The belief that one is respected, valued and fits in culturally in one’s learning environment has far-reaching and important implications.
AS President-elect Donald Trump travels the country on his victory tour, thanking voters for their support and presumably seeking to engage those who supported his opponent, he has the opportunity to mitigate some of the anxiety his campaign has sparked in his youngest and most vulnerable constituents: students.
Heightened over the last several months, we have seen and heard anecdotes of the targeting and harassment of immigrants, Muslims, students of color and members of the LGBTQ community. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project, through a survey of more than 10,000 K-12 educators across the country, found that harassment has skyrocketed since the election.
The survey showed that behavior “ranges from frightening displays of white power to remarks that are passed off as ‘jokes.’ ” The survey results indicate that schools with significant numbers of African-American and Hispanic students and immigrant students of color are experiencing what many teachers named as trauma.
“Teachers report that students are tense, have lost trust in each other and are struggling to get along. The divisions opened by the election run deep in these schools,” the survey stated.
These young people are being made to feel as if they don’t belong. And a sense of belonging — the belief that one is respected, valued and fits in culturally in one’s learning environment — has far-reaching and important implications for their learning and success in school.
Students from demographic groups that are regularly negatively stereotyped enter a vicious cycle: They are vigilant for cues in their environment that signal whether or not they belong, fit in or are welcome there. They may also be concerned about confirming a negative stereotype about their group.
This hyper-vigilance and extra stress uses up cognitive resources that are essential for learning and can diminish their performance and discourage them from building valuable relationships.
Students who are confident they belong and are valued by their teachers and peers engage more fully in learning. They have fewer behavior problems, are more open to critical feedback, take greater advantage of learning opportunities, build stronger relationships, and generally have more positive attitudes about their classwork and teachers.
For example, a study of seventh-graders showed that when a teacher’s critical feedback on an essay was accompanied by a message that “conveyed high standards and assurances that they were confident the student could meet those standards, African-American students were over four times as likely to revise and resubmit the essay than if they received the criticism alone.”
And belonging doesn’t just matter in K-12. First-generation students and students of color face unique belonging challenges in college, as well. At the University of Texas, incoming first-year students participated in a 30-minute online reading and writing exercise that equipped them to anticipate and respond productively to common academic and social challenges they are likely to encounter in the transition to college.
It helped students understand that these difficulties are common experiences shared among many students and that they don’t signal a lack of belonging or their potential to succeed. The exercise improved retention and GPA, particularly for students of color and first-generation college students. The College Transition Collaborative is conducting ongoing research with 23 institutions to understand the effects of the intervention in varied academic settings.
This is a lesson the whole country could learn from right now. The sense of belonging that adults and peers create is essential to young people’s success. And the thing is, this isn’t partisan. It’s not radical. It’s common sense. In fact, if you listen to students, families and their teachers, it’s what they’ve been telling us for a long time. Belonging matters.
The Southern Poverty Law Center survey showed that a very small minority of teachers reported that the election had little impact on their students. Importantly — and I would argue unsurprisingly — the report noted that teachers across the country have worked hard at establishing welcoming communities, have response programs in place and have nurtured qualities of empathy and compassion among students. Teachers from across the country have joined the belonging-challenge to share ideas with one another.
My daughter Michaela teaches high-school students, primarily youth of color, in Oakland, Calif. Many are children of immigrants. Like the thousands of teachers surveyed, she has been witness to young peoples’ fears, questions and concerns about their future in the wake of this election. And while she will not be able to answer all of their questions, she shows them, when it comes to her classroom, they belong.
The president-elect has the opportunity now to build a sense of belonging for the country, to send a message that all of our nation’s children are valued. He can start with his tour and carry this message through the next four years. That would be indeed be a victory.