Students’ sense of belonging matters. Research shows that students who feel they have a voice in class are seven times more likely to feel motivated than those who do not (Quaglia Institute, 2016). Giving students voice and increasing their feelings of belonging at school is pivotal for equity and encouragement of all learners. When students have greater autonomy and feel more connected in the classroom, it allows teachers and school administrators to understand their specific points of view. Empowering students to speak about their experiences and choose how they interact with the curriculum makes learners more likely to invest in their own education with longer-lasting results and higher academic achievement (Lee & Riordan, 2018).
Building a Culture of Belonging
When students feel welcome and valued in their classroom environment, it increases their motivation to learn. One of the ways teachers and school leaders can foster belonging in a school environment is through community connections. Including community members, town/city memorabilia, and age-appropriate and relevant videos that relate to local issues can help build a bridge between home life and school life for kids (Bowen, 2021). Haines Elementary, a K–8 school in Chicago’s historic Chinatown neighborhood, honors students’ language identities not only through dual-language programs, but also by teaching strong social and emotional competencies like empathy in order to build a school culture where all students feel seen and heard (Williams, 2019). Their ability to implement SEL and academics equally has ranked them as one of the highest-achieving public schools in Illinois.
Research shows that representation within the classroom not only increases feelings of belonging but also supports a positive school environment where students feel more confident in their abilities and accelerates academic achievement (Reginal, 2021). When students feel advocated for, academics and feelings of belonging are interrelated. Fostering an authentic, diverse, and supportive community in school advances students’ physical and social-emotional safety, peer relationships, learning environments, and school connectedness.
Fostering a Supportive School Environment
The culture of each unique classroom should represent its students. When learners see themselves in the posters on the walls, the books they read, or in school curricula, it fosters a sense of belonging within a positive and inclusive school environment (Williams, 2019). This is especially important for students of color, who are more likely to feel left out in school resources, media, and books. Often overlooked, the “racial school climate gap” is a space in which students are excluded because of their race and ethnicity (Reginal, 2021). In order to create lesson plans in which all students feel seen and heard, seek out school resources that represent a wide range of differences in race, ethnicity, culture, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, age, physical and or mental capabilities, and religious beliefs.
Centering equity in the school workforce by diversifying both teachers and administration is another important factor in helping students navigate racial school climate gaps (Reginal, 2021). Educators at all levels can create and advocate for safer environments for students to learn and grow by seeking resources for more racial equity, holding open conversations about race, making on-campus counseling readily available, and creating clear intervention policies.
When our classrooms center equity and feelings of belonging, students are more likely to receive a representative education that reinforces cognitive empathy for those who are different. By reading diverse stories, reflecting and writing about their experiences, and learning about other communities, students are more likely to have a sense of agency and advocacy in and out of the classroom (Lee & Riordan, 2018).
Using SEL exercises, such as intentional morning check-ins, is important but shouldn’t be the only opportunity for students to be themselves authentically and to be honest about their feelings (Zalaznick, 2021). Although Morning Meeting can help students feel more connected to their school life, providing additional opportunities for students to share stories about their diverse home lives, values, observations, and dreams is important to creating a supportive school community that fosters belonging. Over time, educators develop a clearer view of who their students are and can advocate for school administrators to address students’ specific needs.
Children’s experiences, including the hours spent consuming media, influence what they imagine to be possible for people who look like them, live where they live, or come from where they came from. Books and curricula continue to be the primary form of media in schools in which students do or do not see themselves represented.
In early literature, animals are represented more than human diversity in general. There is no doubt that young children can learn from the metaphors of the stories told by pigs, cats, and fairies, so how much more might they learn by seeing children who are like them learning, growing, and developing their social and emotional learning skills? Books and curricula should be both a mirror and a window connecting to the reader and connecting the reader to global society; students are validated when they are able to find themselves and where they came from. In sum, children determine what they can be based on the examples around them.
Representation in the Fly Five SEL Curriculum
Fly Five: The Social and Emotional Learning Curriculum includes a cast of nine characters who grow up within the curriculum, so students who meet them in grades K through 2 will meet a developmentally appropriate representation of the characters of their same age and grade. The pattern continues through grades 3 through 5 and again in middle school for grades 6 through 8.
Fly Five is designed with the awareness that students’ diversity is not always sufficiently represented in either broad or specific ways among the educators who teach them, and that many educational products, resources, and materials are not designed to adequately create teaching conditions and practices that embrace the diversity of experiences and perspectives of students.
The Fly Five characters, along with their families, represent a wide range of differences in race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, family structures, socioeconomic status, age, physical and/or mental capabilities, and religious beliefs. While no one curriculum could capture the vast diversities that exist among the students in schools everywhere, Fly Five was specifically and intentionally designed to address the gap in which there is inadequate representation.
One of the main goals of adding this diverse cast is to foster a positive sense of self-perception and high levels of cognitive empathy among students. Cognitive empathy is the conscious drive to recognize and accurately understand another’s emotions. Students will come to connect with and grow fond of these culturally and racially diverse characters over time, thereby increasing the likelihood that students will have a change in cognitive empathy for those who are unlike them and perhaps have some influence in creating classrooms where racism and intolerance are reduced and even ended.
The characters and their families were vetted through a thoughtful research and development process involving cultural research, focus groups, literature reviews, and lots of educator feedback to the artist to ensure the characters are positive, authentic, multifaceted, and unbiased representations.
Stepping Toward Educational Equity
To successfully teach social and emotional skills, cultural context—both for the student and the educator—must be considered respectfully. An effective curriculum for teaching SEL skills should be designed to create teaching conditions and practices that embrace the diversity of experience and perspective of students. When educators recognize their own cultural context and that of students and their families, they are better able to understand and respond to students. Seeing that students belong and are significant in the classroom is an important step toward educational equity.
Bowen, J. (2021, October 21). Why is it important for students to feel a sense of belonging at school? ‘Students choose to be in environments that make them feel a sense of fit,’ says associate professor DeLeon Gray. NC State University College of Education News. https://ced.ncsu.edu/news/2021/10/21/why-is-it-important-for-students-to-feel-a-sense-of-belonging-at-school-students-choose-to-be-in-environments-that-make-them-feel-a-sense-of-fit-says-associate-professor-deleon-gra/
Lee, A., & Riordan, M. (2018, August 15). Equity and voice: How a sense of belonging promotes students’ agency. EducationWeek. https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/opinion-equity-and-voice-how-a-sense-of-belonging-promotes-students-agency/2018/08
Quaglia Institute. (2016). School voice report 2016. https://quagliainstitute.org/dmsView/School_Voice_Report_2016
Reginal, T. (2021, February 11). Providing better support to students of color: The importance of school climate, belonging, and well-being. https://www.urban.org/research/publication/providing-better-support-students-color-importance-school-climate-belonging-and-well-being
Williams, C. P. (2019, October 11). Using diversity to build a culture of belonging. Edutopia. https://www.edutopia.org/article/using-diversity-build-culture-belonging
Zalaznick, M. (2020, July 31). SEL priority: Students must feel safe before they can learn. District Administration. https://districtadministration.com/sel-social-emotional-learning-professional-development-pd-naperville-school-district/