We Belong: What Students Believe

by: Marilyn Mc Alister

The new school year has begun. The room is ready, classroom supplies are in place, and we look around the room. If you’re like me, you’re excited and yet a little nervous. That nervousness comes from the desire to reach our students a lasting way.

Abraham Maslow, in 1943, wrote about the “Hierarchy of Needs” that drive human motivation.

As an educator, I’ve been drawn to the need of “belonging”. What makes a student feel like they belong in school? If students feel like they belong, won’t genuine learning take place?

I decided to do some action research. During the first week of school with my sixth graders, we slowed down the pace and took time to do some relationship building. Each day we participated in collaborative team building activities ranging from M and M discussion starters to the Marshmallow Challenge. We wrote a class mission statement and described the sensation of Pop Rocks popping in our mouths. On Friday, I introduced the term “Student Belonging.” As a class, we brainstormed what the phrase means to them as students. Take a look at their list.

For a group of sixth graders, they created a pretty extensive list. After the group discussion, we turned to our Chromebooks where students answered five questions on a Google Form. I purposefully left the form anonymous, so students would free to express themselves.

Take a look at the questions and responses.

Question 1: What does “Student Belonging” mean to you?
  • Student belonging means feeling included and being positive about what you do in school.
  • To feel like I’m part of the school and not the odd one out.
  • Feeling comfortable and safe with all your classmates.
  • Student belonging to me is that a student feels like he/she should be there participating in school and social activities and becoming friends with one another.
Question 2: Describe a situation when you felt like you belonged at school.
  • When I play basketball with my friends, I score a point, and everyone is congratulating me. That’s when I really feel like I belong.
  • When I say something in class and my classmates listen to me.
  • When we work together.
  • Once I started to develop relationships with more people, I felt like I belonged. I started gaining more friends and they just made me feel good about myself.
Question 3: Describe a time when you felt like you didn’t belong in school.
  • A time I felt like I didn’t belong at school was when I was in second grade and I had a group of friends that left me out of all of their activities.
  • I felt left out when we were playing kick ball and I sat out because there was no room for me.
  • I feel like I don’t belong in school when I get stressed, sad, or mad.
  • I didn’t feel like I belonged when I first came to this school because I was speaking a different language and I didn’t know English.
Question 4: How can a school or teacher help with student belonging?
  • A teacher can help with student belonging by being a good listener.
  • By intervening and including students in activities with other students.
  • A teacher can help by talking to you personally and let you express yourself.
  • When a teacher helps a student and gives them the most support they can, it can really make the student want to belong in school.
Question 5: How can you and/or your classmates help with student belonging?
  • Encouragement.
  • We could help by accepting anyone from any place or race and include everyone.
  • My classmates and I can help with student belonging by collaborating more, talking to each other, and have a positive attitude.
  • I can help with student belonging by asking someone that feels left out to join the game we are playing.

Some definite trends started to emerge as I read through student responses. One, student relationships with each other, even in elementary school, play a large part in how comfortable students feel in school. Two, many students want a personal relationship with their teacher. And three, students want to feel as if they are part of a bigger purpose than themselves. They understand that they are part of a group.

The next phase of my action research was surveying educators. I created another Google Form asking respondents, on Twitter, to rank five components from one to five, with one being the most important and five being the least important. The five components were:

  • Peer to Peer Relationships
  • Student Relationship with Teacher
  • Student Voice
  • Student Choice
  • Feeling Safe at School

Of the twenty-one responses, 13 ranked feeling safe at school and 11 ranked peer to peer relationships as being the number one component to student belonging. Student relationships with the teacher was third.

Take a look at the data.

Reflecting on the two surveys, it’s evident that both students and educators place a high importance on peer relationships. As adults, we understand that these relationships will bond many of them for a lifetime. As trust is built with their peers, the struggle to fit in will be minimized and more time and attention will be available for learning. One of the differences between the two surveys was that educators placed safety as the primary component to student belonging. Going back to Maslow, we understand that safety and a feeling of security is a basic human need. My elementary school students, on the other hand, may not have grasped the depth of this need. Interestingly, student voice and choice were not seen as primary factors in student belonging. One respondent, from the educators survey, pointed out that it was difficult to rank the five choices because they are all important.

As we begin our school year, let’s place student belonging in the forefront of our minds. Creating lifelong learners is no easy task, but one we are privileged to be charged with.


Marilyn . . .

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