Belonging is a critical element of building classrooms and schools that are learning communities. Knowing and being known are keys to a sense of belonging. Teachers cannot create personalized instruction or motivational environments without knowing their students. Highly effective teachers create purposeful opportunities to learn about their students and find ways to let students know they are known.
Geoff Cohen, a social psychologist and professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and the author of Belonging: The Science of Creating Connection and Bridging Divides, identified three messages that generate a sense of belonging:
- You are seen.
- You have potential.
- You are not alone.
(You can find a podcast with Cohen here.)
Those messages cannot be communicated without classroom leaders purposefully setting out to “find out” about those that they are serving.
Teachers planning for the start of a new school year should be designing time and strategies for finding out about their students. The four S’s interview designed by Search Institute provides an outline for what information to request and listen for.
Sparks: Sparks refer to the passions, interests, and talents that energize and motivate young people. These can be hobbies, activities, or subjects that they feel passionate about and enjoy pursuing.
Strengths: Strengths are the positive qualities, skills, and abilities that young people possess. It includes both inherent strengths and those developed through experience, such as resilience, creativity, leadership, or problem-solving skills.
Struggles: Struggles represent the challenges, difficulties, or obstacles that young people may face in their lives. These can be academic, personal, social, or emotional difficulties that require support and understanding.
Supports: Supports are the relationships, resources, and environments that provide assistance, guidance, and encouragement. This includes supportive adults, mentors, positive peer relationships, access to resources, and safe and nurturing environments.
In this video, Kent Pekel provides some specific directions for conducting the 4S’s interview. School leaders might find it a valuable piece to share with staff as they prepare for students to return to school.
Cohen, in the podcast noted above, mentions values affirmation exercises as another strategy teachers can use to know students. Values affirmations often provide students with a menu of values such as compassion, relationships, kindness, and creativity, asking them to indicate which of the values on the list are most important to them. Students then write about why those values are important to them, why do they matter, and maybe sometimes in their lives in which they mattered. Cohen has found that oftentimes, the kids who have a history of poor performance or who feel less belonging in school, often have the most to say.
“Values affirmations can be very beneficial for students’ motivation, sense of belonging, their persistence in school, their GPA. In one study, we found that just doing this activity three to five times throughout the year in their seventh grade increased the percentage of students who went on to a four-year college years later by 20 percentage points. “(Cohen)
How a teacher responds to students’ actions or behaviors communicates the degree to which the teacher knows them or wants to know them. Dr Carla Shalaby, the author of Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom from Young Children at School, noted, “Kids are constantly learning from what we, as the adults say or don’t say, what we do or don’t do, what we have on the walls or don’t have on the walls. Every move we make in classroom management is a lesson. Kids are watching us and they’re learning.” (See earlier blog.)
I found another reinforcing suggestion around the value of finding out about those we are interacting with from Dr Paul Bloom, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto. He recommended that when you are in a disagreement with someone or they are angry at you, there were some questions you might want to ask or explore:
- Is the person hungry?
- Does the person feel they are not being respected?
- Do they need a hug?
- Do they need reassurance?
- Are you taking the person seriously?
Bloom suggested that typically these are the kinds of things underlying the disagreement. Knowing will change our reactions and responses. (Paul Bloom podcast.)
Instructional coaches and school administrators should consider how to support teachers in recognizing that the time invested in finding out about students is time well spent. I encourage school leaders to reread this blog and consider how all the information fits into your plans for finding out about your staff. Do your teachers sense that they are seen, have potential, and are not alone?