When people wonder whether they belong in a given situation, their answer is shaped by cues in the environment: Are people like me represented in this space? Is my culture reflected? Do the people here respect me and expect me to succeed?
When students can answer these questions affirmatively, they are more likely to be engaged in school and persist in the face of the setbacks and challenges that are essential to learning and growth. When students’ sense of belonging is uncertain, they are more likely to withdraw and disengage.
The practices, policies, and norms of American schooling often signal to some groups and individuals that they belong in school and to others that they do not.
The Student Experience Research Network recently convened 25 experts on belonging at its annual Funder Briefing to discuss what the education system can do to create environments that foster belonging for all students. This is the final installment in a series of four blog posts in which we synthesize lessons from these experts’ remarks at the event. The series builds on the Student Experience Research Network’s past publications about belonging, including a research summary entitled, “What We Know About Belonging from Scientific Research,” and the opening panel discussion of the Funder Briefing, “Studying Belonging in Education: Origins, Current Themes, and Future Possibilities,” a conversation with Claude Steele, Mary Murphy, and Greg Walton.
Our first three posts in this series describe people and organizations that are promoting belonging in academic settings by creating more inclusive cultures in schools, anticipating key moments when students’ sense of belonging may be threatened, and strengthening relationships between students and teachers. At the heart of each of these initiatives is exceptional leadership. This post summarizes some of the lessons we learned from Funder Briefing presenters about leading for belonging.
Creating roles and drawing in organizational resources
It can be difficult to find staff capacity to enact system-wide supports for student belonging. Bethany Little, a principal at EducationCounsel, explained one reason this is true in postsecondary contexts.
Federal education policy focuses on college enrollment and access, Bethany said; almost no current federal policy focuses on degree completion. As a result, responsibility for student success in higher education rarely rests with any one person.
Evelyn Carter, reflecting on her tenure as the director of translational research & anti-bias training at UCLA, agreed: “I looked around for similar positions and found none. It’s really unique that my boss, the vice chancellor, believes that if you’re going to do this work you need a research office that is dedicated to taking the work that academics are doing and figuring out a way to translate that into practice.”
In her position, Evelyn was responsible for designing and evaluating interventions focused on belonging and educating faculty and administrators across the university about how their practices and policies shape students’ experiences of belonging on campus.
Similarly, Chris Chatmon, creator of the African American Male Achievement (AAMA) initiative and Kingmakers of Oakland, referenced the importance of former Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) Superintendent Tony Smith’s decision to use his position of privilege to create a dedicated leadership role and staffed office for the AAMA.
In both OUSD and UCLA, leaders tied efforts and organizational resources to support belonging to core outcomes within their institutions: high school graduation and preparation for college and life at OUSD, and college success at UCLA. A recent white paper by Mindset Scholar Mesmin Destin provides a rationale and framework for postsecondary institutions to address psychological factors like belonging as part of their efforts to improve student success.
Building coalitions and narratives
Chris Chatmon also provided a blueprint for coalition- and narrative-building to support belonging. He systematically involved stakeholders across OUSD in a way that was positive and authentic.
Chris explained, for example, how he advocated for a culture shift among teachers related to their discipline practices: “We had to really reframe discipline around how are you engaging, encouraging, and empowering black boys. We had to reframe the language and get people to think in a language of hope.”
Chris’s team worked with the district’s talent and human resources staff to enact a “pedagogy of brotherhood” among black male teachers, resulting in an impressive retention rate of 93%. Chris’s students also started their own leadership council to ensure that their voices were heard in decisions that affected them.
Another essential part of his programs is sharing students’ personal stories with the school community and more broadly. These stories counter the negative narratives surrounding black men in the media, and therefore help to counter negative perceptions of black men among educators.
Other presenters underscored that it is important that students be a part of the coalitions and narratives that arise to support them. They also reflected on the need to learn from students about their experiences of learning and school. LaDonna Young, dean of humanities, social sciences, and mathematics at Southwest Tennessee Community College, encouraged the audience to value student voice. “Students are great belonging whisperers,” she said. “Listen to the students.”
Leveraging partners to expand capacity
Changing culture and practice in schools is necessary and doable, but not easy. Our presenters demonstrated that partnerships, including those that translate concepts from research into concrete practices and policies, can accelerate this work.
Many of our presenters’ organizations, including the Branch Alliance for Educator Diversity, Equal Opportunity Schools, and BARR, are designed to build capacity through their partnerships with schools, colleges, and universities.
Other presenters, both researchers and practitioners, forged partnerships to improve students’ well-being and outcomes.
Having a formal partnership (and in turn, accountability structures) in place often helped turn their initial drive to help students into a concrete plan of action. Mindset Scholar Chris Hulleman explained how his organization, Motivate Lab, and LaDonna Young are working together to improve students’ sense of belonging at Southwest Tennessee Community College.
“There’s coordinating of the data gathering, and just making it happen,” Chris said. “And then there’s scaffolding the sense-making in a way so that action does happen. Protocols around talking about data, for example, can shift the balance of power in a room. If you can help coordinate the sense-making so that all this feeling gets pushed in and everyone’s a part of creating the solution, now you’ve got a chance for a solution that might work.”
While comprehensive organizational change may seem overwhelming, Mindset Scholar Nicole Stephens reminded the audience that individuals and institutions should start where they can. “If enough individuals’ behavior changes, then their minds change as well, often in response to that behavior change. And if that happens with enough folks, the system itself is changing. Individuals have the power to shape systems in the same way that the system or the institution shapes individuals.”
In other words, great leadership can have ripple effects throughout the communities that shape students’ sense of belonging in school.