Fostering Student Belonging in Your School Community

By Kate Burwinkel, #SELinAction Series

Are you looking for strategies that foster a sense of belonging for students?

Kate Burwinkel, Principal at Long Lake Elementary in Michigan, led a discussion about how her school has worked to ensure students feel welcome and a sense of belonging. As part of the SEL in Action community, Kate is focused on sharing strategies that any educator can try to create a more caring and connected environment for kids. A group of K-12 educators from across the country joined the conversation. Below is a summary of what was discussed with links to resources that were shared.

Kate began the conversation by sharing that her school describes the focus on social and emotional learning as the idea that “Caring adults and a caring community are the links to achievement, graduation, and a future of meaningful options.” This idea served as  the anchor for the conversation.

Creating a Caring School Community for Students K-12

Matching Students to Caring Adults

Educators began by sharing some of the strategies they’re using to ensure students feel connected to their school communities. Melissa, a high school educator from Connecticut shared that their staff recently surveyed students to find out if every student in their school has at least one adult to whom they feel connected. For those who weren’t able to identify an adult in the school, staff stepped in and assigned or found each student an adult in the building to ensure there was no student left out. Kate shared that her school also created a process of matching students with adult peers in the building. Staff nominated  3-5 students in their class who might benefit from additional support, and then staff across the school were able to sign up to connect with students who weren’t in their own classrooms. The full staff was involved: other teachers, the secretary, the custodian. The response from students has been great!

Resources and Kindness Challenges

Betty, a K-8 educator from Hawaii is at a school that is just getting started with social-emotional learning (SEL). She shared that they are still figuring SEL out, but just started implementing a new resource, Toolbox, that provides step-by-step resources for addressing the social-emotional needs of students. They’re also kicking off the Middle School Kindness Challenge in April. Gregory, an elementary educator from North Carolina is using Start with Hello, a simple practice from Sandy Hook Promise that helps build connections and community in the school.  

Natalie, a counselor from Austin, TX, serves as her high school’s Wellness Counselor, a role that allows her to support students in building a more positive school community. This week, they partnered with Austin Dog Alliance and Pet Partners to bring therapy dogs to the school during lunches, which got a great response. Natalie also sends a wellness newsletter once a month to all staff with a focus area and resources for staff so they’re learning about different aspects of SEL each month. She also supports staff in using Inner Explorer, a curriculum for teachers to lead mindfulness practices for students and staff.

Student Leaders and Kindness Spies

Giving students opportunities to lead is a proven way to help students connect to their school.  Gregory’s school serves students in grades 3-12. High school student leaders design and implement a school-wide family literacy day twice a year and serve as reading buddies to younger students, while middle school students are in charge of leading school video announcements each day. Melissa’s school works with an organization called Build On to support student-led service learning within their school. Betty is building a leadership program of 8th grade students who are being trained to lead mindfulness in their classrooms. Kimiko, a middle school ELA educator from Chicago, shared that an emphasis on being proactive is important. Student council members at her school are trained as peer mediators to help address student conflicts, though they’re still working to make this a more regular practice.

Kindness was a theme throughout the conversation. Kimiko shared that her middle school students are sometimes challenged to practice kindness toward one another. The group problem-solved together ways that you might support middle school students in adhering to norms of respect in the classroom. Melissa shared that her students completed a charter together by responding to two questions: (1) How do you want to feel in this class?, and (2) How do you want to be treated? Through a discussion that follows, students generate concrete examples of what being and feeling respected looks like.

To foster kindness among elementary school students, Kate’s school has started a “Mix-It-Up” lunch where students match up with someone new, get to know them over lunch, and play with them at recess all week. It was also suggested that schools might nominate “Kindness Spies” who could “catch” other students in acts of kindness and celebrate them.

Staying Positive and Connected as Educators

“As much as [social emotional learning] has been about the students and their well being, it’s also helped me walk out of the building being less stressed. It has helped my emotional well being just as much as the kids.” Melissa Gentile, Connecticut

The group agreed that bonding as educators in their schools is an important foundation to staying energized. Spending time focused on acts of kindness among adults can grow and support a warm and caring environment. Natalie’s school has a “Sunshine Committee” of teachers that collects donations to buy food and treats as small acts of kindness for staff meetings and special events. When educators feel like they’re a part of the school community, they’re more ready to take care of each other personally and professionally.

Thank you so much to all who participated in this great conversation!

Missed the event?

We missed you, too! The SEL in Action community chat series is a forum for educators across the country to stay inspired and connected each month. Thes are casual, open conversations among educators about topics that matter most to them. You can catch up on the conversation by listening to the chat recording.

We hope you’ll sign up for a future chat. RSVP for an upcoming chat that interests you.