Belonging Early: Fostering Strong Connections Between Family, School, and Community in Early Childhood Settings
By: Audrey O’Clair
As educators, we go to great lengths to create a sense of belonging for all learners yet I struggle with the phrase “sense of belonging” as one can have a false sense of something. We must strive to create not just a sense, but an experience of belonging for the very young. When you truly belong, there is no misinterpreting the way that experience feels. When you truly belong, you experience it in your core and it shapes the way you learn and behave.
People and relationships are the key factors in building these experiences. It is my hope, not to create a sense of belonging for youngsters but rather to provide the undeniable experience of belonging. I believe the formula for this involves a cohesive partnership between a learner’s home, school, and community that must begin very early in our educational journey. When a commitment has been shown to create feelings and experiences, we better prepare all learners to cope with adversity and understand that no matter which direction they turn, there are people invested in them and willing to play a role in their learning.
While there are certainly early childhood education programs that have figured out how to engage families and community members to create a culture of belonging, the professionals I have supported and talked with have repeatedly shared their frustration with finding meaningful ways to involve children’s first and best teachers in their early education.
When considering what matters most in an early learning environment that puts children at the heart of our work, we must presume good intentions to create an inclusive environment that values each connection and the impact that such connections may have on future learning and success.
What if many of the obstacles we face in public and private education exist due to a disconnect between home, school, and community? You may have heard or even said things like “if only this child’s family behaved this way…” or “if my child’s teacher behaved in this way” or “clearly school isn’t teaching this skill” or “if this new employee had been taught this skill or raised in a certain way.” Perhaps the answer isn’t in fixing one group but in connecting all three in an effort to create empathy and understanding of the intricacies involved in each.
If a youngster’s family is welcomed and encouraged to participate, in their early learning experiences, they may be more likely to support the goals of the program. If early learning professionals feel as if their knowledge and experiences are valuable and worthy of sharing with the family and the world, they will be more likely to seek opportunities for continued learning and growth. If community members get involved and stay involved in the education process, they will be more likely to support initiatives to build an innovative workforce that has meaningful skills.
“There are two primary choices in life; to accept conditions as they exist, or accept the responsibility for changing them.” — Denis Waitley
By creating the conditions for belonging in its truest form, we can lead learners to reach their potential. When we take simple steps to involve each group of this triad we create a village that is circled tightly around the very members of our society who need to understand that they truly belong to a family, truly belong to their school, and truly belong to their community.
For more ideas about creating a culture of belonging, see this collection of resources.
Audrey O’Clair, is an educational consultant specializing in literacy, special education, technology, and innovation. She is the co-creator of KJS Early Literacy Initiative, an intervention for children that screen as at risk for reading struggles. Audrey is an Education Ambassador at Soundtrap, a Social Media Fellow for EdSurge, and an evangelist for ReadyRosie, an organization focused on increasing family engagement through video. Follow Audrey on Twitter @audreyoclair