The social and emotional lives of our students is of paramount concern, especially as we enter the third year of pandemic teaching. We have witnessed firsthand how much we depended on our ability to learn about our students and communicate with them, and the difficulties that resulted when we were forced to do so virtually. Yet so many caring educators rose to the challenge by fiercely committing to do so no matter what the odds. Our students’ academic progress, we have come to understand, hinges on their ability to utilize their emotional skills. Chief among these is gaining a sense of belonging.
Why Is Belonging Important?
Belonging in the context of schooling means that a young person feels accepted, respected, included, and supported. A student’s sense of belonging in school has long been associated with their achievement. However, newer research has shown a light on the relationship between belonging and academic hardiness. The construct of academic hardiness describes three important elements necessary for school success: commitment, control, and challenge. Commitment is the willingness to persevere when circumstances are difficult. Control speaks to the sense that one can manage academic stresses. Challenge is the perception that a difficulty is also an opportunity to learn.
One study of more than 500 high school students found that school belonging had a mediating effect on academic hardiness. In other words, those who experienced higher degrees of belonging where more likely to possess a higher degree of academic hardiness (Abdollahi, & Noltemeyer, 2018). And it makes sense, right? When faced with adversity, students with stronger ties to school are more likely to persevere.
Active Listening Builds Belonging
It’s easier to build a sense of belonging in the classroom with students who already possess the prosocial skills and academic prowess that we equate with school success. But what about those that don’t? Our acceptance or rejection of a student telegraphs a powerful message to peers. Peer rejection further undercuts a student’s sense of belonging. Consequently, other children internalize this. “My teacher doesn’t like _____, and neither do I.” Being an educator means accepting a truth: young people will not always be at their best. How can we be there for them, and accept them, when they are not their best selves?
We contribute to the belonging of others when we engage in active listening. This is an essential social skill for educators. Carl Rogers, who pioneered nondirective therapy, believed that power was often used to shut down conversations. Thomas Gordon, a student of Dr. Rogers, developed “I” messages to build empathetic listening and reflective thinking. Gordon (2003) incorporated these into a teacher effectiveness training program as a means for educators to interact constructively with students.
How to Actively Listen
Your response will prove to be a crucial moment during conversations with a student who is struggling emotionally. Resist the urge to connect it to your personal experiences, as the goal is for students to understand themselves, not you. Nichols, author of The Lost Art of Listening, advises using active listening techniques “to let them be themselves while [you] continue to be [yourself]” (Nichols, 1995, p. 250). Think of yourself as a mirror that reflects what the student is saying. Simply repeating back impactful words and phrases they have said or written can open up their insight into understanding themselves.
Hone Your Active Listening Techniques
These same techniques work well with colleagues who are processing something that they find challenging. Your instinct to take care of another person often starts with listening to their concerns. You may, or may not, have the same concerns or experiences as the other person. But listening to them can help them feel heard and perhaps even help resolve the issue. The key, though, is to avoid getting pulled into their emotions. Whether talking with a young person who is struggling, or a colleague who is facing a dilemma, consider your active listening skills and identify areas that you may need to attend to.
- Give the person your full and undivided attention and eliminate environmental distractions. This may include changing the setting for the conversation.
- Avoid thinking about what you’re going to say next. The opposite of speaking isn’t waiting to speak again. It’s listening.
- Repeat key words or phrases and repeat them, but don’t comment on them. In doing so, you demonstrate that you are attuned to the speaker.
- Ask open-ended questions that invite them to elaborate or speculate. “When you say that you’re crushed by what happened, what do you mean? What did that feel like when it happened, and how is it feeling now?”
- When it is necessary for you to comment, use “I” statements. “What I think I am understanding is…” invites the person to acknowledge or clarify what the feelings they are experiencing.
- Don’t interrupt.
A Sense of Belonging Begins with Feeling Heard
A sense of belonging to a classroom and school means that students experience an affiliation to and an acceptance by the learning community. This is easy to accomplish when all is going well. It is much more challenging when they are not their best selves. But it is exactly those times when we have the opportunity to model how it is that we take care of others when things are going so smoothly. In doing so, we teach students about themselves, and how they can walk a bit more gracefully in the world.
Abdollahi, A., & Noltemeyer, A. (2018). Academic hardiness: Mediator between sense of belonging to school and academic achievement? Journal of Educational Research, 111(3), 345–351.
Gordon, T. (2003). Teacher effectiveness training: The program proven to help teachers bring out the best in students of all ages. Three Rivers Press.
Nichols, M. P. (1995). The lost art of listening: How learning to listen can improve relationships. Guilford.