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A researcher's tips for teachers to foster belonging among students of color

Allison Shelley for EDUimages
Alliance for Excellent Education Flickr

Belonging is about acceptance, respect, and inclusion education researcher DeLeon Gray says. The N.C. State University professor has dedicated much of hisresearch and advocacy to studying classroom belonging.

And his latest study looks at how teachers can promote a sense of belonging for students of color.

DeLeon Gray is an Associate Professor of Educational Psychology and Equity in the College of Education at North Carolina State University.
Courtesy of N.C. State University
DeLeon Gray is an Associate Professor of Educational Psychology and Equity in the College of Education at North Carolina State University.

The study surveyed 6th graders at an urban middle school that serves mostly Black and Latino students. It found that those who had a greater sense of belonging in a particular teacher's class reported being more engaged in that class.

Gray says that finding may be intuitive. But what's important is that the study suggests specific strategies teachers can use to promote a sense of belonging, especially for students of color.

"It's all about answering the question, what is in a school's power to do to make sure that students, particularly students of color, are not vulnerable to anxieties about belonging?" Gray said.

The questions were crafted with input from teachers and students, and the survey responses showed a link between these strategies and a student's sense of belonging and engagement:

1. Convey high expectations and a roadmap to get there.

Gray says it's important to not only set high expectations for all students, but to give students feedback and a sense that they can reach those standards.

"Feedback with assurance that you can get there is something that has been shown to increase students of color's performance and persistence inside of schools," Gray said.

He says students need to feel that teachers are "on their team."

2. Teach students how to work together.

Another successful strategy to promote belonging is to provide opportunities for students to learn how to serve their community by serving fellow students.

This could be through group work or by allowing students to help classmates with concepts once they've mastered them.

Gray promotes the philosophy of "If one of y'all got it, y'all got it." He says in classroom observations for past research, he has seen students who complete work early put their head down, and this is an opportunity for teachers to encourage those students to help their classmates.

3. Connect students' learning to real life.

"Make it real for students," Gray advises.

The survey asked students whether their teacher connects what they're learning in school with life outside of school.

One student responded that they liked that their teacher had "old lady wisdom."

Gray says making real life connections could range from relating ancient history to more recent historical events to using real life scenarios in math problems.

"Connections can be made through the material that's put in front of students, but it can also be made by educators making these connections explicitly and allowing students to even generate these connections," Gray said.

4. Let students express themselves.

Teachers can foster belonging by allowing students to express both positive and negative emotions in class.

"I've been in school settings where a student might come into class, huffing and puffing, and there's something that happened to that student before they got in that class," Gray said. "The teacher has an opportunity to allow the student to vent to express themselves to just take a 20 and really reset."

In the survey, students responded to a question about whether their teacher tries to help them when they are sad, upset or frustrated.

Students who gave input into the wording of this question described situations where teachers asked them, "what's wrong?" rather than resorting to punishment for acting out in class.

5. Have students' back when they need it.

In the field of educational psychology, Gray says this is known as individualized support. It could take the form of giving advice, offering one-on-one academic help, or doing a student a favor.

"They could give life advice, or they could give them a stick of deodorant," Gray offers as an example.

The survey measured this strategy by asking students whether or not "my teacher looks out for me in times of need."

6. Engage students' expertise.

The final strategy to foster belonging of the six Gray says have "risen to the top" in his observational and survey work is engaging students as experts.

Students who feel their opinions and ideas matter in class were found to have a higher sense of belonging and engagement.

"Opportunity to share ideas and opinions becomes critically important, because educators are communicating to students that they are an asset to this learning environment and their knowledge systems are helpful for advancing the knowledge of the entire group," Gray said.

For example, one survey respondent described how their teacher listens to students in class-wide discussions and sometimes implements their opinions into teaching methods.

Copyright 2022 North Carolina Public Radio. To see more, visit North Carolina Public Radio.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Policy Reporter, a fellowship position supported by the A.J. Fletcher Foundation. She has an M.A. from the UNC Chapel Hill School of Media & Journalism and a B.A. in history and anthropology from Indiana University.