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#CorwinTalks: Strategies to Foster Cultures of Belonging in Schools and Classrooms

A Fundamental Need: Belonging 

By Nicole V. Law and Sonja Hollins-Alexander

The need to belong can be traced back to prehistoric times when cooperation and collectivism was critical for safety and survival (Allen, 2019). Belonging is the core need that was and is essential for psychological functioning, physical well-being, and emotional safety. A sense of belonging has a significant impact on multiple factors associated with wellbeing. These factors include life satisfaction, cognitive performance, academic outcomes, and physical and mental health. Schools that offer opportunities to create belonging cultivate learning environments where students feel accepted, appreciated, known, valued, and validated by their peers and educators. 

Students come to school to engage in formal education, acquire skills and knowledge, and for social and personal development. School is the first setting where many scholars learn to socialize with others outside of their family structure. Belonging and socialization are interconnected concepts that influence how one navigates the world around them. This navigation facilitates ways of interacting where individuals can experience the feelings of connectivity that humans are hard-wired to seek.

 “The brain seeks to minimize social threats and maximize opportunities to connect with others in community” (Hammond, 2014, p47).

When a sense of belonging is fortified, students learn to make friends, develop critical thinking skills, collaborate within teams, and develop time management and organizational strategies. Gray (2021) identified that, when students feel a sense of belonging at school, they are typically more energized and engaged, spend time on-task, and choose to be fully present in the school environment. Conversely, students who do not experience a sense of belonging, struggle to devote their full cognitive abilities and emotional engagement to instructional tasks, as well as encounter emotional detachment within the learning community. These feelings could manifest in absenteeism, behavioral referrals, frequent visits to the nurse’s office or even dropping out of school as students look for ways to avoid environments where they feel they don’t belong.  

When considering cultivating a students’ sense of belonging, educators must actively strive to ensure that this fundamental human need is met, and students are invited to learn. 

By Focusing on Belonging, You Can Promote Equity

By Tyrone Howard

Belonging is an essential concept when discussing equity. The concept of belonging is centered on the idea that equity should be more than an ideal, that you must meet people where they are for them to get where they need to be. Belonging is centered on the idea that our all students want and need to be included, seen, heard, and valued. Our students want to feel like they belong, they are welcomed, in all of their identities, their gender identity, language, culture, racial identity, and ways of thinking and learning. A belonging framework is quite mindful of the diversity of students, and seeks to structure beliefs, practices, and policies that are always mindful of how our actions affect those on the margins. Belonging is predicated on the idea that no one is left behind, excluded, overlooked, or rendered invisible. Equity is not possible without belonging. Belonging cannot be attained without equity.

We cannot create equitable schools without being ever mindful of how we ensure that all students have access to opportunities and resources that they might otherwise be excluded from, such as those who come from low socioeconomic backgrounds, Students of Color, students who are linguistically gifted (Multilingual learners), students who are gender non-conforming and LGBTQ+ youth, as well as students with physical or intellectual disabilities and members or other minority groups. In practical terms, laid out in more detail in my book Equity Now, this means interrogating our instructional policies and practices with questions like: “Who might be excluded?” “Are we including all stakeholders?” “Does this policy make it harder for certain populations of students and their families?” “Who has been historically excluded?” “Does every family feel like they belong as part of a school community?” “Is this fair to everyone?” 

Belonging seeks to make sure that there are no discriminatory practices, and there is a concerted effort to remove barriers that prevent anyone from full participation in school opportunities.  

Teach with Radical Love as a Pathway to Belonging

By Crystal Belle

Radical love in education is the idea that we need to put our egos to the side to love with compassion and equity. When educators choose love over our egos, we also decenter oppressive power dynamics in teaching and learning contexts, to open up our hearts so that we can embrace our students’ authenticity.

We are currently witnessing particularly violent times around the world and it is imperative that we center love and empathy as pathways for a more conscious understanding of our collective humanity. Classrooms and schools are critical sites of learning where we have the power to create communities of love, relational trust and respect by understanding more about how our differences across race, class, gender, ability and sexuality can bring us together instead of apart.

In my new book, Start with Radical Love: Antiracist Pedagogy for Social Justice Educators, I provide a framework for how radical love is at the center of teaching and learning practices through a Social Justice Education (SJE) framework. My SJE framework starts with radical love and incorporates cultural competence, Critical Race Theory and student visibility to honor diverse identities and lived experiences. To practice social justice work as an aspect of radical love, it is important to acknowledge that we live in a society where the social construct of race along with racism exists and continues to oppress some of our most vulnerable populations

Educators can embody radical love by learning more about who their students are, while being committed to including their ways of knowing, being and becoming into the curriculum and daily norms. When students feel loved, it will allow them to embrace vulnerability in classrooms and schools, which will increase their trust in the teaching and learning process. Starting with radical love ensures equity, social justice and freedom for all students, teachers and leaders.

 

Written by

Dr. Crystal Belle has been an educator for over 16 years and has worked in k-12 schools in Brooklyn, New York, as an English Teacher, in higher education at the University of Houston-Downtown and Rutgers University-Newark as a Professor and Director of Education, and in the nonprofit sector as a Director of curriculum partnerships at EL Education. Her work is grounded in Critical Race Theory (CRT), Social Justice Education, radical love, and self-care. Also an entrepreneur, Dr. Belle is the founder and Principal consultant of Self Love Life 101, an online coaching business that supports individuals and organizations to implement radical self-care through Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion frameworks.

Dr. Tyrone C. Howard is the Pritzker Family Endowed Chair in the School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA. Howard is the co-director of the UCLA Pritzker Center for Strengthening Families and Children. He also is the co-director of the UCLA Center for the Transformation of Schools. Dr. Howard has published over 100 scholarly journal articles, book chapters, policy briefs, and technical reports. He is the author of six books. Dr. Howard is the president of the American Educational Research Association, which is the world’s largest educational research organization.  

Dr. Sonja Hollins-Alexander has over three decades of experience in education, much of it focusing on enhancing education through leadership and professional learning. Her trajectory has seen her evolve from school social worker and teacher to principal and director of professional learning in Metro Atlanta school districts. With a rich background in instructional design, policy development, and stakeholder engagement, she’s been a senior consultant and has engaged in educational publishing with Corwin. Notably, Hollins-Alexander has contributed significantly to professional development, holding pivotal roles such as board president for Learning Forward, GA.

Nicole Law, Ph.D., is a full-time Professional Learning Consultant with Corwin and works with teachers and leaders across the country. As a dynamic and passionate educator, Nicole focuses her work around developing strong teacher teams, leading for equity, implementing high-impact practices for all learners, and increasing engagement and achievement for English Learners. Prior to her role with Corwin, Nicole served as a Curriculum Coordinator in the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township in Indianapolis, Indiana. 

 

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