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July 11, 2022
Vol. 79
No. 9

Laurie Barron and Patti Kinney on the Power of Belonging

Classroom management, engagement, academic work—everything goes better when approached through the lens of belonging.
Social-emotional learningEngagement
Kinney and Barron on the Power of Belonging
Credit: Alphavector / Shutterstock
Laurie Barron and Patti Kinney are the coauthors of We Belong: 50 Strategies to Create Community and Revolutionize Classroom Management (ASCD, 2021). Barron is the superintendent of Evergreen School District in Kalispell, Montana, and was the 2021 Montana Superintendent of the Year. She has taught and led schools at the middle and high school level. Kinney, a former middle school teacher and principal, presents and consults nationally on middle-level education. She is past president of the Association for Middle Level Education and was the 2003 Oregon Principal of the Year. A key part of their book's message is that teachers can foster students' well-being and learning through practices that create a cohesive classroom community and help all students feel like they belong. With many students—and schools—readjusting to in-person classrooms and recovering from the stress and uncertainty of going through a pandemic, laying the groundwork for a sense of belonging for all is especially important going into the 2022–2023 school year.
What does it mean for a student to have a feeling of belonging?
Laurie Barron: People sometimes underestimate the power of belonging, of what it means to feel that you matter, that you are valued, seen, and heard. And, because a sense of belonging comes more naturally for some students than others, teachers must make intentional efforts to ensure that all students, not just those for whom it comes easily, know that they belong, that they have a place in their class and their school.
Patti Kinney: Think about a situation you've found yourself in when you felt uncomfortable, awkward, and out of place. Sadly, that's what far too many of our students feel when they enter their school or classroom. At the very least, for students to feel a sense of belonging, they must feel physically and emotionally safe; learn in an environment where behavioral and academic expectations are clearly communicated, equitably enforced, and completely supported; and be offered opportunities to express their ideas, opinions, and feedback without fear of reprisal.
Your research found connections between classroom management styles and how much belonging students feel. What key elements are needed in classroom management to help students feel part of a community?
PK: Educators need to truly believe that belonging impacts classroom management. They need to run their instructional and management practices through that filter. Do their words and actions promote or diminish the chances that a student will belong? Do they treat all students equitably, and with respect and dignity? Most students would rather be seen as disruptive than undignified, and if they feel they are backed into a corner, they can become defiant and disruptive.
Belonging can flourish when educators model the behaviors expected from students, focus on the positive, use humor when appropriate, and choose the path of least resistance. By that I mean asking themselves, "What's the smallest action I can take now to deal with this disruptive student?"
LB: Clarity and consistency are key. More often than we'd like, students get off track and distracted when the teacher's instructions lack clear and concise directions. When directions are unclear, students can not only get off task, but can also feel lost or unsure. This decreases the likelihood they feel they belong and are part of the community of learners—particularly if others seem to understand the directions (even if they actually don't). When teachers aren't consistent, a feeling arises in some students of "What will my teacher expect today?" or "Will I be treated fairly?" Consistency directly impacts students' trust and belief in us—and thus their sense of overall classroom community.
Community is also a cornerstone of belonging. Teachers must get to know their students and help students get to know each other, to help build a sense of community.
Middle school is the area you both specialize in, and many people seem to feel middle school is its own animal! What's different about nurturing well-being with middle school-age students?
PK: I love middle schoolers; it's my favorite age group. Yes, young adolescents can be compassionate, chaotic, caring, and confused—often all within a short time frame. They need educators who love and appreciate them. When I dealt with management issues as a teacher or an administrator, I always asked myself if the behavior seemed to stem from childish irresponsibility or out-and-out defiance. The key to determining the difference is how well you know the student. If the behavior is minor, unusual, or out of the ordinary for the student, it probably leans toward childish irresponsibility. Defiance usually involves times when a student directly challenges authority, refuses to follow directions in an outspoken manner, engages in name-calling, or makes a scene, etc. Which way I answered myself made a difference in how I dealt with the situation.

Young adolescents are caring, chaotic, and confused, often all within the same time frame.

Author Image

Laurie Barron

It's critical to remember that, from its earliest conception, the middle school model was designed to revolve around teaming—a group of multidisciplinary teachers working together with the same group of students. Team meetings for teachers were built into schedules so the social, emotional, and academic needs of a group of students or students' individual needs could be discussed, and an action plan developed. This model was specifically developed to nurture the well-being of adolescent students—both in academic growth and personal development. Sadly, many districts have moved away from this model, making it more difficult to provide the nurturing middle schoolers need.
LB: Make no mistake: middle schoolers are fun, interesting, and full of positive energy! Capitalizing on all these positive traits is much easier when we remember that we are teaching middle schoolers, young adolescents whose executive functioning is not yet complete. While we must hold students accountable, we must also realize that we need to nurture middle school students a little differently from their adolescent peers in high school, for example. When students forget their homework, wait until the last minute to complete tasks, have difficulty finishing assignments, are easily distracted, have difficulty controlling impulses, and make inappropriate comments without thinking, we need to help support them in working through these issues instead of jumping into an immediate negative response toward very natural behavior.
What key things can teachers do early in the year to create class cohesiveness?
LB: A big part of cohesiveness, of "forming a united whole," is helping students get to know each other. I recall when I was teaching 12th grade AP English and two students were discussing a book. One student told the other that they had talked about that book in their English class the previous year together, but the other student didn't even realize he had sat behind her in that class. It seems almost unbelievable. Students need activities to help them get to know each other—student-to-student introductions, icebreakers, and intentional seating assignments (changed regularly so all students can get to know each other)—no matter their age.
PK: Relationships, and thus cohesiveness, also grow out of working together. So, early in the year, do a school or community service-learning project together and infuse group work into your teaching strategies. As the year goes on, try things like creating a mural that illustrates what the class has been studying, or holding regular class meetings to discuss student concerns or school issues as they arise.
Don't forget to let the students get to know you. Tell them what you were like as a student and what you thought about the subject(s) you are currently teaching. Ask their advice on how to best raise your new pet, or what's a good restaurant to check out. Let them see there's more to you than just being a teacher.
What do you mean by the concept of "academic belonging"?
LB: Few elements of effective classroom management are as impactful as quality, engaging instruction, particularly when this instruction is provided in a safe, supportive environment that offers opportunities for pre-teaching, reteaching, and redos when appropriate. For a student, feeling like you "get it," are "smart," and have the ability to succeed is essential to belonging and feeling safe in any classroom.
When we give students only a single chance to get it right (teach it, assess it, and move on), we're often missing so many students who have the potential and capacity to learn but just need more time or different opportunities to do so. It's easy to dismiss a student's lack of a particular skill or their poor performance as something out of our control, but when we reflect on what we can control (our own behavior and the opportunities we provide students), we can often find ways to ensure students have more chances to learn content and not simply be exposed to it.

The trick is to think of practices that promote belonging as content and embed them in the lessons you will already be teaching.

Author Image

Patti Kinney

One procedure that can help students know what to expect consistently is posting the agenda for that day on the board for students to see in every class. When students know what is going to happen in class each day, they are less likely to feel "lost" or confused about expectations, and their sense of belonging increases. We suggest this agenda include: the date, a student-friendly statement of the relevant standard you are teaching to that day, an essential question about the standard, a summary of the day's topics/plan, and a list of upcoming activities and assignments (with due dates).
PK: Regardless of the age of students you're teaching, there will be a wide range in cognitive, physical, social, and emotional development. To promote belonging, as lessons are developed, teachers must take these differences into account. For students to feel that sense of belonging, it's important to not only provide the high-quality instruction that Laurie mentions, but to also utilize a variety of instructional methods. Teachers who rely primarily on one instructional style—whether it's lecture, cooperative learning, Socratic questioning, or others—run the risk of diminishing a student's sense of belonging and academic success. Early in the year, once you have a sense of your students' learning preferences, establish a way to work into your planning a rotation of different instructional techniques so you regularly use methods that vary in terms of individual versus group work, presentation styles, higher-order thinking skills (concrete versus abstract), assessment methods, and so forth.
You stress giving students input into decisions schoolwide as part of making a school a place of belonging. What things can school leaders do, or set up early in the school year, to give students more "voice"?
LB: We don't "give" students a voice; we work to honor their voices. When students feel their voices are heard and honored, it has a significant impact on their willingness to engage, participate, accept and include others' voices, put forth effort, and improve their own outcomes.
One way to establish a culture that honors student voice is through setting up a student leadership council. When I was a principal, we had a council of 10 students per grade level, representing a variety of students (different genders, races, backgrounds, academic abilities, behavior, and attendance). These students participated in monthly training and feedback sessions that helped improve different aspects of their middle school, from procedures for changing classes to overall operations. They took ownership of their school when we listened to and honored their voices. Their sense of belonging was certainly positively impacted. It's important for all students to have leadership experiences like this at some point.
PK: A piece of advice I've always tried to follow is that when a decision needs to be made, involve those most directly impacted by the decision. Years ago, I had the opportunity to have a playground structure built at the middle school I led. I really wanted this project to be successful because I had had some pushback on it—not everyone thought it was appropriate for a middle school and some feared it would go unused. I pulled together a group of students and invited the head of the company we were using to talk with them. He gave some guidelines, shared what would be possible within our budget, and left the students with catalogs to examine. They pored over the catalogs and came up with a list of playground items they felt would appeal to a variety of students. Using their list, a structure was designed and built. When school opened, the kids absolutely swarmed that structure. Kid designed, kid used!
In terms of classroom practices that foster belonging, you advise "thinking of procedures as content." What does that mean?
PK: When we talk about this topic, teachers often say, "I have way too much content to cover as it is; I don't have time to add anything else to my lessons!" The trick is to think of practices that promote belonging as content and embed them in the lessons you will already be teaching. In our new book, we provide a long list of skills and practices that increase belonging (available as a downloadable handout on ASCD's website). For example, one skill is "learn and practice organizational and planning skills." A teacher can embed this skill into his or her lessons for students. Another is "practice kindness and helpfulness." It's very easy to begin a lesson that requires group work by saying something like, "As you work on this assignment, please be kind and help each other out."
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for space.

Revolutionizing Classroom Management

In their book, Laurie Barron and Patti Kinney explore how cultivating belonging can transform student well-being.

Revolutionizing Classroom Management

Naomi Thiers is the managing editor of Educational Leadership.

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