Social Emotional Solutions: September 2022

September 27, 2022

Social Emotional Solutions: A monthly blog showcasing strategies and bright spots for Colorado’s schools

Do Now! Creating Belonging in Colorado Classrooms

By Finessa Ferrell, CEI Social Emotional Learning Specialist


With back to school behind us, many of our conversations with teachers and school leaders include a common theme – what should I be doing now to set a foundation for student engagement and growth? While the structural work of schools to drive a culture of community and connection takes time and planning, there are a myriad of things that teachers can do tomorrow to create classroom communities based on trust, safety, and belonging.   

In the work we support across Colorado, educators see the most dramatic change when combining strategies that build strong teacher-student relationships with strong peer-peer relationships and group identity. Although we often think that strong teacher-student relationships are the key to belonging, the latter is actually about group membership: the belief that we fit in and are known, seen, and accepted by a group of people, particularly peers. Strong individual relationships, on the other hand, help us feel safe, supported, and nurtured. Both are incredibly important to building a community and culture of care, as is supporting students with building skills to succeed in each.

For educators ready to start today, here are five core approaches to foster strong individual relationships and a sense of belonging that we’re encouraging with partner schools this fall.  

1. Co-create norms, expectations, and goals for the whole class with students 

Ask your students what they want to accomplish and how they want to be treated. Students are amazing at creating shared goals, particularly when they involve a shared celebration when targets are met. Students are also surprisingly insightful when describing how they want the classroom to feel and in setting norms for behavior that support that experience. Although we often imagine that adults are the most invested in accountability structures, when framed as supportive and following through with your word rather than what you get in trouble for, even very young students buy into “buddy” structures where “I’ve got you” is the message. Checking in about absences, making sure your buddy has the homework, pair share check-ins every day about feelings – these are all things that create cohesion in community expectations and build individual skills at the same time.

2. Break students into smaller groups and attach substantial meaning to those groups

You likely know these by all sorts of names – family groups, learning pods, support quads, “packs,” or teams. This approach is critical for building the sort of peer-to-peer relationships that lead to increased belonging as well as engagement. The key is to take them very seriously, to match students carefully after you know them a little better – after two or three weeks for example – and to give them thoughtful and important tasks to accomplish. If matching seems daunting, use a tool that sorts students for you. Assessments such as True Colors, DISC, or Emergenetics are huge hits with students – they love taking them – and allow for quick and easy grouping by color, trait, or style. Inventories or your own easy survey of student passions or interests are also an effective approach to this work. 

3. Cultivate group identity as a class

Group identity is built through activities done in a full group process even if the “content” is driven by individual feelings, experiences, and reflections. In other words, we come to know and understand our community only when we have deeper understanding of the individuals in it. For example, sitting in a circle passing a stick or stuffed animal to each person who wishes to speak is a group experience based on the sharing of individual information. The more we engage individuals to share themselves – sometimes in small groups and sometimes in a full group – the better we build deeper identity of ourselves as a group. In addition to using the circle process to build understanding of each other, consider doing an art project together where every student decorates a piece of a mural or mosaic that comes together only when all the pieces are in place and, once on the wall, symbolizes the whole class.

4. Develop a structure for ongoing support and dialogue with each individual student

Sometimes it feels like this is impossible, no matter how important it might be. In fact, the concept of advisory grew in large part from secondary teachers in larger schools saying it was just not feasible to have a 1:1 meeting with every student during class time even if you gave yourself a week to accomplish it. Imagine for a moment taking the pressure off from words like “meeting,” “student consultancy protocol,” or “session” and think instead of a “running dialogue” or “check-in”. One of the most innovative tools I’ve seen in this regard is called a Conversation Calendar. This is essentially a running dialogue between a teacher and student for a year, made up of two to three sentences each time. If done electronically, this is like a chat thread where the teacher starts off with a post on Monday – posing a question of any kind about anything. The student has an expectation to post back by Wednesday/Thursday, the teacher responds by Friday/ Monday, and this loop continues going wherever it wants to go conversationally. When I first saw this modeled by an outstanding high school teacher, she handed out an 8.5 x 11 piece of paper divided into four squares on Monday in the last five minutes of class. In the upper left square, she wrote a question – maybe about a movie, a sports team, spare time, or a pet—and the student was asked to hand the paper back in with their answer and a question for her on Wednesday. She handed the paper back out with her reply on Friday and so it went for the entire year with each of her students. I was stunned at the richness of that dialogue and her students consistently rated it as their favorite classroom activity. 

5. Build individual skills to improve the strength of the community

All educators help students build their skills as a core component of teaching. What we tend to think about less often is how critical it is to build pro-social and interpersonal skills not just to increase the school and life success of individuals but to strengthen the community. When we get better at asking for help, self-calming techniques, active listening, habitual reflection, collaborative communication, recognizing stereotypes, setting boundaries, initiating conversation, and the like, the entire community is the beneficiary of the increased skill of its members. For example, one of the most effective strategies to build reflective practice is so simple you could start it at any point in the school year with minimal lift and maximum gain: a Do-Over Journal, sometimes called a Time Turner. Youth and adults alike wish for the ability to stop time, rewind, and re-do things that didn’t go to plan or had unintended consequences that we regret. The appeal of a “clean slate” is universal. If you could turn back time, what would you do differently? The Do-Over journal is not graded – in fact it is usually not read by the teacher. Teachers can use a few minutes of class time every Thursday or Friday for students to write in their journals, so as to ensure all students are writing and participating. The prompts are simple: Write about one thing that happened this week that you wish you could go back and do over. Why did it turn out the way it did? What would you do differently now? This journaling activity not only gets students writing, it also builds self-awareness, fuels self-discovery, impacts self-management, and models habitual reflective practice.

The science of learning and development is clear that all humans, especially young people, long for meaningful relationships in a community where they believe they belong. The last three years have presented tremendous challenge to deepening connection, maintaining relationships, and building community; if ever there was a time to recommit to community building it is now. While not exhaustive, these five approaches are a jumpstart to developing the connective tissue and muscle memory we all need to thrive, both in and outside of school.