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How to Help Students Feel a Sense of Belonging - Resources and Tips

Ashley Thibodeau
Ashley Thibodeau
November 22, 2022

A Sense of Belonging = The Secret Ingredient to Student Well-Being and Learning

One of my strongest, earliest memories is from the sense of belonging I felt when I moved to a new school mid-year when I was in first grade. My parents were getting divorced and I was experiencing a lot of change. But my new teacher, Ms. Gazard, welcomed me with open arms and introduced me to who soon became my new best friend and I went on to thrive and grow. I have nothing but fond memories of my elementary years and I owe that in large part to the warmth and encouragement I experienced from my school environment. 

I was so lucky to have had the experience I had but if you think about what my experience could have been like if I entered my new first-grade “classroom” during the pandemic - things could have been a lot different for me. The shake up of the pandemic has called attention to the need for the ever important role in learning - the sense of belonging. 

When someone feels that they belong to the community, studies show that this will result in increased perseverance, better academic behaviors, and higher grades; a student’s motivation and willingness to persist in academically challenging work increases.

In Camille Farrington’s research on “Academic Mindsets as a Critical Component of Deeper Learning”, she shares how “students with a strong sense of academic belonging see themselves as members of not only a social community, but an intellectual community. They tend to interpret setbacks and difficulty in their studies as a normal part of learning, rather than as signs that they are “out of place” in a particular academic environment. Conversely, students who do not feel a sense of belonging in school tend to withdraw from interaction with their peers; to the extent that they associate academic work with their sense of alienation from the school community, they are likely to put forth little effort to learn.”

What happens when students don’t feel like they belong? A recent study from Qualtrics shows that the top three reasons students say they don’t plan to graduate from their current high school (excluding moving) are:

  • This school is not a good fit for me (38%)
  • I don’t feel connected to the teachers (28%)
  • I don’t feel welcome here (25%)

So as schools look to improve the outcomes of all students by targeting retention, increased performance, and addressing the mental health of students, targeting a sense of belonging is an important step to take. We need to be sure that we are creating a welcoming space, offering multiple opportunities for expression, letting our students' individuality shine, and helping to foster relationships among peers.

In talking with Lisa Bosio, an educator with a focus on how to integrate SEL and UDL, she outlined some quick tips that you can do tomorrow and reflective questions that will foster that sense of belonging for students. Read them below!

Fostering Relationships with Students

Relationships, relationships, relationships. Did you notice what students shared in the Qualtrics study (listed above) that deters them from graduating? Students don‘t feel connected and welcomed. The feeling of not being seen or heard is sad to me; feeling “invisible”, “not cared for” or that “I don’t trust anybody here” (as one student recently told me at a high school) sums up the sense that students don’t feel like they belong. 

As I think back on my teaching career and the healthy relationships I formed with my former students and families - they didn't all start that way. I definitely blew it a lot and had to humble myself and apologize to repair the relationships. Forming trusting relationships is the foundation of creating a sense of belonging. It wasn’t what I did that helped me to build healthy relationships, it was who I became and was. You can do all the activities in the world, but if your students, their families, and communities don’t trust you, how can they feel vulnerable, cared for, seen, heard, and celebrated without judgment? That’s what creates true belonging - trusting, safe relationships.

"I don’t trust you.” Ouch! That hurts when someone says that to you, right? First, when my then 15-year-old son repeatedly told me in shouts of rage and then I heard it from some of my students. It broke my heart, and I had a decision to make. I could skirt responsibility and play the “blame (what’s wrong with you), shame (what are you thinking), and the rename game (you need to get your act together, it’s your issue, not mine)". Or, I could choose, to reflect on what was my part in the breakdown of trust. What does “I don’t trust you” really mean?  Trust is such a big word. 

When you trust someone, you are choosing to risk making something you value vulnerable to another person's actions. In Brené Brown's video, Anatomy of Trust, she shares that "whatever you choose to make vulnerable to the other’s actions, you do so because you believe their actions will support it or, at the very least, will not harm it”. She went on to say that distrust is what you have shared with someone, that is important to you, and believe that is not safe with them. So, if cultivating a sense of belonging starts with trust, I think we need to look at practical ways to foster that by reflecting on what Brené Brown calls BRAVING. “Because when we trust, we are braving connection with someone.”

💡Before I share some activities that you can do in your classroom/or school to create an atmosphere of belonging, I encourage you to listen to this 9+ minute video,  Anatomy of Trust, or if you are short on time, check out this Braving Inventory that breaks down trust into seven elements.

If your goal is to truly reflect on how you can cultivate trust and belonging, we must begin by BRAVING connections with your students, their families, and your colleagues.  What are your strengths and challenges when you reflect on BRAVING? Where can you say, “I do that”? And, ”that’s something I need to grow in”? Remember, it’s not what you do necessarily,  but who you are that builds trust and belonging.

Fostering Trust and Belonging

So, you are probably wondering what trust and belonging with our students look and sound like.

1. Be Real - Zaretta Hammond, the author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, offers some fabulous suggestions on how to build trust by being more, “authentic, vulnerable, and in sync with our students.” Check out this one-page document by clicking here Trust Generator that will give you simple ways to connect with your students and develop belonging.

2. Make Your Students Feel "Seen" - Greet your students as they enter your classroom. I know, I know, it’s so tempting to wait for them to come in while you finish that last-minute prep or conversation, but this simple idea sets the tone for a welcoming, belonging environment from the get-go. In the video, Making Sure Each Child Is Known, one teacher starts off with a simple question, like "what’s your favorite food," as he greets students at the door. Initially, he uses simple questions that he hopes to lead to deeper questions to get to know his students, build trust and create belonging. There are also other great ideas in this video and one that you can do as a staff. Check out what they did as a staff with over 900 middle school students to make sure every student was known. It’s powerful!  It’s worth a listen to!

3. Foster a Culture of Belonging - Wondering what you can do with your class or even at a staff meeting to foster belonging? Check out CASEL’s 3 Signature Practices. They discuss easy, quick ways (without a lot of prep) to create a welcoming, inclusive environment that fosters belonging throughout your learning day. If you love it and want more ideas, check out CASEL’s tool kit which is a goldmine of ideas to incorporate social and emotional learning (SEL) in your lesson design, seamlessly. Awesome!

4. Don't Underestimate The Amount of Time Spent - Feeling stretched to the limit and pressured to get all the learning in that you have planned? If so, the thought of trying to connect with each of your students in a day or a week may sound impossible. Why not schedule 5-minute rounds of 1-on-1 time with students? While students are working on a separate assignment, take this opportunity to host private solo sessions with your students away from their peers. I know a high school teacher who decided to be very intentional about connecting with her students. She downloaded her attendance sheet by period and noted which students she touched base with and any information that they discussed so that she could circle back around and connect with the student. 

Help to Foster Relationships Among Peers

Not only do students need to feel welcomed and connected to you in their learning environment, but we need to foster belonging by helping students to connect with one another. In the article, Every Student Matters: Cultivating Belonging in the Classroom, Micheal Dunlea makes sure that each child feels chosen. "Several times a year, I ask my students to anonymously write down the names of three students they want to sit with or work with—ranked in order of preference. I go over the results to see who is being selected and who is not. With that knowledge, I seek out students who aren’t chosen and create opportunities for them to build relationships with their peers. I may call on one of them and say, 'Choose anyone you want to walk this to the office,' for example, to help improve their social equity in the eyes of their peers. Other times, I will assign these students specific partners who will help them by modeling good social behaviors.” I love this idea! But, don’t stop there. 

The reality is we live in a world full of division, strife, and uncertainty where many don’t feel welcome or that they belong. Yet, we as educators can create a place where they do. Each and every day we have the opportunity to create a welcoming, safe environment for our beautifully gifted, talented, and sometimes quirky students by cultivating trusting relationships brimming with love, acceptance, and a deep sense of, ”I see you, I hear you and I am glad you are here.” That’s belonging. That’s what every student wants, needs, and deserves. 


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