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#CorwinTalks: Strategies to Ensure Students Feel a Sense of Belonging at School

Skilled Teachers Create Connections and a Shared Purpose

By Dustin Bindreiff

After years of observing hundreds of classrooms, I came to understand that skilled teachers are like symphony conductors. With grace and mastery, these teachers lead instruction, manage transitions, and provide feedback to the class in a way that shows each student their important role in a classroom. Skilled teachers are able to unite a diverse collection of kids with different experiences, values, and goals into a cohesive orchestra. Students move with ease from lesson to lesson, signals are understood, directions are followed, and the classroom has the warm buzz of children learning.

These teachers have mastered the ability to connect. They are able to form connections with each child and they create environments and opportunities that help each child connect with their peers. In these divisive and isolated times, the ability to bring people together is more valuable than ever.

Relationships are best built on similarities and shared experiences. Wise teachers find the things they have in common with even their most oppositional and challenging students. This becomes the foundation of a strong student-teacher relationship. Beyond building connections with each student, skilled teachers also utilize group activities, transitions, and non-instructional time to create opportunities for students to build connections with classmates. By teaching students to focus on their similarities, teachers are able to minimize the cliques, rivalries, alienation, and bullying that so many students experience.

However, you don’t get a skilled orchestra just by having people like you and the same is true in the classroom. A team is a collection of individuals with a shared purpose. An orchestra becomes magical when each individual performs their role to help the group achieve that shared purpose of performing a piece of music. Similarly, by cultivating a shared purpose for your class, students begin to understand their role, why they are important to the whole group, and that they need their classmates.

When teachers are able to teach students to focus on their similarities and create a shared purpose for the classroom, the results can be extraordinary. These classrooms move with coordination, the transitions are smooth, the teacher is able to focus on instruction rather than responding to problem behavior, the words students use when they talk to each other are constructive, and students are engaged in learning. 

Belonging Begins with Affirming Beliefs and Practices that Create Space for Students to Tell Us Who They Are

By Lauren Wells

The beginning of the school year is a time that brings a range of emotions with it. For some, there is excitement about having new teachers, starting a new grade or school, and seeing old friends or making new ones. For others, dread, worry, and fear about some of the very same things make the start of school an anxious time of year. But there is an innate desire in all students to experience belonging, purpose, pride, and joy in their learning. To kindle this spark, we must make learning affirming and relevant to our students and build connections between them.

The first few weeks of school offer principals, teachers, counselors, and other school staff the opportunity to focus on building a school culture where learning is situated in students’ lived experiences in ways that will empower them to connect with each other.

Building this type of culture requires us to examine the beliefs and practices we are bringing back to school with us.

Consider, for example, the question, “What did you do this summer?” This question can marginalize students whose summer days aren’t filled with an array of organized activities and vacations and center those students with access to extended educational, enrichment, and leisure activities. So, while the intention is to create community by having students share their summer experiences, the activity can become a barrier to belonging. 

If we want to create classroom and school communities where students can be who they are and connect with each other and us, the simplest place to start is to create the space for them to tell us who they are. One activity I learned while training with the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education (NUA) is a variation of the Name Game, where students introduce themselves using a positive adjective that begins with the first letter of their first name. When students introduce themselves as “Kind Kadijah,” “Masterful Michael,” “Courageous Colin,” or “Tenacious Teri” all kinds of questions and connections emerge among students that lead them to share the experiences and parts of themselves that are affirming to them. These questions, connections, and experiences become assets that can create a “multilane highway with numerous on and off-ramps that facilitate and support the inclusion and participation” of all students in ways that give them voice and demonstrate that who they are matters.

We can create welcoming environments where students feel a sense of belonging when we:

  • Make learning affirming and relevant to our students and build connections between them.
  • Examine the beliefs and practices we are bringing back to school with us.
  • Create the space for them to tell us who they are.

The Four Domains and Twelve Components of Identity Safe Classrooms

The following introduction to identity safety is excerpted from Belonging and Inclusion in Identity Safe Schools by Becki Cohn-Vargas, Alexandrea Creer Kahn, Amy Epstein, and Kathe Gogolewski. A more detailed exploration of these domains and components is available in this free download

Identity safe schools stand firmly in the belief that students of all backgrounds deserve a welcoming school environment that both recognizes and invites them to participate as fully and equally valued members of the classroom and school. When their diverse social identities are respected, they feel connected to each other and their community. The sense of belonging that arises works to negate feelings of alienation, indifference and separation from others.  

The four domains and 12 components of identity safety that serve as the framework for application of identity safe teaching in classrooms also serve as useful guidelines to transform all levels of school culture. 

Written by

Dr. Dustin Bindreiff has worked at every level of education beginning his career as a teacher’s aide to currently providing technical assistance to schools for special education services, equity, and social-emotional learning. Working with underserved students for more than 20 years gave Dr. Bindreiff firsthand experience on the rising need for behavioral and mental health supports for kids throughout education. These experiences have been paired with extensive research into equity, mental health, neuroscience, and building systems of supports. This blend of research and practice has allowed him to help numerous schools improve their school climate, close achievement gaps, and build culturally responsive systems of supports.
Dr. Lauren Wells is an educator, researcher, and community organizer whose work centers on comprehensive, systemic, culturally responsive, and collaborative approaches to educational and social change. In 2016, Lauren founded Creed Strategies, LLC to create a community of consultants whose core mission is to use their knowledge, experience, and resources to work alongside educators and communities to ignite conditions for equity and justice. She is the author of There Are No Deficits Here: Disrupting Anti-Blackness in Education.
Dr. Becki Cohn-Vargas spent over 35 years as a teacher, principal, curriculum director, and superintendent in rural, urban, and suburban districts. In each setting, she focused on educational equity and strategies for diverse populations. When she learned about research on identity safety classrooms where teachers strive to assure students that their social identities are an asset rather than a barrier to success in the classroom, it became her educational mission. Partnering with Dorothy Steele, identity safety researcher, she coauthored “Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn,” aimed at K–5 teachers. Subsequently, she co-authored “Identity Safe Classrooms Grades 6–12: Pathways to Belonging and Learning”, and “Belonging and Inclusion in Identity Safe Schools: A Guide for Educational Leaders.”

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