Think back. Have you ever felt like you did not belong somewhere? Maybe it was at your job, in a public place, in school, or at a party? How did that make you feel while you were there? How did it make you feel afterward?
Young learners often feel the same in their schools and communities. Regardless of a learner’s age or activity, it is crucial that we, as adults and education professionals, help them feel connected, supported, and included.
But why is it important that young learners feel a sense of belonging?
Well, have you ever noticed that when we feel like we belong, we actually behave and perform better? Inclusive, engaging environments are where we’re at our best, and students can really shine and work to their fullest potential when they learn in these kinds of places.
Ashley, our in-house education expert and teacher of 10 years, agrees that this is important for teachers to remember. “A strong classroom community was at the core of my teaching practices,” she says, “When students feel safe, supported, and have a sense of belonging, they are less likely to have behavior issues, overall classroom management is better, and students perform at a higher level than when they are in a different environment”.
And research agrees. Empirical studies have shown that when students feel a sense of belonging, their emotional and behavioral engagement in their studies increases (Pittman and Richmond, 2010; Wilson, et al., 2015).
This is largely in part due to the sense of safety and security experienced by young learners. We know real learning and growth happen outside of our fear zone, so if students are constantly feeling out of place, unwanted, and/or uncomfortable, then they will not be at their most effective when it comes to learning.
This is especially problematic for young learners, considering the average student spends more waking hours at school than they do at home. So if teachers are ignoring any displaced social dynamics in the classroom, they’re inadvertently allowing their students to fall through the cracks.
“The social dynamic is something that we must address in our communities. Real learning happens when students take ‘calculated risks’ in a group and if they feel a sense of belonging and support, they are much more likely to do so,” Ashley confirms.
If students feel nervous about taking risks such as asking questions, expressing their opinions, and adventuring out to explore new ideas and connections, but they also feel protected and supported by their community, then this comfort will help outweigh the negative feelings. Let young people know that they belong in their community and that it’s a safe place for them to be wrong and make mistakes.
If students are constantly feeling out of place, unwanted, and/or uncomfortable, then they will not be at their most effective when it comes to learning.
What can we do to make young learners feel like they belong?
Thankfully, there are many things all adult community stakeholders can do to help students feel a sense of belonging. Here are a few ideas that each community member can use to engage young learners in their community.
Encourage community members to visit classrooms and take part in collaborative activities, or maybe to give a short presentation about themselves and their role in the community. This is especially great for students who come from underrepresented backgrounds and have a lot to gain from seeing their ancestral heritage represented in their classrooms. Or, as Ashley did, bring in someone with a particular job role or personal attribute that could really be helpful for your students to speak to:
“I had a student who was incredibly gifted but didn't have any idea how to use those skills in a career. They were interested in things like planning, arranging, and building, so I brought in a City Planner for that student to interview”.
Tell a little bit about yourself to your students. It doesn’t have to be anything very personal, but small titbits from your life, or talking about your likes and dislikes, can really help inject some personality into your teaching and let young learners feel like you’ve ‘let them in'.
“It’s incredibly important to let young learners know that as adults, we’re essentially just older versions of them, that we also sometimes feel left out or that we’re not good enough, but here’s how we cope when we do feel like that,” says Ashley.
In addition to talking about your interests, you should also take the time to include your students’ interests in your teaching. For example, if you know that lots of your students love football or ballet or TikTok, then incorporating these into your lessons is a sure-fire way to make them feel great, listened to, and engaged. Telling your students a story about how 20 apples minus 6 apples equal 14 apples isn’t going to have nearly as great an impact as if those apples were footballs!
Encourage school community engagement from all angles. First, start small by encouraging engagement online via quick surveys, such as creating your own questions about your school district, to get community members accustomed to feeding back. As an added bonus, this will ultimately help to strengthen your district’s culture and climate.
Take action when people do feedback to you. Whether you’ve received feedback from a student, a parent, or a staff member, always take these seriously and do your best to solve any problems they have flagged. By being proactive when responding to comments you’re demonstrating to your community that you care about their opinions, which in turn will encourage them to stay engaged for longer.
Be considerate of and interested in your child’s education, and also ask about their friends and classmates. By taking an interest in the goings-on in your child’s school, you’re encouraging them to do the same. Not only that, but you’re also demonstrating to them that the school community is something to be engaged in and inquisitive of, which helps them grow up to see the bigger picture and look outwards.
Show respect to your child’s teachers. It’s simple - if you respect the teachers in your district, your child is more likely to respect them, too. You can give thanks and compliments to school staff members using a simple tool such as Your Voice, or you could show your appreciation in person at the school gate.
Pittman, L. D., and Richmond, A. (2007). Academic and psychological functioning in late adolescence: The importance of school belonging. Journal of Experimental Education, 75, 270–290
Wilson, D., Jones, D., Bocell, F., Crawford, J., Kim, M. J., Veilleux, N., Floyd-Smith, T., Bates, R., & Plett, M. (2015). Belonging and academic engagement among undergraduate STEM students: A multi-institutional study. Research in Higher Education, 56(7), 750–776. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11162-015-9367-x.