Belonging is the feeling that one is respected and valued in a given context. Research shows that students are more likely to be motivated, engaged, resilient, and successful if they feel like they belong in school.
When people are uncertain about their belonging, they search for cues to help them determine if they fit in, if they are liked, and if they are valued and respected. This search for cues about belonging and related anxieties can deplete cognitive resources, and make students feel less motivated and engaged.
Belonging is especially important in the context of educational equity and achievement gaps. Students who are members of stereotyped groups are especially likely to be anxious that they do not belong. Research also shows that targeted changes to practice can reduce “belonging anxiety” and mitigate race and gender-based achievement gaps.
It’s almost impossible to talk about belonging without talking about stereotypes. While everyone experiences worries about belonging, those feelings are especially prevalent and have more of a negative impact for people who belong to groups about which negative stereotypes exist in a given environment.
Many students have faced subtle and explicit discrimination due to stereotypes about their group. Stereotypes exist about the performance and misbehavior of students of color and low income students, and about women’s performance in male dominated STEM fields. Stereotypes can make students more unsure about if they belong in certain environments and anxious about confirming a negative stereotype about their group.
The stress of worrying about being stereotyped or confirming a stereotype can deplete students’ cognitive resources and make them feel less motivated and engaged in school. Over time, this can lead to lowered performance. Because belonging is influenced by a person’s unique perspective, it’s experienced by different people in different ways, even within the same context. So when a negative event happens, that negative event can also have different consequences depending on the student.
In any given classroom, students arrive with a diverse set of backgrounds and experiences that shape how they interpret day-to-day events. As a result, different situations will impact each student’s belonging-related interpretation differently. It’s important to note, however, that the consequences of non-belonging often look similar: lower engagement, heightened anxiety, and lower performance. And these consequences can occur even if the student isn’t fully aware of their anxiety.
When students feel that they belong to a community, they trust their teachers and peers more, are more motivated and engaged, have fewer behavior struggles, respond more adaptively to critical feedback, and ultimately, they have higher academic performance and overall well-being. Teachers can play an important role in helping students feel like they belong.
Here’s an exercise for teachers: Think about the students in your class. Is there a student you can think of who might have belonging concerns? How might those concerns affect that student? Write 2-3 sentences from that student’s perspective. As you think about belonging, what questions and concerns come up for you?
When students feel that they belong, they are more likely to feel comfortable participating and contributing in the classroom. Paying attention to who is participating and who is not can provide you with clues about which students feel like they are valued and respected members of the classroom, and which students may not feel as safe. How will you know? You can do these 3 things:
# 1: Track how often students are contributing silently, and through speech.
# 2: After tracking students’ participation, reflect on what you’ve noticed and why this might be.
# 3: Support all students in contributing. Consider ways to help all students in your classroom feel comfortable and safe contributing.
People make inferences about places based on what they see in that environment. In classrooms, environmental cues can send messages about who belongs and who does not. Many students don’t get to see people like them represented within their classrooms. For example, in a History classroom, Black students might not see representations of themselves among the posters of famous historical figures around the room. This lack of representation can make students feel like certain classrooms, and by extension those subjects, are environments where they may not truly fit in. Cues that promote belonging, signal value, recognition, and respect should be incorporated into the classrooms of every educator. They will also include the following :
Make eye contact with your students. Even just imagining an interaction with someone who doesn’t make eye contact makes one feel ostracized, it lowers self-esteem, and want to act aggressively towards the imaginary offender.
Use students’ names. It has been shown that sending home a personalized letter to middle school students on the first day of school reduces students’ feelings of loneliness and increases peer acceptance for students who may have initially felt excluded, compared to students who are sent a standard letter.
Correctly pronounce students’ names. Mispronouncing students’ names can negatively impact students’ views of themselves and their culture.
Small changes to those environments can help students feel like they are recognized, valued, and included members of the classroom community. It’s important to ‘belong’!