New evidence indicates a sense of belonging is an essential part of optimal learning environments. Children need to feel that they are part of their classroom and the school community. If they are distracted by feelings of inadequacy or alienation, it interferes with their learning. Quoting the authors of the book The ABCs of How We Learn, “The feeling that one belongs is wonderful. The feeling that one does not is awful.”
Cultivating a Sense of Belonging Nurtures a Healthy Identity
Humans are social creatures and ultimately desire that feeling of significance and sense of belonging we get from connecting with one another.
Acquiring a sense of belonging relies on two mechanisms: the affirmations of belonging one tells oneself and an environment that promotes an inclusive social and emotional climate. Seems pretty straight forward, right? Yet far too frequently we hear of or work with a student whose challenges can be directly correlated to their perceptions of not belonging to a group.
In a study by researchers Walton and Cohen (2011), two groups of college students’ grades were tracked from their first to last semester at university. The group of African Americans that attended a class tailored to boost their sense of belonging, increased their overall GPA measurably more than the group of African Americans who did not receive the exercise. This study identified that it is the primary variable, an increased sense of belonging, that was the catalyst for higher performance.
So how does this Concept roll out in Montessori Environments?
Montessori pedagogy advocates creating an environment in which the “whole child” flourishes, including their social and emotional well-being. Inherently, the Montessori teacher is more like a “Guide on the Side” rather than a “Sage on the Stage” of conventional education combined with the three year age grouping which provides greater possibility that students, their peers, and their teachers form strong relationships. Skillful Guides provide what I think of as “lovingkindness”, that nurturing side of adult-child interactions that send an implicit message that one belongs.
Montessori practitioners also foster a sense of belonging in their students by paying attention or enhancing three different aspects of its philosophy: 1) the Peace Curriculum, 2) Following the Child, and 3) the Control of Error built into the materials.
Montessori pedagogy aims to produce peaceful, caring world citizens that are respectful of differences. Students are taught to respect others and to show grace and courtesy. Teachers and older students in the multi-age classrooms model these traits as well as peaceful conflict resolution. How is it that in a classroom setting filled with students with varied differences both seen and unseen, you can create a sense of belonging? By working on acceptance.
Feeling like you belong to someone, or a group, means being vulnerable to showing who you are and knowing you will be accepted. In Montessori classrooms around the world, children are immersed in learning environments that may or may not have materials and teachers that look like them, or believe in the same things as them, or reference their home culture. These are small yet significant ways in which environments enhance or mute a student’s sense of belonging to a whole. Adults that thoughtfully address the child’s identity and respect differences build a stage with which this sense of belonging can flourish.
The Montessori philosophy of “following the child” means the students are allowed to follow their curiosity and work at their own pace on the parts of the curriculum that interest them. By honoring their interests and pace, the child is made to feel they are part of the learning process, which also increases their sense of belonging.
Montessori materials are designed for “control of error,” which means children can tell when their work is correct or not, and if not they can try it again with a different approach. This kind of direct feedback allows for self-assessment and takes the stigma out of receiving corrected work. It also lowers the anxiety of making “mistakes,” which is an important part of the learning process. By removing the sense of failure, the stakes are lowered and children will feel a strong sense that they are okay and belong.
Free Quick Tip #3 to Nurture a Sense of Belonging
This is a two-pronged tip for teachers to increase the probability that a student forms a strong sense of belonging:
- Fully embrace mistakes throughout your classroom culture, even making a few “mistakes” of your own when demonstrating lessons or moving through the environment. Dramatize a little bit to ensure your mistake is not only noticed, it is embraced as an opportunity, a challenge to be solved. I’ve been known to announce a “Yeah mistakes!” cheer during class a few times!
- Analyze and balance your environment for visual messages accepting differences. Do you have a racially diverse community and your photos of people only show one skin tone? Time to correct that. Is your community dominated by one belief system? It’s time to counterbalance your environment with information about different beliefs. Balancing representation is an essential part of cultivating a strong identity and promotes a strong sense of belonging, and acceptance.
“Human beings have brought up to regard themselves as isolated individuals who must satisfy their immediate needs by competing with other individuals. A powerful campaign of organization would be required to enable men to understand and structure social phenomena, to propose and pursue collective ends, and thus to bring about orderly social progress.” – Dr. Maria Montessori
Dr. Jane Nelsen of “Positive Discipline” fame ranked a sense of belonging in her top five principles of being a disciplined human. Our work fostering social and emotional learning, offering true work choices based on interests, embracing mistakes, and cultivating inclusion through fair representation in the environment provide a basis for this most essential learning components of developing a sense of belonging.
You can see that this topic and all the components to nurture a sense of belonging is vast. Reflect on your affect as a teacher and in what areas do you need “shoring up”? Take a moment and commit yourself to acquire a better understanding in this area. Let us know what you come up with as others may want to join you on your journey to increase a sense of belonging in your classroom community!
– By Tammy Oesting
Our ABCs of Learning: Montessori Edition is inspired by the work of authors Daniel L. Schwartz, Jessica Tsang and Kristen Blair, Professors of Education at Stanford University’s book The ABCs of How We Learn: 26 Scientifically Proven Approaches, How They Work, and When to Use which was reviewed on our Great Titles for Educators web page.