Nurturing a Sense of Belonging
We all want to belong. God made us for connection, first with Himself, then with others, in families and communities of society, to encourage and help one another. One of TeachBeyond’s principles of transformational education is to foster excellent educational environments because the Holy Spirit uses those in His transforming work. An excellent educational environment includes ensuring that our classrooms are places where students feel a sense of belonging and understand what it means to belong to Christ.
God made us for connection -
first with Himself, then with others.
Dr. Erik Carter, a professor at Vanderbilt University, describes belonging using 10 dimensions. Let’s look at these dimensions and at practical classroom applications for them. You are likely already implementing many of these activities, but there may be additional ones to help foster the excellent environment you’re building.
Present. This first dimension is a bit obvious: those who aren’t present can’t belong. Yet, consider how other students respond when a classmate is absent. Do they notice? Are they glad? Concerned? To address this dimension, you might try these ideas:
Invited. You might think, this is school, not a social club, but students spend 4-8 hours each day at school, learning to interact and forming social bonds. You can promote this dimension through the following:
- Acknowledge a student’s absence and pray together for him/her.
- Send an encouraging message from the class.
- Assign a buddy to take notes and gather handouts used in class.
Welcomed. Don’t we all appreciate a welcoming smile? It says, I see you, and I’m glad you’re here. Carter explains that this dimension calls for intentional hospitality. Here are some ideas:
- Encourage students to invite others to play at recess or even to activities outside of school.
- Discuss how it feels to be left out vs. to be invited and ways students can extend invitations.
- Invite students to lunch with the teacher.
Known. This dimension occurs when an individual “is truly known by their strengths, interests, and likes or dislikes.” You can foster a sense of being known through the following:
- Give students individual greetings as they enter your class.
- Write each student a welcome note and/or give them a care package at the beginning of the year (and do so for any students who come later).
- Allow time for students to give each other morning greetings.
Accepted. This dimension involves being “valued and embraced without condition.” Here are some ideas:
- Engage in personal conversations with your students – in the hallways, at recess or lunch, during breaks or “morning meeting,” etc. Find out what’s going on in their lives, what they’re excited or disappointed about, and follow up on what they share.
- Plan time for bonding activities. One that worked well for me was to have each student bring a bag of items (pictures, special books or toys, etc.) at the beginning of the year and share with the whole class about the items they brought. It was time well spent!
Supported & Cared For. With these two dimensions, a person “is individually supported in ordinary and innovative ways” and has “their needs responded to in meaningful ways.” To provide support and care, try the following:
- Speak to students with interest and gentleness. Guard your tone of voice against exasperation or annoyance creeping in – particularly when correcting students.
- Listen attentively (with eye contact) to your students as they share. If you must stop them, offer an alternative opportunity for them to finish expressing their thoughts.
- Give hugs as appropriate.
- Have students write positive compliments about each of their classmates. Share those with each student.
Befriended. With this dimension “Each person has enjoyable and reciprocal relationships with peers.” While we can’t ‘force’ students to befriend others, we can express expectations and provide opportunities for enjoying each other’s company. Encourage this dimension with these ideas:
- Allow academically stronger students to be peer teachers or coaches for those who struggle with a concept or skill.
- Use mixed grouping to pair stronger and struggling learners in group work.
- Promote encouraging conversation among classmates. Give sentence starters, if necessary.
- Differentiate for learning styles and skill levels. Use choice boards as an easy start.
- Identify growth goals for each student and provide opportunities for practice & success in those.
- Address attention challenges practically – a bungee cord attached to desk legs for students to gently bounce their feet against, a fidget toy to keep their hands busy so their minds can focus.
- Create a sensory walk or interactive walls in the hallway and a calming spot in your classroom for students who need to use up energy or calm down.
Needed. A sense of belonging is incomplete without a feeling of being needed. This dimension includes the belief that “Each person brings gifts to the community that are seen as indispensable.” Try these suggestions:
- Communicate the expectation that students are friends with all classmates. (They don’t have to be best buddies, but they can choose to be friends on a basic level.)
- Communicate the expectation that recess groups are inclusive (they invite others to join and say yes when someone asks to join their play); encourage students to join in activities they might not gravitate towards.
- Play games and enjoy fun moments together as a class. Take time to tell jokes, laugh together, and share stories of activities outside of school.
Loved. Our students need to feel loved and to experience love from us, from their peers, and from the Lord. They need to be “deeply and unconditionally shown God’s love.” Here are a few ways to practice this dimension:
- Give each student a class job.
- When having students work in groups, assign each one a group role that fosters interdependence.
- Model valuing student contributions in whole-group and small-group discussions.
- Discuss with students the benefits of collaboration and the importance of hearing others’ perspectives.
- Intentionally solicit responses from shy students. Prep them beforehand that you will do so, allowing them time to gather their thoughts.
Where better to experience a sense of belonging and to catch a glimpse of what belonging to God means than in a transformational education setting? As you foster an excellent educational environment, consider how you can continue to nurture a sense of belonging in your classroom. Ask the Lord to give you His wisdom to love your students with His love. Then as He leads, put into practice ideas that would work best in your context. We’d love to hear how it goes.
- Spend time with God and in His word, and seek to have your own heart filled up with God’s love so it overflows to your students.
- Find out what makes each student feel loved. Identify their love languages then seek to share your love & God’s love in ways they connect with.
- Talk with your students about God’s heart of love for all of us and His desire that we show His love to each other. Have them brainstorm ways to do that.
Esther Burnham works in TeachBeyond’s School Services department as Conference Coordinator. She has taught at the elementary level in the United States, Central America & Central Asia. She enjoys helping teachers develop their skills and confidence in teaching.
 See “The TeachBeyond Way”.
 Carter’s work was adapted by the organization AllBelong. The quoted explanations included in this article come from AllBelong’s summary of the 10 dimensions. You can read Carter’s research article here and view videos of his presentations and AllBelong’s summary here
Belonging. E. Burnham.
Welcome Board. Donna Coleman via Heart of the Class. Used with permission. Resized.
Caring Hearts & Hands. Arbor Christian Academy. Used with permission. Resized.