Three weeks after my middle child started third grade, she was so anxious and upset that she couldn’t concentrate on learning. A new school principal had decided that children should be seen but not heard except when called on. Morning snack was forbidden and recess time eliminated. A climate of fear replaced the comfortable environment of previous years. I moved my daughter to a new school two weeks later.
Feeling like they belong is crucial to children’s mental, physical, and spiritual well-being. Kids want and need to ‘fit in’ at home, school, and wherever else they spend time. They also want and need to be recognized for their unique selves. Group leaders can fulfill both of these needs by emphasizing belonging as a part of group interactions.
When children feel seen and heard, they develop a sense of belonging. Learning about (and remembering) children’s likes, dislikes, and preferences is one way adults can acknowledge kids’ uniqueness. Ask ‘getting to know you’ kinds of questions: What are your favorite activities? What are you especially good at? How do you like to learn new things? As trust builds, include questions that probe a bit deeper: When do you feel anxious or afraid? What kinds of activities are hard for you?
Partnering with children to learn how they build connections shows that we appreciate their unique experiences. We can ask children to share stories of times when they have felt like they belonged. We can also invite them to identify various things (such as facial expressions, gestures, words, attitudes, and activities) that help them experience belonging.
Featuring children and their work in a wall or online group gallery communicates that they are valued. We might hang photos of kids practicing meditation, post their drawings and stories about a sacred text, or visually depict their contributions to a group conversation about social justice. Then, when children view the gallery, they see their individuality as well as their inclusion in the group.
Inviting children to create self-portraits to share with one another also reinforces belonging. Like a biographical story, a self-portrait encourages kids to show others how they want to be seen. Encourage them to provide details about themselves by using a favorite color for their clothing, depicting themselves engaged in a favorite activity, and/or placing themselves in a favorite location.
A twist on a self-portrait involves encouraging children to put together a ‘bio-bag’ for use in the group. Conceived by an anti-bias educator, Liz Kleinrock, a bio-bag is a paper bag that children decorate with pictures and words that depict outward aspects of their identity, i.e., things other people can easily see. Inside the bag, kids place several small pieces of paper that contain words or images of things about themselves that are harder for people to know just by observing them. These might include hopes and dreams, fears, significant past experiences, family relationships, and anything else children might want to share. Then make time regularly for children to share something from inside their bag with the group. Pick one or two children to share each week or build a sharing round robin into your activities monthly.