Helping Students Belong—Not Just “Fit In”

Kindergarteners are fibbing about coloring on their desks…second graders are changing their favorite TV show based on their friends…and teachers are joining the Friday happy hour, knowing they’re exhausted. The common denominator here? We’re all trying to fit in.

This intense desire to feel like we are a part of a group is hardwired into our biology. Not long ago in human history, fitting in with the group impacted one’s access to protection. Today, not “fitting in” with those in power can still be dangerous for marginalized groups.

That said, it’s no surprise that kids go to great lengths to connect with those around them and seek a sense of belonging in groups. But there is a big difference between fitting in and true belonging

The Desire to Belong

“Fitting in” suggests students don’t feel comfortable being their authentic selves. For some children, “fitting in” may not even be a choice, as some qualities (appearance, for instance) are impossible to hide. 

On the contrary, Brené Brown defines belonging as “being part of something bigger but also having the courage to stand alone.” Even when children’s behavior is less than optimal, it’s important to welcome their feelings. When teachers acknowledge the need for children to belong, they can gain perspective when problems arise and devise innovative and compassionate ways to support students with behavioral and social challenges. 

We know this is easier said than done. It can be tricky for teachers to encourage students to “be themselves” while also trying to teach them appropriate ways to communicate, behave, and interact with others in the classroom. One day, we’re teaching students to cooperate and share with others. The next day, we’re encouraging them to self-advocate and speak up for their own turn and needs. 

How can we walk this fine line in our classroom to help students learn to be themselves, manage our day-to-day classroom, and teach new skills? 

We believe the answer lies in the supportive classroom community we create for our students. If students have a safe space where they can show up authentically, teachers can more easily cultivate that sense of belonging we all need. 

Creating a Safe Space Starts With You

You’ve probably heard this before—change starts from within. If you want to create an environment where all students feel welcome, you must first look at your own feelings and internal reactions to behaviors that arise in the classroom. 

For instance, when a student is bossing other students around, use that as an opportunity to reflect. Do you feel annoyed? What did you learn about “bossy” behavior as a child? Were you allowed to be bossy as a child? What is another word for bossy? Can bossiness be a trait of a strong leader? All of these reflections can lead us to more insight and offer a way to reduce our own reactivity as we learn to show up for all children. 

Once we have worked through our own biases and reactions, we can better show up for children and welcome all feelings. An all feelings welcome approach prioritizes the adult-child connection, which creates a sturdy foundation to experience true belonging. 

Remember that it can be scary and overwhelming for children to express big feelings. When there is a safe place in the classroom to express those feelings (we call ours a Comfort Corner), students learn that they can share how they really feel inside and still be accepted. These early interactions can remind children of their emotional courage as they venture into the world. As they grow, we hope they’ll never forget that belonging comes from inside. 

Educator Reflection

  • As a leader, do you notice and reflect on your own feelings? 
  • Are there any feelings you are pretending not to have? Is there part of you feeling judgment or rejection towards a student or a behavior? 
  • Do you have a safe place to express your own feelings that might be "unacceptable" for teachers to feel? Is there someone you can talk to about your feelings that won’t judge you?
  • How can you work to accept the parts of you that are feeling judgment, annoyance, or anger without letting those parts take over and control your behavior toward students? Can you feel empathy for those parts of you? 
  • As you do the work to welcome your own feelings and all parts of yourself, do you notice how you show up differently for others? How does your inner work impact your work with students? 

As educators, we all want our students to feel like they belong just as they are. Here are a few ways you can infuse this into your daily practice for your students and your wider school community. 

Select Activities that Foster Belonging

When we embrace each child as an individual, it can help children feel seen, heard, and welcomed. Try finding activities to celebrate the range of identities in the classroom. Activities that reflect the home languages and cultures of the students can help send a message that all students are welcome in the classroom. We can encourage all of the ways children experience the world by creating a space where it is safe and fun to share those experiences.
  • Provide Opportunities for Inclusion 
Look out for the kids who seem to be struggling with social relationships. Maybe it’s the student who is the last to find a partner when it’s time for students to pair up. Listen for the student who talks about not liking to play alone at recess. Find opportunities to address these moments creatively that take the pressure off the individual student. For instance, allow those students to pick their partners first or have them select a partner or two to complete a needed task, like taking something to the office. Make space for each student to share who they are intentionally and model for other students how to respond in a welcoming and inclusive way.
Students can benefit from learning about the importance and power of authenticity. Authenticity is about showing up as your unique self and listening to your inner voice about what feels right for you. When students learn about authenticity in a classroom, it can create a culture that welcomes all kinds of differences. Try finding opportunities for children to reflect on how they are important and wonderful, just as they are. Teach the word “unique” as a vocabulary word and explore its meaning together as a class. Each student is unique, and you are also creating a unique classroom environment as a whole. Try playing games highlighting how each perspective is needed to solve a problem. Then reiterate that we need every child to show up authentically to make the world a better place.
No matter how much we try, sometimes we can’t get students to speak up. The thing is, not all students find verbal communication the best way to communicate their inner voice. Explore different forms of expression through art and writing, or choose books or activities that resonate with them. Then do some container building in your classroom. Take a morning to explore what “psychological safety” is for your students.

Psychological safety can be described to students as “feeling safe to share your feelings with others and be yourself.” If your students are writing, you could let them first write their ideas silently. If you have pre-writers, you could collaborate as a class to share ideas. Some students may benefit from being able to draw their ideas. However, you go about encouraging expression, be sure to build a safe space that is conducive to psychological safety for everyone.

School and Family Partnerships

It’s not always easy to ensure family participation (trust us—we’ve been there!) Some families need multiple opportunities and chances to get involved, so don’t give up. Think creatively about ways to connect with families with various communication styles and cultures.

Sending letters home may work for some families, while hosting in-person “back-to-school night” events may work for other families. Virtual events can also be helpful for those who may struggle with transportation or childcare schedules. When families are encouraged to participate in their children’s schooling, students will benefit from the strengthened home-school connection. 

We don’t all see eye to eye in this world. Not everyone is willing to make others feel like they are worthy of belonging; this is where our differences can create division. Exclusion can easily spill into the classroom environment and create a space where not all people feel like they belong. 

Luckily, as educators, we have the opportunity in our classroom communities to teach students how to show kindness, accept others, and build empathy for the world around them. Think of the ripple effect that will have on the world! Your classroom could be that one place where children feel they belong. In the big picture, that belonging is no small thing.

Kim Allen
Director of Educational Content
Master’s degree in Early Childhood and Elementary Special Education and a Bachelor’s degree in Family and Human Services

Krista Olson
Manager of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging

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