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Creating Communities of Connection and Belonging for Students

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    Alison Lee and Roel Mason-Vivit

So much about school is uncertain these days, but one thing we know is that students will likely arrive in our virtual or face-to-face classrooms with stress and trauma from their experiences during the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and racial injustice. By intentionally creating spaces in which students can authentically share their experiences and affirm their own and others’ identities, school can be a place where all students feel that they belong, have purpose, and can take meaningful action to improve their lives and their communities.

Students at Campbell Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia use a virtual protocol to give all voices equal time during Morning Meeting. Photo Credit: Anna Davitt

Honoring Students’ Need to Belong

At a time of elevated and inequitable stress or trauma, many students will come to school feeling fearful and anxious. They may be more reactive to triggers related to lack of control, safety, or power. Consistent classroom or virtual routines and agreed-upon norms such as “listening and asking questions in order to understand classmates” will help students navigate classroom interactions without worrying that they might do or say the wrong thing. Even if you are teaching remotely, using discussion protocols for virtual discussion can support equity of voice, perspective-taking, and productive conflict.

Often trauma shows itself through what can be perceived as disrespectful or resistant behavior. When a student seems unmotivated, manipulative, or combative, take a step back to view and respond to their behavior through a trauma-responsive lens. Check in privately with the student to see how they are feeling and if they can locate the source of any fear or anxiety. Above all, resist replicating the dynamics that may trigger students and erode trust, like publicly shaming, punishing, or exerting power over the student.

Create a safe space for students to acknowledge and process shared experiences, loss, and grief. EL Education schools have a built-in time of each day, called Crew, when students gather with the same small group to focus on social and emotional learning, relationship building, and mutual support for collective academic success. Responsive Classroom’s Morning Meeting or the structure many secondary schools call advisory can similarly serve as a container for brave and honest conversations about the challenges students and their families are facing. Telling their stories and listening to their peers can mitigate feelings of being alone, bolster a sense of belonging, and deepen students’ empathy. Here are specific examples and recommendations for how Crew can be brought to life in virtual spaces.

Provide explicit opportunities for students to explore and share their multiple identities. Research on antiracist pedagogy makes it clear that developing students’ positive multiple identities is key to students’ healing, resilience, and thriving. These conversations are all the more critical given the current political climate, where BIPOC learners may be confronted with negative experiences and/or violence related to their identities. Students find healing and resilience by recognizing their sense of self-love and purpose, and by celebrating ancestors and current role models who have survived and thrived through oppression to enact change. Creating space for students to explore and develop their multiple identities and shared histories not only strengthens key empathy and perspective-taking skills, but also fosters a sense of reciprocal understanding, positive self-identity, and belonging.

Providing Purpose and Relevance

Even before the pandemic, research showed that when students find content and tasks that are worthwhile, compelling, and personally relevant, they are much more engaged, persistent, and willing to pursue ambitious goals. In the wake—or really in the middle of—such a tumultuous and challenging year, what’s relevant and purposeful to students might be different than it was before these crises. For example, after witnessing or participating in protests and movements for collective liberation, students may need to attend deeply to the cultural and historical experiences of their generation.

Time focused on students’ social and emotional well-being provides an opportunity for educators to better understand and acknowledge the socio-cultural context and assets that students and their communities bring into their academic learning. How might students’ recognize essential workers in their families and communities and evaluate policies and practices that positively and adversely impact those around them? What opportunities do students have to affirm their own and others’ identities in school? What possibilities exist for students to lift up expertise in their family members and neighbors in order to bring forth stories and perspectives that have not been heard? Options like these offer students opportunities for service, advocacy, and agency. When there is so much hurt in the world and when students themselves are suffering, the greatest healing can grow out of students doing something good for themselves and their community.

Student at Elgin Math and Science Academy in Elgin, Illinois shares his service story with his virtual Crew. Photo Credit: Sarah Said

Centering relationships, tending to students’ socio-emotional wellness, and supporting students to become positive agents for change is a long-term investment that will pay dividends well beyond the current crises. This moment is an opportunity to transform our educational focus so that students remember the 2020-21 school year not as one marked solely by social distancing and masks, but as one that enabled them to be their truest and best selves.

Alison Lee, Ph.D., is Senior Research Scientist with EL Education and leads research initiatives on character and equity.

Roel Mason-Vivit is the EL Education Regional Director for Illinois and Wisconsin, supporting school and district partnerships in the implementation of the EL Education school model and ELA Curriculum.