“I’ve always believed that marginalized children and families are struggling to find belonging. And the school and others have to reach out and offer belonging.”
– Dr. James P. Comer
Is America broken or breaking open? Perhaps the answer is both. And schools, more than any other institution, have an opportunity to help restore wholeness by offering students and their families a renewed sense of belonging. The issues that separate us reveal a clear picture of the damage othering can cause to an individual, family, school, or community. Schools are the core institutions of teaching and learning that can show us a better way to move forward. Thousands of educators across America have joined a revolution to open minds, change hearts, rebuild trust, and restore a sense of belonging.
We know that feelings of connectedness and belonging are important to our physical and mental well-being. According to Psychology Today’s 2019 article The Importance of Belonging Across Life, “Human connections are important across the lifespan. They begin early, are constantly evolving, and extend through old age.” We also know that when a child’s sense of belonging hangs in the balance, the ability to trust and build connections are also shaken. Feelings of fairness and acceptance impact everything from discipline to academic performance in school, especially for students of color. Struggling to “fit in” and our “othering” of people based on race, culture and difference, not only impacts student lives, but can have life-long ripple effects. The caregivers and adults who work with youth are critically important in this evolution over time. EdWeek’s 2017 compilation of research on belonging notes this as well.
We know all of this. But, it bears repeating with even stronger conviction because a sense of belonging is now more critical than ever for our students as they navigate increased political and ideological divides often played out through protests, riots, and violence. Loss of life, limited social interactions, and increased trauma, experienced during Covid further intensify the need to help children and youth feel a sense of belonging and safety in a confusing world.
EDUCATORS LEAD A REVOLUTION OF BELONGING
“In schools today teachers, parents, administrators, and many personnel are working really hard to create a mentality that says everyone belongs; and, our hope and dream is to create a coherent place where belonging and purpose and desire are nurtured for everyone,” says Tim Shriver, Co-Founder of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) and Founder of UNITE. “That’s a vision for the United States not just for kids,” says Shriver.
Even during the physical separation of distance learning, we know there are dedicated teachers and leaders providing students with the knowledge and tools to push past the disconnection and division. Daily, these educators are striving to build student competencies so young people grow into adults who can maintain healthier relationships, have more empathy for others, and recognize and celebrate everyone’s uniqueness. Each day in school, students are learning to make more responsible decisions, overcome personal challenges, and work together to create constructive solutions to difficult problems. These educators are helping ensure our students enter adulthood as more caring, more productive, and engaged citizens and people.
No doubt, we still face tough, complex large problems; and, of course, it is the responsibility of adults to fix them. But, we also understand that it’s the adults of tomorrow that will create the long-term sustainable change for future generations. With the right tools and supports, our students – all students – are poised to become the adults who build a better US, who can, just maybe, ensure that everyone not just survives, but thrives. Understanding how to build and maintain connections, relationships, and belonging is central to creating healing in the present and hope for the future.
“We have seen that brains are opened by relationship, by trust, by belonging,” says Shriver. “That brain is fired up and ready to absorb information, to be motivated with purpose, and to learn. The brain not opened up by relationship and trust is closed. Nothing is going in. You can scream at that brain and rant and rave against the child, it’s not going to make any difference,” says Shriver. “No relationship, no learning.”
“Schools have an opportunity,” says Dr. James Comer, Maurice Falk Professor in the Child Study Center; Associate Dean for Student Affairs, School of Medicine, “the school has to reach out and offer belonging . . . and hold on to the hearts and minds of children.”
We believe that as well. In schools across America, educators are emerging as the leaders to take on many of the ills that face us. Their inspiring stories, the courageous stories of the students, and our reflective common conversation can create a powerful transformation so that we may find what has been lost or create that which was never there.
So that we may each belong.
We are honored to be a part of this movement with them and with you, as we move toward a better US.
“We take everyone who shows up to our school-house doors, everyone, so this is the place where you can make the difference if you really want to change the world.”
– Dr. Meria Carstarphen
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In that spirit we found this recent ASCD article Navigating the Concurrent Classroom to be useful during this time of hybrid learning. There are no easy answers, but as the author states, “The human side of teaching is the work we do that technology cannot replace. With everything happening in our world, we need to focus on connecting with our students. The educators who understand the power of connection and design and facilitate learning experiences that create time to nurture their relationships with students will have the most success navigating this challenging moment in education. In a concurrent classroom, this also helps online learners feel included and gives them a chance to raise issues they may be facing.” We could not agree more.
Written By: Tammie Workman, Education Consultant and Former Urban Schools Leader with Stacey DeWitt CEO of Connect with Kids Network.