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Redefining and Enacting Belonging in School

Redefining and Enacting Belonging in School

In previous articles, we described belonging as individuals’ belief and trust that they are valued as people within a community. Since then, we have spoken with teachers, school leaders, non-profit executives, and parents in K-12 and higher education on our podcast, all of whom contributed to our expanded definition of belonging. They also provided practical strategies for enacting belonging. We will share our evolving definition of belonging and ways to build a practice of belonging.

Redefining Belonging

We still believe that belonging is essential and includes knowing and feeling comfortable with our true selves. It is a feeling of ease and acceptance when our true selves are seen and valued by others. We have also learned about innate belonging, or the idea that people belong inherently, and that belonging is dynamic and depends on context.  The culture and systems we live in contribute to our varied experiences of belonging.

Brach (2003) writes about radical acceptance and that we do not have to earn belonging; there are no criteria to meet. This concept seems counter to a US education context steeped in benchmarks and standards.  Belonging within these systems is complicated because of policies and structures that exclude and marginalize particular people and groups.  This systemically-driven thwarted belonging is counter to radical acceptance.  We see belonging as part of modeling and teaching citizenship. Imagine the benefits of instilling and living the idea of radical acceptance while also teaching the dangers of oppressive systems in which people decide who does and does not belong.  Interestingly, many of our podcast guests chose to define belonging in terms of their experiences of not belonging and education literature connects students’ low sense of belonging with academic attrition (Fourie, 2020). The pain and hurt of feeling unseen or excluded in childhood and adolescence are still palpable in adults, and our own lived experiences of belonging (and not belonging) can be powerful teaching tools.

One of our most significant learnings is that belonging is dynamic. Just like relationships and contexts in classrooms and schools shift each year, week, and even by the minute based on world, community, school, and personal variables, belonging ebbs and flows.  We talked with podcast guests from 2020 through today, and their understanding and experiences of belonging have changed drastically over the past few years.  However, the strong consensus is that belonging to self and with others is both critical and ever-changing. We believe that schools can be powerful places for learning about and enacting belonging, and that teachers and school leaders can notice, name, and implement strategies to prioritize belonging in practice.

Belonging Strategies

Like any great lesson, implementing belonging involves preparation.  Creating a classroom agreement about belonging helps to set the foundation of a classroom culture  rooted in knowing and valuing one another.  Conversation around what it feels like to belong, why a sense of belonging is important in class and to learning, and agreeing on belonging as a priority sets the stage for concerted efforts to enact belonging.  Nobody can make students belong, but once the context of belonging is named, we can take and teach specific actions to create the conditions for a “container of belonging.” For example, we can create welcoming spaces and teach strategies like eye contact, turning your shoulders towards people, physically moving to open circles, and inviting others into conversation, play, and learning.

In addition to physical movements to foster belonging, another strategy is leading with strengths.  Noticing, naming, and leaning on students’ strengths is a powerful way to make students feel seen and respected and can also inform academic endeavors. Personal interest projects are assignments where the student selects a topic they would like to work on, and the teacher supports the student through the project’s planning, implementation, and evaluation. For example, projects could include organizing a 5K to support a particular cause, building a computer, or teaching a hair braiding workshop. The projects are as diverse as students’ interests and reach far beyond traditional curriculum to teach relevant skills in math, written and spoken language, marketing, and business fundamentals. Students are given voice and choice as they are seen and valued for their strengths and interests.  These projects are one of many ways to honor multiple perspectives or seek different ways of knowing, learning, and expressing, which can facilitate belonging.

Finally, practices related to belonging to self are also worthwhile to implement in schools. We know that belonging to self is foundational to belonging with others, and developing students’ holistic sense of self may involve attention to mind, body, and spirit.  Teaching basic metacognitive skills, or learning about learning, lays the groundwork for reflection. Asking students about their favorite parts, hardest parts, and how one lesson connects to another helps them to learn and practice the skills of action and reflection cycles.  Discussion and action around nutrition, sleep, and physical movement also promote belonging to self. The Daily Mile (www.thedailymile.us) is a program that began in Scottish schools and has since been implemented in 98 nations, including the US. The program encourages students and teachers to get outside and move for 15 minutes each day (i.e., run, jog, walk, roll).  Teaching self-affirmation practices is another way to foster students’ belonging to self.

Conclusion

Our definition of belonging has expanded as we have talked with education colleagues in K-12 and higher education from 2020 through today.  We continue to believe that being seen and valued by oneself and others is a critical foundation for learning and that there are myriad strategies to set the conditions for belonging in our classrooms. We try new approaches regularly and hope you will consider prioritizing belonging as you prepare for the return to school in the fall.

  1. Previous definitions
    1. Still agree with basic premise, but now expanded
  2. Expanded definition
    1. Belonging is knowing and feeling comfortable with our true selves and the feeling of ease and acceptance when our true selves are seen and valued by others.
      1. Innate – radical acceptance, we belong bc we are alive and here
      2. Not belonging – poignant and academic connections
      3. Valuing self – we think of belonging with others; authenticity and vulnerability to believe “I am enough”, feel ok in one’s own skin
      4. Belonging to self within systems – “Belonging to self is foundational to the interconnected web of relationships and mutual responsibility that characterize our roles as good citizens.”
      5. Valuing others – see and appreciate other people for who they are – “we’re whole when you’re here” – see, value, and miss when gone
      6. Dynamic – shifts with context, time, conditions, world events, local events, how we wake up feeling. Blurred lines between work and home; different classroom contexts, different schools, leadership changes – belonging is dynamic for teachers and students
  3. How to enact belonging?
    1. Preparation – community agreement
    2. Create a container – physical space, inclusive body language (talk with eyes, shoulders, open circles)
    3. Practice belonging to self – recognize your worth, care for yourself – physical movement, eat/drink well, keep learning, reflection, self-affirmation
    4. Lead with strengths – notice, name, center one’s strengths; PIPs, identify and use strengths to help address classroom challenges; unpack successful moments (what went into that?)
    5. Honor multiple perspectives – seek different ways of knowing, learning, expressing; invite mult genres of expression, allow voice and choice, feedback loops
  4. Conclusion – brief connection back to definition/strategies

Dr. Brianne Roos is an Assistant Professor and director of the undergraduate program in the Department of Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences at Loyola University Maryland. Her career began as a clinician practicing medical speech-language pathology in hospital settings, where her favorite days were spent teaching and supervising students and new clinicians. She has been teaching in higher education for over 15 years and her areas of research include belonging, stress, well-being, and connection for students and faculty. Brianne facilitates workshops about teaching and learning for faculty across disciplines and she particularly enjoys the opportunity to develop and implement holistic onboarding programming to support new faculty. Brianne co-hosts a podcast about belonging, where she learns from a diverse range of guests and whose data contribute to research about belonging during the pandemic, in leadership, and in relationships. Always looking for alignment across established high-impact practices and innovative, engaged pedagogy, Brianne’s publications, presentations, podcasts, and classroom practices connect theoretical support with application that centers the whole person.

Dr. Carey Borkoski is an Associate Professor at Johns Hopkins University where she holds a joint faculty appointment with the School of Education and the Bloomberg School of Public Health. Within the School of Education, she teaches research methods and advises doctoral students in the online EdD program. Her research explores the role of communities, bridging media like podcasts and TedTalks, and storytelling in facilitating student onboarding, promoting deeper learning, and mitigating anxiety around learning and engaging in often unfamiliar academic spaces. Connect with her at momentmcoaching.com

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