When Students Return: 4 Ways Teachers Can Encourage a Sense of Belonging in the Classroom

By Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., author of Self-Regulation in the Classroom: Helping Students Learn How to Learn
Part of our Cash in on Learning series by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. Click to read other Cash in on Learning posts.

School has been in full swing for several weeks, and after a year and a half apart, we need to take extra care to develop our classroom communities. In a previous post, I stressed the need for teachers to create learning environments that are emotionally and intellectually secure. Now that you have laid that foundation, it’s time to help students build relationships with the adults and kids in your classroom and school.

Once a person feels safe, they are ready to develop what Abraham Maslow called “love and belonging.” Here are four ways you can infuse “love and belonging” into your classroom.

When Students Return: 4 Ways Teachers Can Encourage a Sense of Belonging in the Classroom

1. Learning to Listen

Listening is an important part of communication and collaboration, but students may have fallen out of practice with it during the trauma of the pandemic. So take some time to teach your students the art and act of listening to one another.

Eye contact, smiling, and nodding are all simple ways kids can show they are paying attention to someone who is speaking. Restating what the person said in their own words is another valuable listening strategy. If students can restate the message, then they are most likely in full understanding of the information. When talking about restating, remind students not to repeat exactly what the other person said, as that does not convey understanding.

These are just a few components of good listening. Be sure to weave listening techniques into your content and instruction. For more on listening, click here.

2. Celebrating Differences

Much of the joy I found in teaching came from the diversity of my students. I enjoyed the diverse backgrounds kids brought with them, and I enjoyed their different ways of thinking. In our classrooms, it is important to celebrate all that makes our students unique.

Displaying artifacts from various cultures and regions of the world can help students see the beauty and understand the contributions of diverse groups of people. Also, hanging pictures of famous people, mathematicians, scientists, artists, political figures, and pop-culture icons who represent the cultures and backgrounds of your group helps kids see themselves in your classroom.

Flexibly grouping students so they have opportunities to work with and learn from everyone in the class helps build your classroom community. You might group students by like abilities, unlike skill development, different ways of doing, or any other number of ways.

3. Knowing How to Express Yourself

Some students have difficulty expressing themselves. Whether this difficulty results from shyness, lack of self-belief, fear of intellectual risk-taking, or some other reason, it is important that all students learn how to ask for what they need. Sometimes, students might be apprehensive to ask for help because they believe it may make them appear weak or “not very smart.” Flip this belief on its head by explaining how asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness, because it means students know when they need assistance or advice.

Also important is teaching kids to work collaboratively in the classroom and to speak to others in an assertive, but nonconfrontational, manner. Like listening skills, being able to rephrase what others have said, agree to disagree, and work with others who have differing points of view is a lifelong skill.

Most of all, when learning to express themselves, kids need time to talk to each other, whether that’s in small or large groups. Social awareness and the ability to expect and respect diversity are skills all kids need to learn.

4. Caring for Yourself and Others

As you may know, I’m an advocate for the ethics of care in the classroom. And a pillar of caring for others is caring for yourself. Teachers often get so focused on caring for their students that they may forget to care about themselves too. You are a model for your students, so share with them how you take time each day to exercise, relax, and maintain a healthy lifestyle as a way to encourage your kids to develop healthy habits.

Make sure, every day, that your students know you enjoy being with them. All kids need to know that they are appreciated and wanted, and this kind of affirmation goes a long way in building and bonding a strong learning community in your classroom.

Another way to develop a sense of care in the classroom is through fostering “study buddy” partnerships between students. Study buddies can be self-selected by students or they can be assigned by the teacher. However you pair your students, study buddies are about students supporting each other, not about one student dominating over another.

Finally, you can infuse care into your classroom by having a class pet (like a goldfish, hamster, or lizard) or class plants to teach kids about responsibility and caregiving. I know some schools (sadly) do not allow teachers to keep live animals or plants in their classrooms. In this case, try creating a classroom mascot or banner so that all kids feel a part of the “team.” You may also consider having your class adopt a whale or zoo animal. This kind of caring goes a long way in developing a nurturing classroom environment where all kids feel like they belong.

How do you help your students develop a sense of belonging in your school and classroom? Share in the comments below!

Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit Publishing. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally.

Free Spirit books by Richard Cash:

Self-regulation Advancing Differentiation Revised and Updated Edition

Differentiation For Gifted Learners

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FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2021 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The views expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.

About Richard M. Cash, Ed.D.

Writes the "Cash in on Learning" post series for Free Spirit Publishing.
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