Portrait of a Learner 9-12

Systems Change

Sense of Belonging

Factor Connections

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How Sense of Belonging connects to...

A Sense of Belonging allows us to feel included, respected, and supported in school. It is heavily tied to our own identities, supports the development of a positive Identity, and is context- and culture-dependent. For adolescents, school can be a supportive and safe environment that fosters positive Identity development and belonging. However, it can also be a source of adversity when trust and belonging are not established--particularly for students from historically and systematically excluded groups. Students who feel a stronger Sense of Belonging in school typically have greater wellbeing, self-efficacy, and academic success.

Main Ideas

Belongingness is the extent to which students feel personally valued, included, and supported by others in their learning environment. In U.S. society, white people typically develop an internalized and mostly unconscious sense of racial belonging through exposure and experiences. However, members of historically and systematically excluded groups may feel uncertain about the quality of their social bonds in academic settings. That is, a lack of school belonging may be attributed to inequitable structural and institutional policies that prioritize certain values and norms while devaluing the cultural wealth and funds of knowledge that other students possess. In addition, students with learning disabilities may be at higher risk of feeling isolated, especially if students are taught in separate classrooms, pulled out of the classroom for specialized instruction or services, or excluded from accelerated (AP) classes. And students who have ADHD often have trouble with Self-Regulation that can be interpreted as being “behavior issues,” putting them at risk of being isolated from and judged by their peers. Fostering a Sense of Belonging in students is critical: students who feel a Sense of Belonging are much more likely to feel happy in school and motivated to engage in class, and therefore are more likely to excel academically.

Many factors can affect a student's Sense of Belonging including: availability of positive representation or role models, an environment free from discrimination and stereotyping, teaching practices that create an inclusive class environment and curriculum, a feeling of Safety at school, support for students with disabilities, and a student's own geographic stability.

One potential barrier to fostering belongingness is the fact that expectations and implicit biases can affect educators' perceptions of students' behaviors, ultimately leading to differential expectations and differential treatment, including increased suspension rates (see also Stereotype Threat). Students with ADHD and learning disabilities also often face the additional barrier of struggling to understand what's known as the “hidden curriculum,” or the unspoken expectations of behavior, social norms, and expected shared understanding of how classrooms work, which, in high school, can vary amongst teachers and may need to be explicitly taught. As students' Social Awareness continues to develop into high school, students may become more aware of, and subject to, negative behaviors from teachers and other students which signal that they do not belong in these settings (signal influences). Research suggests that teachers have a unique opportunity to promote belongingness, because teacher support is one of the strongest predictors of learners' Sense of Belonging. Specifically, when students feel respected, valued, and treated fairly by their teachers, they report a higher Sense of Belonging. Culturally-responsive teaching practices can help all students feel respected and valued in the classroom, including validating students' varied Background Knowledge and lived experiences, Identities, and ways of knowing.

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