Second Step® Insights

How to Build Students’ Sense of Belonging at School

May 15, 2024 | By: The Second Step® Team

We all want to feel like we belong—at school, work, home and within our communities. A sense of belonging impacts how engaged we are with the world around us, how much we try to connect with others, and our overall well-being. Research shows when kids feel known, accepted, respected, and supported by those in their school community, they perform better academically and socially. Educators can foster a sense of belonging with social-emotional learning (SEL) curricula in their classrooms and schools.

The benefits of belonging at school

The SEL principles of belonging focus on recognizing the unique background, culture, and experiences of each student. Together, SEL skills can help highlight and celebrate our individual identities by encouraging:

  • empathy
  • critical thinking
  • perspective-taking

Committing to belonging initiatives in classrooms and schools helps build a climate that fosters:

  • equity and fairness
  • inclusive education
  • multicultural perspectives
  • strong connections with peers

Belonging and inclusion efforts help each student feel seen and heard within the larger group, as well as help them get the resources they need to participate fully at school.

How to foster students’ sense of belonging

Explore self-identity

Teachers can foster belonging by creating opportunities for students to explore and share about their backgrounds. Depending on students’ grade level, this could mean having them create posters about their families or writing essays about their important cultural family traditions. While sharing the projects would boost students’ presentation skills, the real benefit is that it could help students see and appreciate their peers’ diverse cultures and traditions. Physical characteristics may spotlight differences in appearance, but some important aspects of our identities may not be seen on the surface, such as learning differences, physical abilities, family structures, or religious differences. By acknowledging and accepting all these aspects of their identities, students elevate their sense of belonging and self-confidence among their peers.

Provide inclusive and culturally relevant curricula

Educators should explore their lesson plans through a DEI lens. Are the perspectives of their students reflected? Make sure examples represent more than the dominant culture. When students see themselves in the course material, whether in images or stories, they are more engaged. And that engagement leads to improved academic outcomes. Additionally, students learn acceptance and empathy when they’re exposed to other perspectives.

Challenge our belief systems

Fostering belonging is an ongoing learning process. It may raise difficult questions. It is critical that educators address the issues that come up in class. When students question history or common biases, it shows students are learning important skills like critical thinking and perspective-taking. Every discussion is an opportunity for educators to reinforce SEL concepts such as empathy and allyship. When issues arise, consider these open-ended inquiries to inspire critical thinking:

  • What makes you wonder about that?
  • Where have you seen or experienced a situation like that before?
  • What do you think it might feel like for the other person?
  • How could we do things differently going forward?

Understand that building belonging takes time

Successfully fostering a sense of belonging won’t be as obvious as test results or a letter grade. Evaluating your schoolwide strategy and providing training and support for educators is vital. Be flexible and ready to make implementation adjustments where necessary. Change takes time, but with commitment and openness, educators and students can build a culture where everyone belongs.

Learn more about our Second Step® family of SEL programs, including our new program for high schools.