Strategies to Support Belonging in Education (Part 3 of 4): Strengthening Relationships
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 third 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.
The first two posts in this series highlighted strategies for shifting culture in schools and designing systems to enhance students’ sense of belonging in challenging situations. Of course, belonging is also related to relationships between students and educators; stronger relationships can enhance students’ sense of belonging. While this may seem obvious, significant barriers in society and within educational systems often complicate the process of trust- and relationship-building between teachers and students.
One especially significant factor is the legacy of systems, structures, and beliefs that devalue people of color and privilege white people in the United States. “History is alive and well in the classroom,” explained Claude Steele, professor of psychology at Stanford University. “By taking a color-blind approach [with students], we become blind to the impacts of this context on diverse groups of people who have had profoundly different experiences in American society.” Presenters noted that efforts to support trusting relationships between students and teachers must bear in mind this legacy.
It is also common to oversimplify what it means to truly feel a sense of belonging. Mary Murphy pointed out that “it’s not just about number of relationships; it’s the quality of relationships and how they reinforce a sense of belonging, respect, and value.” This is particularly true across lines of difference (e.g., race, ethnicity, class).
It’s also not just about peer relationships. Authentic and caring hierarchical relationships (those between students and authority figures) are critical. Without them, students may feel connected to their classmates but unwelcome or disrespected by the institution.
Our presenters spoke to two resources that can help educators learn to build trusting, positive relationships with students within these contexts: data and time focused on their practice.
Data-to-action cycles focused on educator practice and student assets
Mindset Scholar Dave Paunesku, executive director of PERTS, and Mayme Hostetter, president of the Relay Graduate School of Education, discussed their collaboration on the PERTS Engagement Project, which leverages data to create continuous learning and improvement cycles for teams of teachers. In this project, students periodically take online surveys about three focal areas: how much their teacher cares about them and their ideas, how much growth-oriented feedback they receive, and how meaningful they find their school work. The data are reported back to teachers at the classroom level and broken down by student subgroups.
Teachers reflect on the data collaboratively, learn about research-based approaches to improve the three focal areas, share practices with their colleagues, and come up with new strategies to try in their classrooms. Repeated data collection about students’ perceptions of the learning environment helps teachers gain insight into how their new approaches may be experienced by their students.
Mayme described this process as helping teachers switch from a “magnifying glass perspective,” focused on what students can do to improve their engagement in the classroom, to a “mirror perspective” focused on what teachers can do to support student belonging and, in turn, engagement. Mayme explained that the results allow teachers to respond quickly when they realize that their actions are not being interpreted by students the way they intended.
Angela Jerabek, founder and executive director of Building Assets, Reducing Risks (BARR), also spoke at the funder briefing. BARR focuses on 9th grade, which is a challenging transition for many students. The program assigns a trained coordinator to each of its partner schools, with the goal of eliminating “silos” of knowledge in schools and “making sure every student is seen and known by multiple adults.”
The BARR coordinator compiles observations from students’ various subject-area teachers, taking note of everything from students’ academic strengths to whether or not they have a winter coat. The coordinator then organizes outreach to students powered by this comprehensive data collection. Conversations about students explicitly focus on their strengths and how to leverage them in building strong relationships at school.
Hans Bos from American Institutes for Research reported that within-school, randomized controlled trials have shown that students participating in BARR earned more credits and, for grade levels supported by BARR, the average failure rate decreased by 35%. Students of color participating in BARR also felt more supported by their teachers, believed their teachers had higher expectations of them, and were more engaged in school than students of color not in the program.
Of note, both the Engagement Project and BARR focus educators on changes they can make within classrooms and schools. They also create explicitly asset-based narratives about students, which is important because data can be used to perpetuate deficit narratives in education.
Time and space for professional learning
Mindset Scholar Stephanie Fryberg leads a summer institute where teachers are trained to create culturally inclusive, growth mindset-oriented classrooms in which “relationship is attended to.”
Stephanie and her colleagues videotape teachers and collect data on identity safety (e.g., to what extent a classroom has positive and inclusive representations of diversity) from students pre- and post-institute. The institute focuses on helping teachers understand how differences in cultural models shape cognition, motivation, and engagement; and empowering teachers to use interpretive power in their interactions with students.
“Interpretive power,” Stephanie said, “has changed the conversation with teachers. So often when we talk about things like race, stereotyping, and prejudice, a lot of teachers get really fearful. The worst thing they can imagine is being called out as culturally or racially insensitive. By reframing the conversation to enhancing interpretive power, we say: ‘You can only know what you know. You can only stand where you stand. Our goal is to help you see beyond that.’”
This approach equips educators to understand race, class, and culture, especially those that are different than their own, and how to position all students to succeed in their classroom. All teachers leave the institute with a commitment to three “flagship practices” they design for their classroom, one completely revised unit, and a host of practical experience and feedback. Participating teachers report feeling “empowered” and “supported” to enact culturally-responsive practices that support a growth-oriented classroom climate.
“By reframing the conversation to enhancing interpretive power, we say: ‘You can only know what you know. You can only stand where you stand. Our goal is to help you see beyond that.’”
The need to give teachers time and space to practice new, belonging-supportive approaches is also central to iScholar, a research-practice partnership focused on developing motivation-supportive instructional practices tailored to early adolescents in Durham, North Carolina. iScholar produces relevant research and works alongside teachers in schools to test and optimize these instructional practices.
Researcher DeLeon Gray and educator Shamia Truitt-Martin pointed out that at all stages of implementing iScholar’s culturally-responsive STEM curriculum, teachers must have authority over what happens in the classroom and must have access to a safe, low-stakes environment for ongoing professional development.
Shamia explained, “As you know, teachers are swamped with a lot of things we have to do. One of the most important things [about iScholar] is that we get to try out all the educational pedagogy in a low-stakes environment in the afterschool program. We’re able to own it, embrace it, utilize it, and execute it. Then we take it from the afterschool program into our classroom.”
This approach was reinforced by Johnetta Haugabrook, a multi-tiered system of supports specialist in Florida’s Pinellas County Schools, who is working with Mindset Scholar Jason Okonofua to implement Jason’s empathic discipline intervention as part of her district’s focus on restorative practices.
“It takes time to shift mindsets,” she said. “It takes time for people to really think about where they are, where they want to go, and how they want it to look. So how do you monitor that?” Johnetta, a former classroom teacher, explained that her district re-designed its professional development system to better support educators. “Our PD alignment, more so than being something [teachers] had to do, became a response to their needs.”
Sasha Rabkin, chief program officer of Equal Opportunity Schools (EOS), described how EOS is creating spaces for educators to learn about students’ experiences in their classrooms and try new practices that convey high expectations and build trust with students.
EOS works to desegregate access to Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), and other rigorous college-oriented classes. To date, EOS’s partner schools have increased enrollment by about 38,000 first-time AP/IB students of color and students from families experiencing economic disadvantage. This new enrollment creates a need, as Sasha explained, to “[change] the narrative of what’s happening in those classrooms.”
“We have students of color succeeding at incredibly high rates,” Sasha continued, “and the adults [in the school] will still come and say, ‘they’re not quite ready,’ or ‘what if we’re going to set them up for failure?’”
“We have students of color succeeding at incredibly high rates,” Sasha continued, “and the adults [in the school] will still come and say, ‘they’re not quite ready,’ or ‘what if we’re going to set them up for failure?’” In their new Equity Leader Labs, EOS is designing equity-oriented professional learning experiences focused on continuous improvement for educators to develop the beliefs and practices necessary to create places of belonging for students in these courses.
In partnership with Mindset Scholar Greg Walton, for example, EOS exposes teachers to research-based practices for giving critical academic feedback in a way that conveys high expectations and confidence in students’ abilities. EOS also creates “3-D student insight cards,” based on student surveys, to communicate students’ individual strengths to teachers, and engages teachers in six-week “tests of change” to explore and improve their school’s equity ecosystem.
All of these initiatives, by equipping teachers with meaningful opportunities to learn about students’ psychological experience of school and try out different practices in safe spaces, can help create the conditions in which all students can feel valued and connected.