3 Ways Teachers Can Instill Belonging in Students

7 minute read
Cohen is a Professor of Psychology and the James G. March Professor of Organizational Studies in Education and Business at Stanford University. He is the author of Belonging: The Science of Creating Connection and Bridging Divides

A colleague of mine, a Black man named Mohammed, shared with me a story about a transformative teacher from his youth. Mohammed had been a low-income student who had won a scholarship to a private high school. But he was coasting, he told me.

Then he was assigned to his 10th-grade math teacher. The teacher, a brown-skinned South Asian man, studied him. After a few days, he called Mohammed to his desk as he was leaving. “Mohammed,” he said, “people will expect less of you; they’ll expect you to just get by.” Then he added, simply, “But I know that you are capable of more.” The single sentence, Mohammed said, moved him in a lasting way. When I asked him why, he said, “I felt seen. My full self was seen.” 

Contrary to our cultural biases, the most important factor driving success in school and beyond isn’t IQ, grit, or any other virtue or skill. It’s something outside of students, in their circumstances: The presence of a teacher or mentor who convinces them that they belong and can succeed.

In just one statement, Mohammed’s teacher conveyed what I see as three core messages of belonging: that he is seen, that he has potential and that he is not alone.

Read More: How To Create a Sense of Belonging In a Divided America

Inspired by teachers and mentors like Mohammed’s, my colleagues and I have developed and tested several practices aimed to communicate these three messages of belonging. These practices are easy to implement and can be used by teachers, parents, and mentors across a variety of domains. They are especially effective for people from underprivileged backgrounds and underrepresented groups, who too seldom receive these messages. Through decades of research, it has become clear that, when these one-time practices are thoughtfully implemented, they can bring about large and lasting changes in people’s trajectories.

You are seen.

Recognizing people’s individuality is essential to fostering their sense of belonging. One effective way to achieve this is through the practice of values-affirmation, through which mentors can convey that they recognize and accept individuals for who they are.

In values-affirmation exercises, people engage in introspection during moments of stress, centering their thoughts on the values they hold closest to their hearts. Allowing students to take a few minutes to write about these values and to explain their personal importance allows them to summon the sense of belonging and individuality they experience in other facets of their lives, even amid challenging circumstances.

In a series of experiments by several colleagues and me, middle school teachers integrated values-affirmation activities into their curriculum, carried out approximately three times over the course of the academic year. One student participant wrote, “For me, a sense of humor is the most important thing. Every time someone makes me laugh it gives me comfort and happiness.” The benefits were especially pronounced for Black and Latino students, who often harbor more uncertainty about their belonging in school. Relative to their peers in a control group, these students had a stronger sense of belonging in school and earned better grades, with 50% fewer receiving a D or below in the course.

Their enduring impact of their increased sense of belonging in school became evident. Six years later, the affirmed students were 20% more likely to be admitted to a four-year college than students in the control group. That’s important because college is our society’s most powerful engine of social mobility.

The scope of self-affirmation exercises extends beyond students. Recent research with social psychologists Shannon Brady and Camilla Griffiths, found that first-year teachers who completed values-affirmations early in the academic year forged stronger connections with their students, leading to classrooms that were perceived as more rigorous. Consider also similar exercises aimed at enhancing employee performance and retention. As organizational behavior scholar Daniel Cable and his colleagues suggest, the onboarding of employees should focus on “revealing their best,” rather than “breaking them in.” By acknowledging and nurturing the unique qualities of each person, organizations sow seeds of belonging that not only promote achievement at work and school but also create the leaders and change-makers of tomorrow.

You have potential.

Exceptional mentors often expect more of their mentees than their mentees think they have to give. One powerful way to convey this message of untapped potential is what my colleagues and I call “wise criticism.” It’s critical feedback that explicitly assures students of their ability to reach a higher standard.

In one of our team’s field experiments, inspired by our earlier laboratory studies, 12-year-old minority students wrote an essay and subsequently received critical feedback from their teacher. For one group of students, teachers appended this handwritten note to the feedback: “I’m giving you this criticism because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.” For a control group of students, teachers appended this note: “I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your paper.”

Our methodology ensured that teachers remained unaware of which students received which notes, enabling us to get a pure read on the causal effect of the note. Among students receiving wise criticism, the number who submitted a revision of their essay increased substantially, and for minority students, the increase was substantial: from 17% in the group that got the generic note to 72% that got the high standards note.

The following year, disciplinary issues were less common among this latter group of students. Years later, 30% more students who received the wise criticism note made it to a four-year college, relative to the control group.

Wise criticism can be equally valuable in the workplace. Experimental studies with military soldiers and factory workers revealed that they perform better when their supervisors perceive them as having high potential. This research demonstrates that it’s possible to protect belonging without sacrificing standards. 

You are not alone.

Mohammed knew that his teacher had his back—someone who would stand by him despite the prejudices he encountered. A practice Greg Walton and I developed conveys to students that they are not alone in their academic journeys. When we feel alone, our problems can loom large. But when we feel supported, we are lifted to a psychological perch from which our challenges appear smaller and less threatening.  First-year Black college students went through an hour-long session at our lab, reading stories and statistics that made it clear that any doubts they had about belonging in school were both normal and likely to be transient. Our participants learned that the process of adjustment takes time, but that with effort and good strategy they would eventually find a home.

Compared to peers in a control group, Black students who received the intervention earned higher GPAs throughout their four years of college. This halved the gap between them and their white peers. The students also reported improved happiness, health, and fewer visits to the doctor. A decade later, Brady and fellow researchers found that these former students who had received the intervention reported relatively more satisfying, less stressful, and meaningful careers than the students in the control group.

This exercise has broader applicability and can support anyone going through a challenging transition in which they are concerned about belonging, such as young teenagers who are currently facing heightened levels of loneliness, anxiety, and mental health concerns.

Extensive studies, including across entire school districts and even at national levels, have replicated the benefits of many of these practices along with similar approaches. However, the positive outcomes tend to manifest under specific circumstances, notably when students struggle with uncertainties about their belonging in school. Equally critical is the school's capacity to furnish avenues for these students to forge connections and establish a sense of belonging once their uncertainties are allayed.

In the face of the many forces that sow division and create disadvantages for many of our students, it's natural to feel overwhelmed or uncertain about what to say or do. Yet both anecdotal evidence and scientific research show that teachers, parents, and mentors can make a big difference in the lives of the individuals they guide, sometimes through the seemingly smallest of gestures.

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