy but also equip all students with the tools to collaborate and problem-solve across various contexts, mirroring real-world scenarios.

Similarly, students from diverse backgrounds greatly benefit from an inclusive classroom where their identities and experiences are acknowledged and valued. In a previous post, we explored how culturally responsive teaching can bridge learning gaps and promote academic integrity. “When students come from outside the racial, ethnic, and cultural mainstream, they have greater learning challenges,” says Christine Lee. “Students not familiar with the vernacular of a classroom or even the language, have to make huge adjustments to navigate learning.”

When instructors intentionally incorporate diverse perspectives into the curriculum, students are exposed to a broader range of viewpoints and ideas. This exposure not only enriches their understanding of the subject matter but also fosters a deep sense of respect for differences. According to Drexel University, “Promoting awareness and creating a personal connection with diverse cultures in the classroom can prevent students from developing prejudices later in life. It allows them to empathize with people different from themselves since they’re more aware of the experiences someone of a different race or cultural group may face.”

Students also learn that their backgrounds are not obstacles, but invaluable assets that contribute to a vibrant learning ecosystem. This recognition not only bolsters their self-confidence but also encourages them to become active participants in their own education, ultimately preparing them for success in an interconnected and culturally diverse global landscape.

What does a sense of belonging mean?

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Teaching and Learning Lab, Dr. Maithreyi Gopalan talks about how “a student’s sense of belonging improves academic outcomes, increases continuing enrollment, and is protective for mental health.”

In his book, “College Students’ Sense of Belonging: A Key to Educational Success for All Students,” Terrell L. Strayhorn offers a working definition of a sense of belonging (in terms of college) as:

“[S]tudents’ perceived social support on campus, a feeling or sensation of connectedness, and the experience of mattering or feeling care about, accepted, respected, valued by, and important to the campus community or others on campus such as faculty, staff, and peers.”

Countless studies have shown that feeling connected to a course of study, instructor, peer, or campus life positively impacts not only learning outcomes and a student’s relationship with academic integrity, but also their mental, emotional, and social well being.

A sense of belonging goes hand in hand with inclusion. It's the feeling of being accepted, valued, and an integral part of the classroom community. Research shows that students with a high sense of belonging in school generally put in more effort and are more motivated, while those who report a low sense of belonging may be associated with negative—possibly antisocial or delinquent— behaviors.

A sense of belonging can also lead to greater engagement in school, which has been shown to correlate with success later in life. In a study from researchers at Menzies Research Institute Tasmania, found that each unit of school engagement was independently associated with a 10% higher chance of achieving a post-compulsory school education at some point during the next 20 years, including as a mature age student. And those who were engaged at school were more likely to go on to a professional, semi-professional or managerial career.

When students feel like they belong, they're more likely to engage, participate, and contribute their unique perspectives, leading to a more enriching (and perhaps more sustainable, long-term) learning experience.

What activities can you do to create an inclusive classroom?

At the start of a term, there are a variety of activities that instructors and administrators can choose to integrate in order to foster a sense of inclusion and community.

  • Learn students’ names and pronouns. The Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning at Yale University cites several studies in which the correct use of student names and pronouns helps students to feel more comfortable asking for help and can increase student satisfaction with a course, as well as lead to a greater sense of belonging in the classroom.
  • Prioritize inclusive language. Instead of saying “ladies and gentlemen,” try using non-gendered words like “students,” “scholars,” or “friends.” And be sure to use inclusive language on all forms (like handbooks, syllabi, etc.) to include all family structures and gender identities (instead of “moms and dads,” try “families and caring adults”).
  • Build a diverse library of books. In addition to choosing texts with a variety of unique perspectives, featuring stories with diverse characters, Carey Blankenship also recommends that instructors include students in the process. Students—and families— then have the chance to contribute the stories that are most relevant and connected to their lives.
  • Prepare for teachable moments. The Human Rights Campaign Foundation, in association with Welcoming Schools, offers a variety of resources on how instructors and administrators can respond to questions that may arise in a diverse classroom in order to cultivate a school climate that is affirming and welcoming to all.
  • Offer icebreakers for diverse groups of students. Icebreakers are a great way to promote inclusion and are even more meaningful if they consider the diversity of the classroom. Education World highlights several activities that can help students from different backgrounds to feel comfortable at the beginning of a term, including diversity bingo and “Who I Am” poems.

Additionally, in a previous post, “How to build a culture of caring in secondary and higher education,” we looked at the value of modeling a culture of caring in leadership roles, establishing a Care Team, and including a culture of caring in an institution’s strategic plan.

What activities create a sense of belonging in school?

There are a variety of activities that bolster a student’s sense of belonging in school, all of which can meaningfully add to their learning experience and overall academic success, in addition to the suggested activities listed above. They include:

  • Create student-created classroom norms. Involve students in establishing classroom rules and norms, giving them a sense of ownership and responsibility. The Center of Teaching Innovation at Cornell University offers a few strategies for approaching classroom ground rules, including establishing how to communicate, ways to disagree, and the process for giving and receiving feedback.
  • Build a shared class identity. Create a class identity through shared goals, mottos, or symbols, fostering a sense of unity and purpose. Edutopia also emphasizes the importance of creating an “identity-safe” classroom environment, where autonomy, cooperation, and student voice are recognized and valued.
  • Celebrate differences. Organize events that showcase students' unique talents, cultures, or hobbies, celebrating diversity within the classroom. Could your class host a potluck where students and families bring in dishes that reflect their culture? Is there an opportunity for students to create a presentation and share about themselves in a meaningful way, highlighting what makes them unique?

Geoffrey Cohen and Gregory Walton at Stanford University explore the concept of “belonging uncertainty,” a feeling students might have about their belonging when entering a new social and academic situation, which is most pronounced during times of transition (e.g., entering college). Research has shown that belonging uncertainty affects how students make sense of daily adversities, often interpreting negative events as evidence for why they do not belong. Professor Gopalan and colleagues wanted to dissect this concept further and through research, determined that belonging intervention components can help support students in times of transition and help mitigate “belonging uncertainty.”

Belonging intervention components are successful when instructors and administrators:

  • Acknowledge that challenges are expected during transitions and that these are varied.
  • Communicate to students that most students, including students from non-minority groups, experience similar challenges and feelings about them.
  • Communicate that belonging is a process that takes time and tends to increase over time
  • Use student examples of challenges and resolutions.
Why is inclusion and belonging important to teaching and learning?

Inclusion and belonging are essential elements for effective teaching and learning. When students feel included and valued, they are more motivated to engage in their studies, collaborate with peers, and contribute creatively. These values also foster a positive learning atmosphere, encouraging academic excellence and personal growth.

And academic integrity is important to teaching and learning because, while shortcut solutions belittle education, academic integrity takes advantage of and embraces every learning opportunity.

How feeling seen upholds academic integrity

“Culturally responsive teaching is about teachers meeting students where they are with the end goal of providing students with a sense of belonging and support,” says Christine Lee. “In turn, we engage our students with the ways in which they best absorb knowledge, whether through stories or rhythm or kinesis or added curriculum to fortify and introduce knowledge about, for instance, academic integrity.”

A profound and often underestimated link exists between a student's sense of belonging and their commitment to upholding academic integrity. When students feel an authentic connection to their educational community, they are far more inclined to uphold the principles of honesty, responsibility, and ethical conduct. A sense of belonging fosters a strong investment in one's academic journey, instilling a deep understanding of the value of genuine learning.

In this nurturing environment, students are less likely to resort to shortcut solutions or plagiarize, as they are driven by an internal motivation to succeed through their own efforts. When individuals feel seen, heard, and respected within their learning community, the allure of academic dishonesty diminishes, replaced by a genuine dedication to learning, personal growth, and the preservation of their own academic integrity.

In sum: How to support inclusion and belonging with beginning of term activities

Creating an inclusive and welcoming classroom is a journey that begins with intentional activities that foster inclusion and a sense of belonging. By embracing diversity, nurturing connections, and valuing each student's contributions, educators lay the foundation for academic success, personal growth, and a commitment to upholding the principles of academic integrity. There is truly a transformative impact of inclusive practices and as educators and administrators, it’s essential to strive to create an environment where every student feels empowered and valued.