Building Belonging at School: Students on the Margins
In 2023, Springtide embarked on new research with students from Catholic schools from across the country. The findings revealed some more specific insights around creating a sense of belonging for students.
In this post, we share insights from Alex Walton, Director of Inclusion and Belonging at Saint Mary’s College High School in Berkeley, California, on what it means to find students who may appear to be on the fringes.
There was not a day that went by that I did not stop and chat with Theo. Every morning, I knew I could find him in the same breezeway, perched on the stairs waiting for the 5-minute bell to begin his school day. He was always by himself, with a book in hand. Our simple exchanges of smiles and “good mornings” eventually led to him waiting for me outside my office after school to chat about the latest political headlines. One day, Theo brought his friends with him to chat with me. I remember being pleasantly surprised, as I had thought he didn’t have many friends. He was always by himself in the morning—he must be lonely, right? Maybe he was shy. Or maybe he didn’t feel like he fit in or was lacking a sense of belonging. Well, I was wrong. Come to find out, Theo liked spending his mornings by himself as a way to prepare for his day. He checked the news headlines, listened to music, and just relaxed. He was not lonely at all. He was taking care of himself. I had completely assumed otherwise based on our morning encounters.
So how do we recognize who sits on the fringes of our school community? How do we really know who feels as though they do not have a sense of belonging? How well do we adults know the students on our campuses? Do we take the time to get to know them? Do we know when they are having a good day or an off day? Do we engage in conversation with them?
Knowing who is on the fringes starts with building a community rooted in relationships and connection. This makes it easier to see when young people may be feeling left out of that dynamic. Ironically, this type of community-building starts with creating connections among faculty and staff. It helps to first build rapport among the adults so that they can better support the students together. Prioritizing professional development around building belonging also helps the school community ingrain those principles into instruction, leadership, and support. With those system-wide supports in place, individual faculty and staff are more empowered to know students at a deeper level and to recognize those who may be on the fringes.
While this can seem overwhelming, as most of us have hundreds, if not thousands, of students on our campuses, there are effective and relatively easy ways to support positive teacher-student relationships.
- Begin each term with a student survey. Ask your students everything from their favorite hobby to their favorite food.
- Use check-in questions or prompts at the beginning of each class to get a read on your students for the day (e.g., “Describe your mood as a weather pattern.”).
In a world that often feels short on time, taking the time to get to know your students may feel like one more thing to do, but, as Saint John Baptist de La Salle said, “Know your students individually and be able to understand them.” Taking the time to do this will not only strengthen your community but also help you identify those who may feel like they are struggling to be part of it.