What Is Belonging?
When the new school year starts, every initiative is approached with renewed energy and fervor. While that is great because with a new year comes new opportunities, nurturing a sense of inclusion and belonging needs to be an ongoing initiative. This initiative needs to take precedence over everything so that our students feel safe and supported. But what do we actually need to do to foster classrooms where students belong? And what does it mean to belong anyway?
Brene Brown defines belonging as:
“The innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”
Brown also says, “True belonging doesn't require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.”
Why Is Belonging Important?
Research from the Search Institute (2018) has shown that students perform better and are more open to learning when they feel they are part of their school community. When students feel isolated and disconnected from their peers and teachers, they withdraw from the learning process and have more negative learning mindsets. Belonging is important because it allows us to bring our true selves into any context. Rather than hiding our real natures (which leads to cognitive dissonance and anxiety), belonging is rooted in the belief that we all deserve to express our unique cores.
Voices of Students
To learn more about what belonging looks, sounds, and feels like in our learning spaces, Megan administered a Google Form survey to her students. She surveyed 25 students in her Grade 10 Middle Year’s Program Individuals & Societies class at Vientiane International School in Vientiane, Laos. The students shared their thoughts openly and honestly, as responses were collected anonymously. The responses below have been edited for clarity in grammar but not changed otherwise.
What is belonging?
What does belonging look like to you?
When asked what belonging meant to them, students said things like “belonging is feeling safe and comfortable in a community or place” and “belonging is the feeling of security and support when there is a sense of acceptance, inclusion, and identity as a member of a group.” One student said, “Belonging is that feeling I get when I feel understood and am in a welcoming environment.” Another went on to explain that “belonging happens when people are included in conversations and don’t feel like they are being invalidated or ostracized.” The students also said, “belonging is feeling supported and engaged” and when you “are allowed to speak and be listened to without being afraid of being right or wrong.”
Students described belonging as a feeling of being valued and heard. “I know I belong in a classroom when I am supported and respected, and that is also returned.” One student said, “No matter what person or group I work with, everyone is included and is comfortable to share their ideas and thoughts.” Another said, “When I belong, I can share my ideas and opinions without feeling judged by my classmates.” Students also spoke to the fact that belonging, as Brown stated above, is the opposite of fitting in. Disagreement is a necessary part of being in a community where you belong. “When we get the chance to participate in a classroom, even if there is conflict, we resolve it by including everyone in the conversation.”
How do you feel when you belong?
How do you feel when you don’t belong?
One student said, “It feels right. I don't feel awkward or as if I shouldn't be there. I don't feel like I am out of place.” Another said, “I know I belong when I can talk, laugh, and have fun with people I'm not close friends with.” The students’ comments revolved around not feeling judged by their peers and being able to be their authentic selves. “I belong in a classroom where I can be myself and not fear of a strange reaction from people and I'm understood and related to.”
A sense of not belonging is felt physically, as the most common response to this question was “uncomfortable.” Students also mentioned feeling “insecure of what I say and act,” “isolated,” “disrespected,” “alone,” and “lots of negative emotions.” One student remarked, “I feel I don't belong in a classroom when I'm a complete stranger in the room and I must make a huge effort to express something. Also, when I'm surrounded by people who I feel are repulsed by me or my words.”
How Do We Foster Belonging in Our Learning Spaces?
In his book Creating Cultures of Thinking, author Ron Ritchhart describes eight cultural forces that define our classrooms. We think that these forces also provide a great framework for fostering belonging in our learning spaces. According to Ritchhart, belonging is rooted in a sense of feeling known. He says teachers can develop this mindset by “knowing our students, and demonstrating that we value them as thinkers and learners, and developing positive relationships with them individually and collectively.”
How Do These Eight Forces Foster Belonging in Our Learning Spaces?
In our classrooms, we can build routines that foster belonging. We can greet students at the door when they come into the classroom in their home language. We can put students in assigned seats and rotate the seats every so often. We can use random generators to create mixed groupings for tasks. We can start each class with a community building game or ice breaker. We can end each class by saying goodbye to every student. We can celebrate birthdays, holidays, and other special days together. We can create special activities to welcome new students and say goodbye to leaving students.
These routine building suggestions are simple, but they can go a long way toward making every student feel accepted in a classroom.
Teaching and learning are brought to life through a three-way partnership between students, teachers, and parents. Therefore, interactions between students, students and teachers, and teachers and parents are vital to fostering belonging in our learning spaces.
A genuine interest in each other’s interests, cultures, orientation, and, most importantly, differences and how we appreciate those differences are key to instilling a sense of belonging. These interactions can be an integral part of how we teach, how we learn anytime, anywhere. The key word here is intentionality.
It’s important to model and explicitly teach language that supports students in respectfully questioning, arguing, justifying, exploring, and sharing different stances. While it’s common practice to use the language of instruction for academic discourse, the power of using one’s home language with those who understand can’t be underestimated, especially in international schools where students are linguistically and culturally so diverse.
Equally powerful are tools like sentence starters for academic conversations, anchor charts, and pedagogical approaches like translanguaging that can guide and support such exchange.
Creating opportunities on an ongoing basis where students can approach something from multiple perspectives and engage in a dialogue or creative, cognitive conflict is not only at the heart of discovering and owning who they are, but also supports exploring others’ ideas and opinions and appreciating them.
Such opportunities might include but are not limited to the chance to engage in regular small group work with focus on equitable participation and peer feedback. Offering students a choice board to work through is another way to get everyone’s voice in and honor different pathways to mastery of a concept or skill or simply self-expression.
Environment refers to the physical and emotional spaces in which teaching and learning happens.
Setting up and designing physical spaces through a student-centered approach can go a long way in sending home the message that all students’ needs are important, and everyone belongs. A thoughtful selection of displays is also equally important.
Emotional space is just as important as the physical space. The language we choose, the interactions we enact, the opportunities we create, the expectations we set will all create an emotional space within which learners will flourish, feel safe and supported, and know that they belong.
Allocating time on a regular basis for opportunities that build and sustain a sense of community and belonging is extremely important. This time could be in the form of advisory or morning meetings for students, and professional learning sessions for staff and parents.
At the American Embassy School, New Delhi, the elementary division has an hour of community time built into the school schedule every Wednesday. This time is in addition to the morning meeting time. During community time, a Grade 5 Learning Support teacher shared a presentation on neurodiversity that led to awareness, empathy, and a deep sense of belonging for all. Sessions around Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging are a regular feature of any in-house professional learning for the staff as well at this school.
Setting up expectations around appreciating differences and including this in community beliefs or social contracts is a great step in fostering belonging in our learning spaces.
At the American Embassy School, New Delhi, each semester starts with co-creating class beliefs and agreements. Often this work is guided by the belief that everyone has intrinsic value and differences, or diversity makes us richer. To keep these beliefs alive, all those in the grade level learning community choose agreements that hold everyone accountable.
Sharing who we are and what we value is intentionally woven into the fabric of our conversations. These conversations can range from something as simple as talking about a character in a book that we might be reading in class to what matters to us in our own cultures as well as cultures of others. Modeling can also take the form of showing students how two adults respectfully disagree with each other.
Belonging and the Sangha
In Buddhism, there is a concept called "sangha." The "sangha" is the community of practitioners. We loosely use this term here as we know it has more formal connotations. But the idea of a community of practitioners working toward a common goal is an idea worth thinking about in relation to our schools. How might our ideas of schools change if we start to think of them as sacred places where people come together to form a "sangha;" places where people support each other, strive to better themselves, and work together to improve our world?
Educators must pay attention to the culture they are creating in their classrooms. Do we want to recreate the dominant patriarchal, sexist, homophobic, and racist culture of the broader society? Or do we want to strive for more egalitarian and inclusive spaces where students feel seen, heard, and known on a deeper level - places where they feel they are a part of the whole?
Megan Vosk teaches the middle years program Individuals and Societies and English Language Acquisition at Vientiane International School. She is also the chair of the Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE) teacher-leader committee.
Shafali is a multilingual learner specialist who currently teaches Grade 5 at the American Embassy School.