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If you want students to learn, they need to feel they belong

When it comes to understanding the connection between emotion and memory, poet and author Maya Angelou’s words sum it up well: “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Research reveals the same. We remember what stirs emotion in us and when students feel good at school, they do better because, as Louis Cozolino explains in Nine Things Educators Need to Know about the Brain, our brains are social. “Close supportive relationships stimulate positive emotions, neuroplasticity and learning.” Good relationships matter: They create a culture and climate where everyone belongs—feels accepted, valued and included.

As an education system, we do this better in primary schools, but it is often overlooked in secondary schools at a time when young brains are hitting adolescence and more sensitive than ever to wanting to belong. Schools that prioritise creating a sense of belonging for all its students are great schools and better places to learn. Leaders should take a calculated approach ensuring that this happens.

Know the research

Cognitive scientists explain that belonging is important because when we belong, we feel safe, and a safe brain is ready to learn. On the other hand, when the amygdala , the part of the brain responsible for regulating stress, feels threatened or is on high alert, information is then blocked from freely entering areas of higher cognitive memory consolidation and storage.

A safe brain allows for a growth mindset and better executive function, which means being better able to make mistakes/take academic risks; having a higher level of self-efficacy (more willing to set higher goals, etc); and practising more self control, which results in less conflict. We are also better able to persevere and think hard about tasks.

A sense of belonging can be particularly elusive for those students who experience “stereotype threat” as members of historically marginalised or stereotyped groups, based on race, gender or class. They may also may feel anxious that they do not feel they belong to the larger group. Our need for belonging is often overlooked,” writes Ulrich Boster in Learn Better, “Part of the reason is that social cues are often subtle cues. They whisper instead of shout, and a feeling of togetherness, of social value, is typically indicated in all sorts of muted ways—accent, inflection, body position.”

From The Australian Society for Evidence Based Teaching

Research, however, shows that educators can make changes to the environment and their teaching practices in order to create a sense of belonging, thus also reducing achievement gaps. Start by knowing the research so that you, as a leader, can confidently articulate that to your staff. Next step: audit your school.

Audit your school

Even without the research, educators know the value of relationships. It is the nuisances of ensuring that everyone belongs that is a bit more complex. “When people are uncertain about their belonging, they search for cues to help them determine if they fit in, if they are liked, and if they are valued and respected. This search for cues about belonging and related anxieties can deplete cognitive resources, and make students feel less motivated and engaged and unsafe,” according to the Mindset Scholars Network, a great resource for what they term the Belonging Mindset.

First, consider how much time your school spends on developing relationships or considering belonging. What systems do you have in place already to help students and teachers? Does everyone at the school have someone to go to or even relate to? How do you know? Consider using 360 degree audit tools to engage all stakeholders. Encourage staff to observe each other and survey students either in small groups or using quick online surveys. Likert statements like, “I like coming to school” or “I feel comfortable at school” reveal a lot about a child’s sense of belonging and can support schools to target student needs. The Search Institute offer free advice and sample surveys for students.

Then, look at the school environment: Schools spend a lot of money and time ensuring the prospectuses reflect a range of student backgrounds, but less so on the diversity of the classroom walls. Survey books, displays and even assembly topics and PowerPoint images for examples that represent all students. Consider race, gender, sexuality and ability—and any other element that is relevant to your school. Also consider authenticity. During a recent visit to a primary school, the headteacher admitted that in her attempt to tickbox inclusiveness, she put up a laminated page of the translation of “welcome” in different languages. “I did this for Ofsted, but it’s like wallpaper.” Her plan B is get the students to create signs in their own language. In another school where I work, they have a display of scientists with faces reflecting different ages, races and genders.

Engage your staff

The most memorable way to engage staff about the importance of belonging is to ask them to reflect on their own experience of what if feels like to belong—or rather not belong in some situations. The diagram below is an example of an exercise I use with trainee teachers. Next, share with staff the research about the importance of good teacher/student relationships. It’s compelling. Tell teachers that if they want students to listen to feedback they spent hours writing, develop a relationship and use culturally responsive pedagogy to develop trust. Building trust is one of the most important factors in effective feedback, according to Dylan Wiliam in this excellent webinar, The Secret of Effective Feedback.

Classroom practice

Some staff will find it difficult to create authentic, positive relationships with students. After all, so many of us were told, “Don’t smile until Christmas.” The last step is to ensure that staff have ideas for developing relationships and thus creating a sense of belonging. First, ask them what they already do (the audit again). Tap into their prior experience. Below are just a few suggestions for teachers you can then offer.

  • Start the year off strong by reminding staff of the importance of pronouncing the names of all students and, even better, understanding the meaning or story behind each student’s name.

  • Have discussions with students about what belonging actually means and how to make sure everyone is represented. See this article in Teach Magazine, adapted from Learning in Safe Schools by Faye Brownlie and Judith King. Remind students that everybody worries about belonging at some point; it’s normal.

  • Develop teacher routines, such as standing at the door to greet students—with a smile.

  • Relate to prior experiences by asking questions about what students already know about the lesson’s topic? Neuroscience shows that this heightens awareness and helps new learning to build on existing neural pathways. Use surveys to elicit prior experiences and prior knowledge. This is particularly important for students in transition years such as Year 7.

  • Help students to connect with each other with peer interviews, Stand Up/Sit down activities and Find Someone Who.

  • Set high expectations for self-efficacy. For example, frame the lessons with high expectations for all students: “Today, I am going to give you some challenging work. Every single person can get better at this. I am here to make sure.” Use quotes that empower students. I love this one that I found on the Teaching Channel website: “Young people aren’t bottles to be filled, but candles to be lit.” (Robert Schaffer)

  • Use cooperative learning experiences, so that students experience success as a group. Examples include jigsaw activities, whereby you have one group become an expert and then teach others, or Each One, Teach One. A quick google search of the titles will give you directions on how.

Reflect and adapt

Like any intervention, it is essential to reflect and adapt throughout the year. Relationships are an ongoing process and they take work. Belonging is complex and subtle. As a leader, be explicit that is a priority at your school and continue to make time for it throughout the whole school year.

From The Australian Society for Evidence Based Teaching

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