How can teachers make students feel that they belong?
For many teachers, engaging a group of twenty or thirty very different students is trying to say the least. We have dreams of an ordered classroom where the students always listen and follow directions. In these fleeting thoughts, there aren't any problem children and every child is always smiling, motivated, engaged and interested in their schoolwork.
However, more often than not, this dream never eventuates into reality for it is very far from realistic. In an actual classroom, no two children are ever the same, no day is ever the same, and no teaching strategy is going to work for every student. It is our job as educators and learning facilitators to enable each student to grow and develop at a pace and in a style that both works for them. However, do you feel that some students belong and achieve, while others never seem to fit in?
A clear majority of whether a student feels like they belong at school came down to personal aspects.
Can teachers really affect the way students feel about school?
A research team of seven led by Dr Sharmila Vaz of Curtin University recently explored what actually constituted social belongingness at school. The study looked at what particular factors could explain or had an influence on how much a student felt like they belonged. Using advanced statistical analysis, the researchers revealed that a large proportion of it comes down to the students' personal characteristics.
A clear majority of whether a student feels like they belong at school is highly idiosyncratic, such as physical appearance, perceived competence, coping skills and desire to affiliate with peers. While their tests could only explain two-thirds of the differences among students, personal factors were responsible for 47 per cent of the variation. Interestingly, parents had a very minimal impact, explaining 3 per cent, and school-related factors, such as bullying, classroom involvement and cultural alignment, accounted for the relatively insignificant amount of around 14 per cent.
This may not really surprise you. Many of us do as much as we can to facilitate a safe and engaging environment, but find ourselves thinking that some students just choose not to belong. Ultimately, this may lead you to think that any intervention to enhance how such students feel will be a wasted and unnecessary effort considering the majority of the influence derives from inside the child themselves. However, the researchers explained that, even though much of a student's engagement comes down to personal factors, there is still a lot that teachers can do.
Using support as a strategy for increasing school performance
Take, for instance, a seminal paper published in the Journal of Educational Psychology in 1998. Researcher and author Kathryn R. Wentzel from the University of Maryland-College Park in the United States made the link between social belongingness and motivation in a school setting very clear. While the study focussed on adolescents, the findings can still apply to children at all ages.
Using a similar methodology to Dr Vaz's study, this study found that teachers showing individualised support for students had a positive impact on how interested students were, both in their own class, the wider school environment and in pursuing goals related to their own social responsibility. Furthermore, there was a similar relationship between teacher support and academic performance, as students who had higher grade-point averages demonstrated higher levels of class interest, school interest and social responsibility as well.
As a large amount of this came from how much the students perceived that their teacher supported them, it is important to consider how big of an impact this can have. But while it sounds good in theory, many teachers and administrators struggle to effectively differentiate the curriculum for each student. Be it due to logistics or a lack of data, today teachers can easily overcome such hurdles by utilising education tools, such as Best Performance's CNAP, to enable this.