Cultivating Belonging

Cultivating Belonging

By Carey Borkoski, originally published in the November/December 2019 issue of AC&E Equity & Access journal.

How many times have you heard, “We are all in this together” or “We are a team” or any form of this idea of being in something together?

I suspect all of us, at one time or another have heard these words or some expression evoking similar ideas. While the individual expressing this sentiment may believe in the notion, it is not enough to say that a group is together in something. We cannot assume that by saying these words out loud that this will happen. Being “together” requires more than an inspirational speech. It requires that the individual saying the words knows the followers AND the followers trust the leader/individual. In my view, it requires belonging.

Define belonging

“Do I belong here?” is one of the questions Walton and Brady (2017) explore in their chapter, “The Many Questions of Belonging”, in The Handbook of Competence and Motivation. Walton and Brady explain that the question suggests two important aspects of belonging: who ‘I’ am and what the setting allows. This concept of belonging requires us to focus on individual development as well as development of the environment in order to cultivate belonging. In an educational setting this might mean we are working with individuals such as leaders, administrators, teachers, and students on their own sense of self and belonging. It also means that attention is required with respect to the setting itself – schools, classrooms, offices, playgrounds, or virtual communities.

We often confuse belonging with fitting in. Authentic community building and cultivating a sense of belonging is not about figuring out how to blend into your environment OR augmenting the environment to align with any one individual. When there is belonging, the individuals in the community believe and trust that they are valued as people within the community. This is not about assimilation or congruence.  Instead, it’s about creating feelings of social connectedness, support, and respect. Brené Brown (2015) suggests that human beings are wired for connection and as educators, our ability to support personal development and create an environment of belonging leads to stronger student-to-student, teacher-to-teacher, and student-teacher connections. James Comer (2001) also notes that significant learning does not happen without significant relationship. Significant relationships and authentic connections require attending to individual belonging as well as the identity and messages inherent in our learning environments. We do not want our students to blend into our classrooms. Instead, students should feel valued and appreciated for contributing to, rather than merely aligning with, the environment.

Why should we care about belonging? Who does it benefit?

There is consensus in the literature about the benefits of a student’s sense of belonging. Researchers suggest that higher levels of belonging lead to increases in GPA, academic achievement, and motivation (Layous, Nelson, Kurtz, & Lyubomirsky, 2017; Walton & Carr, 2012). Cook, Purdie-Vaughns, Garcia, and Cohen (2012) also found that a sense of belonging may even act as a protective factor for lower achievement in middle school students. In other words, building belonging acts as a way to reduce the risk of lower achievement for middle school students. As educators, integrating belonging into our strategies may offer a way to prevent future academic challenges for our students. And, although there is a dearth of literature related to belonging in higher education settings, there is some evidence to suggest that belonging in college students reduces feelings of isolation and may contribute to higher rates of persistence, retention, and graduation (Yeager, Purdie-Vaughns, Hooper, & Cohen, 2017). It is also important to note that creating and cultivating a sense of belonging with and for students in classrooms might represent the only opportunity or setting in the day where they experience belonging. A strong sense of belonging is connected to improved outcomes including academics, happiness, relationships with peers and teachers, motivation, engagement, and self-efficacy, along with a reduction in behavior issues.

While it is evident that students benefit from cultivating individual and place-based belonging, it is also reasonable to suggest that attention to this element of learning contributes to teacher sense of efficacy and connection to their classrooms and schools, which may contribute to higher levels of productivity and longer tenure in their professional context. This is important because there is also consensus that teachers represent the most important in-school factor to student achievement (Coleman et. al, 1966; Gamoran & Long, 2006).  

What can we do to cultivate belonging?

Cultivating a sense of belonging may conjure a little eyerolling and “here we go again with education reform.” I would, however, posit that belonging and community building are fundamental to learning. Moreover, implementing the decisions, actions, and strategies related to community building and belonging is not meant as an additive element to anyone’s already heavy workload, but rather as an integrative way to enhance and strengthen existing strategies and ways of doing and learning.

I think the good news is that many teachers are already doing this work in their classrooms with their students. We need to leverage those experiences and individuals and expand the reach of cultivating belonging. While there are many proven interventions in the literature, such as culturally responsive teaching (Gay, 2002), equity pedagogy (Banks & Banks, 1995), and appreciative inquiry (Cooperrider & Whitney, 2001), these strategies often require significant professional learning and changes to current practices. On the other hand, cultivating belonging may be more practical.  For example, teachers may use interest interviews (Walkington, Sherman, & Howell, 2014) to cultivate belonging.  In this kind of an activity, teachers assign homework where students respond to a series of interview questions, and in a later session or class, peers exchange responses and introduce each other to the class. In this way, teachers provide an opportunity for everyone in the community to start to hear from each other and learn about their own experiences and context.

Additionally, the data in the interviews and insights gained provide content for later lessons, activities, and homework assignments. Drawing from students’ experiences and contexts as part of teaching and learning can assist teachers with augmenting the setting so that it allows and accounts for more individual experiences and creates opportunities for integrating representation and role models into the course content (Covarrubias & Fryberg, 2015). This is just one example of how educators and students can work together to cultivate belonging through attention to the individual (i.e. asking questions and listening to student interviews) and the environment or, in this case, the classroom.  Students working on the assignments and activities will see themselves (i.e., individual work) in the assignments and start to build trust that the teacher knows and cares about the students in the classroom space (i.e., environment work). This is cultivating belonging.

There are a number of ways to build community and cultivate belonging, including the use of bridging media, which refers to the integration of low-stakes shared referents to promote discourse and deep learning (Ke, 2010). These can take many forms, such as videos from YouTube, podcasts, stories or narratives from articles, books or magazines, and other artifacts. The idea behind the shared referents is that the tools offer a means to shift the learning environment from a new and potentially unfamiliar setting into one that is more familiar and, perhaps comfortable as a result of the familiar artifact.

Moreover, effective facilitation and discussion prompts draw the learners’ attention to ways in which the content may align with their own familiar experiences. For example, when watching a science or math video, consider asking students for examples in their daily lives that are similar or related to the topic at hand. Instead of taking responsibility for identifying examples, shift the focus to the students’ lived experiences and invite students to share and compare. Again, working with the individual and the environment helps to cultivate a sense of belonging.

As a community of learners, we should be aware of how we speak to our students and describe experiences. Avoiding deficit language and promoting an appreciative or strengths-based approach also contributes to feelings of belonging and garners trust and connection among individuals. It is also important that as educators, we are doing our own reflective work. This might include reflecting or debriefing individually or in a group to check for bias, strengthening our ability to empathize, and raising our own awareness about our individual students and the environment in which they/we are learning.

Finally, I think it is critical to remember that as educators, we are also students. We need to give ourselves and our colleagues permission to learn, explore, make mistakes, and progress, just as we would with students in our classrooms. Our capacity to cultivate belonging with our students and our colleagues is, in part, a function of our own feelings about our own belonging. Being intentional about supporting the individuals (student and teacher) and the environment where we work and teach (i.e. schools, classrooms, meeting rooms), will positively contribute to cultivating belonging in ourselves and our students.

So, “Do I Belong Here?”

I hope that in the end, when our educator-learners and student-learners walk into any setting that they/we will be able to respond “yes” to that question. If we attend to the individual as well as the environments in which we work, learn, and play, it is possible to cultivate this sense of belonging so that when our students leave our schools and enter new settings, they will feel a sense of belonging within themselves. Cultivating belonging in our schools and classrooms contributes to student preparedness for their journeys and courage to stand alone.

I will leave you with one last thought from Brene Brown, who suggests that to truly belong, we must “belong thoroughly to ourselves and believe thoroughly in ourselves.” That is, our ability to reflect our individual and collective contributions and to create environments that invite us to participate in the community leads to authentic interactions where individuals in our communities experience true belonging and a desire to be part of something larger then themselves.

About the Author:
Carey Borkoski’s graduate research, Ph.D. dissertation and early publications focused on human capital accumulation and the relationship between different levels of education and earned wages. Her current role as an Assistant Professor in the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University remains focused on human capital accumulation but from the standpoint of understanding and improving the experiences and outcomes of all learners. See more of her work at WhatsOurStory.com.


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