What are the most important factors in student success?
You might list teacher effectiveness, home environment, school-home connection, motivation, engagement, time management skills, and growth mindset. While these factors are important, sense of belonging is another essential—yet often overlooked—key to student success.
A sense of belonging in school is the extent to which students feel accepted, supported, and respected by their teachers and classmates.
Research shows that if students do not feel comfortable and connected in your classroom, they will struggle to learn. In this post, we’ll look at several strategies to create a sense of belonging in the classroom for ALL students.
Why Is Belonging So Important?
Just like food and shelter, a sense of belonging is a basic human need. It increases life satisfaction, health, and happiness. It acts as a buffer against stress and depression.
When students feel a sense of belonging in the classroom, they are more relaxed and receptive. Unsurprisingly, research correlates belonging with motivation, attention, effort, academic performance, and persistence. Feeling connected to others also increases a student’s willingness to learn and behave in school. Unfortunately, this puts historically marginalized students at a disadvantage.
Students who do not feel a sense of belonging may seek it in other, destructive ways. Lack of belonging is also linked to alcohol and drug use, dropping out, violence, and other antisocial or delinquent behaviors.
9 Strategies to Create a Sense of Belonging in the Classroom
If you want to provide ALL your students with a sense of belonging, try these 9 strategies.
#1 Introduce Yourself
Write students and their families a personal note about what your class will be like this year. Demonstrate that you are looking forward to your time together.
On the first day of school, tell your students a bit about yourself. If you’re comfortable doing so, share some pictures of your family or a few of your favorite interests and hobbies.
Learn your students’ names as quickly as possible, and address them by name.
#2 Set Norms
During the first week, talk to your students about classroom norms. Norms are similar to rules, but they are not created solely by the teacher. They are an agreement between members of the classroom about how they will treat one another. They give students a sense of ownership in how the class operates.
Ask questions like:
- How would you like this classroom to look, sound, and feel?
- What helps you learn?
- Have you encountered problems in other classrooms that you want to avoid here?
- For this classroom to run the way we want it to, what does each of us need to do?
You may want to consider:
- Interactions between students
- Physical space
- Personal property
- When a task is finished early
- Asking to use the restroom/get water/etc.
- When a student needs help
Once your list is complete, ask students if they agree to follow these norms. When students are in agreement, post the list somewhere prominent and refer to it as needed.
#3 Greet Students at the Door
Each morning (or at the beginning of each class period), greet students at the door. Smile, address them by name, and try to make a personalized comment or two to every child. It can be as simple as, “I like your shoes!” or, “How was your soccer game last night?”
If a student was absent, say, “We missed you! I’m happy you’re back!” instead of, “Where have you been?”
#4 Assign Classroom Jobs
Classroom jobs help students feel valued and important. If you’ve never given classroom jobs before, think about important tasks in the classroom that students can reasonably handle. Possibilities include:
- Line Leader
- Snack Helper
- Lunch Helper
- Door Holder
- Board Cleaner
- Materials Manager
- Song Selector
- New Student Helper
- Errand Runner
Feel free to rotate jobs, but give students a few weeks in each role. Ideally, classroom jobs will relate to a student’s interests or talents. What is this student good at, and how can they share that with others?
Listen to your students’ needs, concerns, and interests. Create an environment that supports all types of learners.
If students are hesitant to speak up during discussions, for instance, can they journal or write in a class blog?
#6 Ask, “How Can I Help You…?”
Remember that most behaviors are not a sign of disrespect. Behaviors represent the skills students have learned to get their needs met. For students with difficult home lives, these skills may include lying, stealing, and avoiding close relationships with others. Behaviors we normally label “attention-seeking” signal a need for connection. Physical behaviors like hitting may mean that a child feels unsafe.
Additionally, behaviors like a student putting their head down may simply mean that they are tired, or perhaps uncomfortable. When a child’s “fight, flight, or freeze” response is triggered, they may choose to disconnect.
Punishing these behaviors further alienates children without resolving the root causes of the problem. Before resorting to traditional discipline, try asking, “How can I help you __________?” For instance, “How can I help you enjoy this lesson more?” or, “How can I help you be successful in this class?”
#7 Foster Positive Peer Relationships
In addition to prioritizing your relationship with students, foster positive peer relationships. Switch up partners and groups, and encourage students to get to know one another.
Show zero tolerance for discrimination and disrespect between students. Tell your students that you are a “class family” or “school family” and must support each other. Talk privately with students who do not treat their peers with kindness and respect.
#8 Use the “4 H’s of Belonging-Centered Instruction”
When a student’s interests and experiences aren’t reflected in your instruction or content, they do not feel valued. Dr. Jamaal Matthews, an associate professor of educational psychology at Monclair State University, recommends using the 4 H’s of Belonging-Centered Instruction:
- Home– Relate lessons to activities students engage in at home
- Hobbies- Feature examples with personal activities that your students enjoy
- Hope- Focus on aspirations, interests, or goals
- Heritage- Connect to people or traditions that are a source of pride for your students and their heritage
If you don’t know enough about your students to use the 4 H’s, distribute a “Getting to Know You” questionnaire or interest survey.
Use reflection activities to check that you are connecting with every student. For example, print an attendance sheet each week. Put a tally mark next to a child’s name any time you have a personal conversation or share a moment of connection. Ensure that every child gets at least a few tallies every week.
Another exercise to try: Write three personal, non-academic facts about every student. Did you struggle to come up with three facts for any of your students? Prioritize getting to know them more!
Final Thoughts: Strategies to Create a Sense of Belonging in the Classroom
With these strategies, you’ll help every student in your class feel welcome, valued, and supported. And when comfort and connection flourish, so do cooperation and academic achievement!