15 Mar 2019

HELPING STUDENTS FEEL THEY BELONG

Fostering a culture of “belonging” in a community can help children develop love, friendship, commitment, and caring. This “belonging” moves students to act in an inclusive way, change behaviour, go out of their way for others, and appreciate others for who they are. How deeply these changes happen in the classroom seems to depend on the individual teacher: how much the teacher cares about developing an inclusive culture, how able he or she is at reaching individual students, and how involved he or she allows students to be in developing that community. Teachers who value a culture where everyone feels they belong set it as a priority, and constantly model respect and caring in their behaviour and language. Many teachers believe, though, that a strong culture is more easily built when they have the same students for a few years.

At school, we generally focus too narrowly on satisfying growth needs, developing children’s intellectual skills. The problem is that children who are hungry or who come from abusive situations will have very little psychological energy to put into learning. They have many more basic needs to satisfy before they can grow intellectually. Similarly, if children do not feel accepted or included in a classroom, they are unlikely to have a strong motivation to achieve the higher growth objectives the search for knowledge and understanding for their own sake, or the creativity and openness to new ideas. A child who is unsure of his or her acceptance in a class may feel sad or rejected, make the cautious choice, go with the crowd, or study for a test without any interest in learning the ideas. If a teacher can create a classroom where all children feel they belong, in Maslow’s view, the students will become eager to learn for the sake of learning.

Children will also open themselves to new ideas and take creative risks. If they are to become self-directed learners, children must feel that they are loved, that the teacher will respond to them fairly and consistently, and that they will not be ridiculed or punished for honest answers or risk-taking. Classrooms built on the philosophy of belonging have caring, safe environments where children support and help each other. Such a philosophy promotes an “I can” attitude in all children. When children feel they belong, they feel safe and secure and good about themselves. As a result, they become tolerant of others, more accepting and forgiving.

Establish a Relationship with Each Child

Children need a relationship with the adult in the classroom to get their bearings, to understand what is acceptable and not acceptable, to observe and emulate. They need to be able to transfer the relationship they have with their parents to their teacher, to know they are accepted, safe, and cared for. “Once there is a strong connection between adult and child, the child will respond to the tiniest cues from the adult,” says child psychologist Gordon Neufeld. Penelope Leach, in Children First, writes that “Children depend on parents or their substitutes not only to maintain their self-esteem but also to build it.” She believes that teachers need to play the role of the “parent substitute” and not be detached from students. She says further that teachers must be “involved in reciprocal interpersonal relations” with students, not see students as “objects to be taught if they will listen, controlled rather than consulted if they will not.”

 Reflections on Belonging

Explicit teaching of the concept of belonging opens dialogue in the classroom that enables students to talk about how they feel and allows others to care for them. It becomes okay to talk about personal feelings.  Developing good group dynamics is crucial for students’ learning journey, as it not only promotes a sense of confidence in students but also builds trust and acceptance among group members. Unified groups do not occur by chance, but evolve over the course of time as a sense of security and respect and tolerance in the team emerges.

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