What New Research Says About Fostering a ‘Sense of Belonging’ in Classrooms

EdSurge Podcast

What New Research Says About Fostering a ‘Sense of Belonging’ in Classrooms

By Jeffrey R. Young     Mar 19, 2024

What New Research Says About Fostering a ‘Sense of Belonging’ in Classrooms

This article is part of the collection: The EdSurge Podcast.

When some students hit an obstacle in school or college, they can take it as a sign that this whole education thing just isn’t for them. That can especially be the case for students who are racial minorities.

That can be true with challenges like glitches in the federal financial aid forms or a student registration system, says Greg Walton, a psychology professor at Stanford University. “Research shows that everybody finds things like that annoying, but if you're a first-generation college student, those start to trigger worries about belonging, because there's a belonging uncertainty there,” he says. “They think, ‘Is there something wrong with me? I can't even navigate how to sign up for classes, how am I ever going to graduate?’”

Messages in classrooms and how discipline is handled can also play a role, he adds.

Walton has spent decades researching how to foster a stronger sense of belonging in education settings. And he has helped develop a series of approaches and strategies that research shows can strengthen student-teacher relationships and a sense of belonging, which research shows can have significant impacts on the academic performance of students.

EdSurge sat down with Walton after a talk he gave this month at the SXSW EDU festival in Austin.

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, YouTube or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page. Or read a partial transcript, edited for clarity, below.

EdSurge: You argue that small cues in educational settings can make a big difference in whether students feel like they belong or not. What’s an example?

Greg Walton: Sapna Cheryan, a professor at University of Washington, has done work on gender and belonging issues. And one of the things that she's found is that in a study done at Stanford, she took over a small room in the computer science department and in one condition, she populated this room with these artifacts of geeky masculine culture, like a Star Trek poster and Diet Coke cans. And when women and men came into that environment, women reported a lot less interest in computer science than men.

But when she changed that setting and replaced the poster with a nature poster and put in water bottles, then women were actually even more interested in computer science than men.

And what was happening was that women were looking at this space and they were saying, ‘This is kind of a geeky masculine space. Who could I be here? What kind of overlap is there between who I am as a woman and what this space allows?’ And that didn't look very good, and then they weren't interested.

Similarly, there's many stories about belonging uncertainty for students of color and for first-generation college students. Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson spoke in her confirmation hearings about her experiences [feeling out of place] at Harvard. And a lot of our history in education is written through with racial and social class-based exclusion, where people have been excluded from school settings and from selective school settings as a function of race and class. And people have that history in their awareness and the fight that their communities have engaged in to be able to access education. And that leads to a psychological process, where they question, ‘Is this an environment in which I can truly belong and which people will receive me well and treat me fairly and include me?’

What is the biggest obstacle to implementing the ideas based on your research findings?

Early in my time at Stanford, I presented some research on social belonging and growth mindset and values affirmation interventions to a university committee with the hopes of building a partnership with the university to start to implement some of these interventions on campus, partly as a researcher, but also partly as an alumnus of Stanford. And I came into this meeting with the frontline staff, very committed and very enthusiastic about this, the people who saw every day the ways that students struggled with worries about belonging. And the most senior administrator there basically looked at it and said, ‘I don't believe it.’

It's like what she saw was magic, and she didn't believe in magic.

If I had been a physicist coming in and I used a bunch of complicated physics terms that she didn't know, she would've just had to kind of nod and agree. But I was talking about psychology — how people think and feel — and it was too squishy and unsystematic, and her lay theories were too built to be able to be responsive to the evidence that I was providing.

That delayed the project a full year.

So I think partly it's really taking seriously how people make sense of themselves and school situations is fundamentally important. That's as important as anything else.

It's very hard to drive change systematically across a system. You have lots of gatekeepers like that one individual administrator who can hold up projects.

What’s something a college professor can do to increase a sense of belonging?

Another kind of norm is about how we respond to people who are different from us and how we value diversity. Sohail Murad, a professor at University of Illinois, Chicago, and Markus Brauer, who's at the University of Wisconsin, have a series of studies where they show that just communicating diversity norms within college classrooms — either with posters or with very short videos that describe students endorsing diversity in general and valuing people from diverse backgrounds — that created a more inclusive and better learning environment for students.

So all students, and particularly students from racial-ethnic minority groups and low-socioeconomic groups and religious-minority groups reported that the environment was more inclusive and accepting of them, and that actually caused an increase in grades, reducing inequalities and achievement in those classes.

So there's lots of ways we can think about, very intentionally, what are the norms that we want to create in this space, given the goals that we have, and what is the role that I have in facilitating that norm?

How does this play out in a K-12 setting?

The reason why people go into education and go into teaching is largely because of the kinds of relationships that they want to have with children and how those relationships can be spaces for growth for those children — especially kids from various kinds of backgrounds that are disadvantaged. But if you look at the data, in many ways, our schools are not experienced in that way.

A recent study using data of high school students found that kids who in high school reported having a natural mentor were 12 to 26 percentage points more likely to go to college than kids who did not, controlling for everything else.

That's a massive effect.

And yet only 15 percent of kids had a natural mentor in high school, and that number was lower yet for [students of low-socioeconomic status], even as the effect of having a mentor was even greater for them.

The reality for many of our kids today is that school is a lonely and judgy and evaluative space. In California, statewide surveys find that fewer than 60 percent of ninth graders report having a caring relationship with an adult. We've made no progress on that in the past 10 years. This is outrageous.

And so I think that educators look at this and they know the importance of relationships, and they know that sometimes we're not succeeding in that, but there's a kind of mystery as to why, and what's going on.

One of the things that's really exciting to me is that we now have begun to very clearly identify a limited number of critical turning points in relationships between students and educators. These are key junctures where relationships can improve and trust can grow and be sustained, or it can be lost. And we're increasingly learning how to get those junctures right.

Can you give an example?

One example is when there's conflict — if there's misbehavior — and the teacher is responding to the student. Teachers know that a huge predictor of whether they're able to achieve their goals in the classroom is that the class is well ordered and on task. Kids who are misbehaving are threatening to that. And it's very easy in our culture to default to a punitive approach in response to a kid who misbehaves. In fact, we do this as parents. What parent hasn't at one point said, ‘Go to your room.’ That's it. I've had it even as maybe you know that that's not going to be really the most helpful and effective thing. It's not going to do wonders for your relationship with your kid. It’s not the long-term solution.

And so in school we have policies like zero-tolerance policies. We have policies that kind of build in this kind of punitive approach. Well, our research led by Jason Okonofua, who's a former graduate student at Stanford, has created a system to offer teachers what we call an ‘empathic mindset’ about misbehavior. It doesn't mean not to discipline. It means that when you discipline, you do so in a way that pulls a kid closer and doesn't push them away.

So maybe you give the kid attention, but then you go talk with them about it and you hear what their experience was. And your goal is to maintain a strong relationship, even as you're standing up for the norms that need to exist in the classroom.

This was randomized to middle school math teachers and multiple randomized control trials, and it reduces school-wide suspension rates through the year and even into the next year. That's a critical turning point. Your teacher is responding to you, are they kind of throwing you away, or are they maintaining that relationship with you and listening to you?

It matters.

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