Simply defined, belonging is an affinity for a situation, location, or group. People are inherently social creatures and have a powerful need to belong, fit in, and connect with others.
Social psychologists have long studied people to ascertain how and why they form groups and how those groups affect their actions and behaviors. Many truths have been discovered in the social sciences, including:
The groups people belong to are often fundamental to their sense of self and understanding of who they are;
People show a readiness to find collective solidarity with others and can quickly create a shared sense of identity;
When a group identity is activated, it can have a profound effect on people’s goals, emotions, and behaviors; and
Most people are likely to conform to the behavioral norms associated with an active group identity.
Teachers that play to win the classroom management game leverage these fundamental truths for their own purposes. Mankind’s ability and desire to form social groups is one of its defining characteristics. While children have to be taught to read, they don’t have to be taught to speak. Speech is a natural function that is designed into the existing structures of the brain. Likewise, children will learn to walk on their own, but they have to be taught to sew or play soccer. Speech and walking are inborn behaviors while sewing and playing soccer are learned.
Confusing the two types of behaviors can hide this powerful truth from many educators. Seeking to belong to a social group is an inborn, not learned, behavior. It’s wired into children’s DNA like the ability to hear and mimic speech. That means that when children enter their new classrooms each August, they are subconsciously asking themselves a series of questions.
Do I fit in here? Should I even want to belong to this group?
What are the expected behaviors? What does it take to belong?
Groups that provide a sense of belonging are attractive to students because they scratch an essential itch. Even more importantly, human connection, or belonging, powers the brain.
The brain is an electrical structure and its primary energy source is human connection. Specifically, the neurotransmitter oxytocin produces trust and reduces fear, setting up curiosity. Alongside oxytocin is dopamine, another neurotransmitter which is released when engaged in pleasurable activities, such as exercising or an exciting science lesson. Put together in the classroom, oxytocin and dopamine are released through connection and curiosity, respectively. This fuel is what powers learning and allows students to handle increasingly rigorous cognitive loads. Students are more likely to take learning risks in an environment where they feel safe, valued, and supported (sense of belonging).
Belonging in the classroom has two major components, teacher-student relationships (discussed in the next episode) and group identity. Group identity forms in many ways, even unintentionally. However, playing to win the behavior management game means that teachers intentionally create a beneficial, supportive group identity for students to belong to.
In general, group identity emerges from shared experiences, values, and beliefs. Simply attending class each day helps build a group identity, but oftentimes students don’t completely buy in because the values and beliefs are unclear or contradict their own values and beliefs. Teachers who purposefully cultivate a shared identity (e.g., This is what it means to be in Mr. Johnson’s class) have answered the following questions for themselves.
How do students fit in here? Why should they even want to belong to this group?
What are the expected behaviors? What does it take to belong?
More than that, those answers should be plain, actionable, and understood by the students. When the teacher and students are crystal clear on what it takes to belong to the group and the benefits of doing so, the behavioral expectations of the group are much more likely to be met.
Attending a funeral service has a different set of behavioral norms than attending a rock concert. Students know that they can behave in ways at home that are unacceptable at church. Humans are adept at navigating the different expectations that shift from experience to experience, but struggle when those norms are not understood, when they don’t feel a sense of belonging with the group, or both.
Rather than leaving the formation of group identity up to chance, teachers can utilize the following strategies to proactively create a sense of belonging in their classrooms.
Establish healthy norms (and maintain them). While it may seem obvious to teachers, classroom behavioral expectations are sometimes not apparent to everyone. For many students, there are two sets of expectations: the ones the teacher says verbally and the ones the teacher actually enforces. When a discrepancy between the two exists, students have difficulty adhering to the group identity because they don’t know what that means from moment to moment. Norms, or expected behaviors, should be phrased positively rather than negatively. Instead of Don’t say rude things to each other, a classroom norm might be Support one another in learning. Explaining the norms in detail and modeling them will help students answer the question, What are the expected behaviors? What to do when students do not meet those expectations is covered in the section on discipline (episodes 4 and 5).
Utilize collective rewards. While every student likes rewards, sometimes handing them out creates a set of winners and losers. Reward systems, however, are activated in the brain when in-group members (e.g., classmates in a classroom with strong social ties) receive a reward. Psychologists call this basking in reflected glory and it is evident every Monday during football season when fans across the country wear paraphernalia from their favorite team to celebrate a victory. Even though the fans didn’t affect the outcome of the match, they reap the beneficial feelings from the victory. In the same way, classrooms that have a healthy sense of belonging can multiply the effect of rewards exponentially by making them collective rather than individualistic. The rewards can be not only for academic achievement but also for exhibiting prosocial behaviors that support learning and community. For example, the class might earn an extra five minutes of recess when a set amount of positive behaviors (i.e., group norms) are exhibited.
Use inclusive language. Put simply, use plural pronouns in the first person (i.e., we, our) rather than the second person (i.e., you, your). A group identity is reinforced when students are constantly reminded of it. Speaking in the second person highlights individual actions, strengths, and weaknesses. Using inclusive language, however, subtly but consistently drives home the group identity and the fact that the class struggles or thrives together.
Find all the episodes in this web series (and the free eBook) here.
Bavel, J. V. (2023, April 21-23). The power of us [Keynote address]. Learning and Brain: Teaching Social Brains, New York, NY, United States.
Bavel, J. V., & Packer, D. J. (2022). The power of us: Harnessing our shared identities for personal and collective success. Wildfire.
Cantor, P. (2023, April 21-23). How relationships power the brain [Keynote address]. Learning and Brain: Teaching Social Brains, New York, NY, United States.
Christakis, N. A. (2023, April 21-23). Blueprint: The evolutionary origins of a good society [Keynote address]. Learning and Brain: Teaching Social Brains, New York, NY, United States.