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February 1, 2024
Vol. 81
No. 5
Show & Tell: A Video Column

What Does It Mean to Belong?

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An exploration of student and staff perspectives on belonging.

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Social-emotional learningEngagementSchool Culture
What Does It Mean to Belong?
Credit: Xavier Lorenzo_Shutterstock
Students with a strong sense of belonging in school perform better academically (Cai et al., 2022); conversely, when students don’t feel that they belong, their learning suffers. And the impact of belonging extends beyond academics: it impacts well-being. According to research, students who report a higher degree of school belonging experience better mental health and are at lower risk of suicidal ideation or attempts (Boyd et al., 2023).
But what does it mean to belong? Stanford researcher Geoffrey Cohen (2022) proposes the following definition: “Belonging is the feeling that we’re part of a larger group that values, respects, and cares for us—and to which we feel we have something to contribute.” There are several important aspects of this definition:
  1. Belonging is a feeling—in other words, we know it when we experience it.
  2. Belonging involves a larger group that exhibits certain behaviors toward us. We feel valued, respected, and cared for by that group.
  3. And belonging includes a feeling that we have ­something of worth to contribute to that group.
Each part of Cohen’s definition is important for educators to consider when creating spaces where students and colleagues know they belong. To explore belonging, we created a two-part video. First, we asked high school students what it means to belong and what belonging feels like. Second, we asked a team of 9th grade educators how it feels to belong to their team and their school.

Many Dimensions of Belonging

As you watch the video, you’ll note some common terms that both students and educators use to convey their sense of belonging. In fact, they echo a lot of the terms used by Eric Carter, a professor of special education at Vanderbilt University, to summarize evidence for creating a sense of belonging for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. In Figure 1, we provide a list of each of the “dimensions of belonging” that Carter (2021) identified. We include sample indicators of each dimension for students and for staff.
Belonging can’t be left to chance: When we center it in our work, the social capital of the entire school ­community grows.
February 2024 Fisher Frey Figure 1
» View a PDF of Fig. 1
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Show & Tell / Belonging in Schools

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References

Boyd, D. T., Gale, A., Quinn, C. R., Mueller-Williams, A. C., Jones, K. V., Williams, E., et al. (2023). Do we belong? Examining the associations between adolescents’ perceptions of school belonging, teacher discrimination, peer prejudice and suicide. Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities.

Cai, Y., Yang, Y., Ge, Q., & Weng, H. (2022). The interplay between teacher empathy, students’ sense of school belonging, and learning achievement. European Journal of Psychology of Education.

Carter, E. W. (2021). Dimensions of belonging for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. In J. L. Jones & K. L. Gallus (Eds.), Belonging and resilience in ­individuals with developmental disabilities (pp. 13–33). Springer Nature.

Cohen, G. L. (2022). Belonging: The science of creating connection and bridging divides. Norton.

Doug Fisher is a professor of educational leadership at San Diego State University, where he focuses on policies and practices in literacy and school leadership. Additionally, he is a teacher leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College, an award-winning, open-enrollment public school in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego that he cofounded in 2007. His areas of interest include instructional design, curriculum development, and professional learning. A passionate educator, Fisher's work is dedicated to impacting professional learning communities and nurturing the knowledge and skills of caring teachers and school leaders so they may help students improve their learning and attain their goals and aspirations.

Fisher is a member of the California Reading Hall of Fame as well as the recipient of an International Reading Association William S. Grey citation of merit and Exemplary Leader award from the Conference on English Leadership of NCTE. Previously, he was an early intervention teacher and elementary school educator. He has published numerous articles and books on literacy and leadership, teaching and learning, and improving student achievement.

 

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