Interested in Improving Student Engagement? Start with Feelings of Belonging
As districts pick up the pieces post-pandemic, here’s how educators can improve student engagement within their classrooms.
Most teen movies feature a scene that is powerful because it evokes a pretty universal feeling. There is a new student, cafeteria tray in hand, facing a bustling cafeteria and wondering: “where should I sit?” This familiar scene strikes a chord in so many of us because what the student is really asking themselves is “where do I belong?”
For those working in education over the last few years, or even for the parents of students, you’ve seen how the pandemic exacerbated feelings of loneliness, isolation, and mental health issues among students.
The elements of being in school that contribute to each student’s daily well-being and socio-emotional development are benefits that can easily be taken for granted. But the important role that these spaces play in the lives of young people were truly understood when education needed to be conducted remotely during the height of the pandemic. Many quickly understood that school material is only one part of the overall school experience. When important in-person time with friends and the emotional support and encouragement of educators were removed from the student experience, so was their sense of belonging.
Now that schools are on the other side of that time, there seems to be a focus on bringing levels of student engagement back up. However, the experience that needs to be present in schools for engagement levels to improve are feelings of belonging.
What Does ‘Belonging’ Mean and Why Should We Care
From a psychology standpoint, belonging has been defined as “a subjective feeling that one is an integral part of their surrounding systems, including family, friends, school, work environments, communities, cultural groups, and physical places”
Given how isolated students were and the rise of mental health issues among young people, there needs to be a refocus not only on getting students interested in their studies, but getting them connected to their peers and school in a way that makes them feel part of a larger, supportive community.
Why do we need to care about students’ feelings of belonging? Because it can predict school engagement levels. For some, focusing on feelings of belonging may sound too “touchy-feely”. But, to build a house, a foundation must first exist and feelings of belonging in schools is the foundation of engagement.
And, student engagement starts at the top with programs mandated by district leads and executed by educators. So, educators need to not only be bought into the idea of belongingness initiatives but practice them daily in their classrooms.
How Feelings of Belonging (or the lack thereof) Affect Student Engagement
There are many everyday challenges students face when they leave school for the day and head home. School should be a safe haven for students when they are going through vulnerable times forming their identity, developing social skills, and being influenced by their peers.
When it comes to the vital role belonging plays in student engagement, Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond says it best: “when that sense of belonging is there, children throw themselves into the learning environment and when that sense of belonging is not there, children will alienate, they will marginalize, they will step back.”
For students to be engaged in school, there are other emotional needs underneath engagement that need to be met. Strategies that focus on creating environments that foster feelings of belonging for students are crucial for engagement levels because ‘belonging’ is synonymous with feeling safe to learn.
The 4 Components of Belonging
An international team of psychologists conducted a meta-analysis on the work done on belonging. The team’s meta-framework for belonging offers insights into the anatomy of belonging with four crucial components, which interact and influence each other throughout our lifespans. Let’s review these components and see how to apply these to belonging initiatives in your schools.
Competencies are skills you need to relate to others and build healthy, meaningful relationships. This component of belonging focuses on investing your time into relationships and the development of “soft skills” for building and maintaining them. These skills can include resolving conflict, regulating emotions, and utilizing psychological assets like empathy and kindness.
The ability to connect with people is meaningless if there are no opportunities to connect, which is why the second component for belonging involves the availability of opportunities. This component of belonging looks at what opportunities there are for you to make connections and relate to others. Opportunities for belonging include joining interest groups, having shared hobbies with friends, joining sports teams, recreational activities, and other learning opportunities where people can meet with a common interest.
The third component of achieving belonging is motivation, which looks at how driven you are to feel a sense of belonging. Humans have a built-in need for belonging, but the motivation to fulfill this need can vary between people and across our lifetime. There can be many opportunities for connection but a person is more likely to feel they belong if they are motivated to feel this way and seek our opportunities to create connections.
4. Perceptions of Belonging
Lastly, the perceptions of belonging component addresses how we perceive our own belonging and how this perception can influence our feelings and behaviors. You could have the previous three components of belonging and yet still perceive that you don’t belong based on past experiences or low self-confidence.
How Schools Can Cultivate Feelings of Belonging
Now that we know the four components, here are ways your school can create environments that cultivate feelings of belonging.
Prioritizing social-emotional learning throughout the curriculum will help students develop the skills required for healthy relationships and belonging. Providing students with on-going practice of social emotional skills helps them to build skills for belonging today and will help them navigate their careers in the future.
If you’re looking for support in bringing Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) to your students, Xello has SEL skill-building lessons built directly into the platform, such as lessons on self-awareness, communication, problem-solving, and more. And, if you aren’t sure where to get started with Xello Lessons, there is a Scope & Sequence that outlines grade-by-grade lesson recommendations and supporting activities for students.
Most schools have extracurricular activities and groups, such as sports teams and theater groups. But it’s important that students who don’t subscribe to those interests also have a place to belong. Survey students to see what types of groups they would be interested in joining that may be more niche, such as specific board games, video games, crafting, etc. To get students of all groups connected to faculty members, survey the school teachers and staff to see who would be interested in acting as a liaison.
Cultivating feelings of belonging doesn’t have to rely on students staying longer at school for extracurriculars.
At the start of each semester, work with the students of your class to collaboratively create classroom values, norms, and/or rules. This can help create a sense of safety and ownership for students and can help to ground certain lessons and activities. Don’t take student’s input for granted in creating strategies around belonging. They can be the best people to help inform what prevents them from feeling safe and participating and what changes would allow for them to be themselves and really engage in class.
For students to feel they belong at school, or even just within a subgroup at school, there needs to be a degree of wanting to belong. Students often take cues from their older peers and look up to them as the “cooler” kids. Leverage this to get younger students, especially those transitioning to a new school, involved and feeling like they belong.
Create a buddy system in your school. Students in transitionary years often struggle with change and feeling like an outsider to a new environment. A buddy system can help them to understand that feelings of newness are not feelings of not belonging. Have students from the grade above give reassurances to kids a year below on how it’s OK to feel the way they feel when starting the new grade or a new school and that it’s not necessarily to do with not belonging, it’s just an adjustment period. The buddy system can also be informative. Make sure to use this time for the older students to loop younger students into all of the opportunities for getting involved through extracurriculars and groups.
Perceptions of Belonging
First and foremost, provide mental health support for students and ensure mental health resources can be easily and anonymously accessed by students. If you are interested in creating a mental health library in your classroom, here are some mental health and wellness books we recommend.
Since perceptions of belonging are related to a student’s perceptions of themselves and where they belong, include parents in the school community as much as possible. Make it easy for parents to connect with a school counselor if they feel their child is struggling with belonging or doesn’t have someone at school to connect with.
Since perceptions of belonging have a lot to do with past experiences dictating someone’s current day perception of their place in a group, some self reflection could be useful. Use Xello’s Custom Lessons to have students reflect on (and maybe even share with peers or teachers) their own experiences of belonging at school. Sometimes a student has all the opportunities for belonging but they are struggling with a fixed mindset or had poor experiences in their past that prevents them from seeing how they belong to the class or school overall.
Student Engagement Begins with Feelings of Belonging
The desire to feel a sense of belonging is pretty universal for humans, but it is a critical feeling for students when it comes to school engagement levels. The benefits of students feeling a sense of belonging also reaches beyond engagement levels. Research out of the University of Missouri reveals that students who have a sense of community belonging are less likely to become bullies.
A sense of belonging not only impacts a student’s engagement and academic achievement, but on their overall wellbeing. District Leads may be asking what schools can be doing to increase levels of engagement, but the question first should be how schools can create environments that support belongingness for every student.