“We need to create a sense of belonging for students.”
We hear these expressions on campus all the time. Sense of belonging has risen in prominence in recent decades – and for good reason. Research shows a sense of belonging as a critical precursor to students’ success and affects outcomes such as attendance, grades, and disciplinary issues. On college campuses, concerns for belonging contribute to inequality in achievement and future life success.
That said, using these belonging statements ubiquitously, and stating as fact, has diluted the power of the concept and might accidentally make things worse.
Students have good reason to question whether they belong. The transition to and persistence through college is taxing. Our routines, assumptions, norms, and relationships often change. It can be a real jolt to our sense of identity.
Simply telling students, “You belong!” ignores these legitimate concerns and changes. Even worse, this blanket statement approach shifts the onus to the student. “Well if you do not feel like you belong, and I am being told I do, there must be something wrong with me.” This effect is compounded when these messages are targeted to particular students – think a Native student on a predominantly white campus, the lone female-identifying student in an engineering class, or a veteran who is coming back to campus with 18-22 year olds.
So how can we reconsider sense of belonging and reap its true benefits? See below for 3 ways to promote a true sense of belonging for students:
- Normalize transitions and sense of belonging – Belonging is a process and will look different based on our experiences and identities we hold. Host a structured conversation on belonging, why it is normal, how it comes up, share your own nerves, and create plans together as a class or team.
- Support students’ diverse identities – See students as whole individuals with a variety of intersecting identities. Let’s honor and support positive representations of students’ affiliations and identities rather than letting stereotypes and pejorative terms dictate our interactions.
- Explicitly name that school is about learning and growth rather than being “smart” – In our language, focus on the future and not the past. Emphasize opportunities to collaborate and grow together and praise progress along the way.
Remember, it is not our job to tell students how they feel – rather it is our job to nurture ways of thinking, create cultures, and foster relationships that make a place have genuine belonging.
For more context, check out this piece in EdWeek.