Inclusion is a verb: Belonging and schools

Written by: Daniel Sobel | Published:
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Great article! Promotion of feelings of belonging in schools is vital to the prevention of ...

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Inclusion boils down to belonging, but how can we ensure that children from a diverse range of backgrounds and with diverse needs feel that they belong in their schools and classrooms? Daniel Sobel offers some tips, reflections – and a checklist!


Helena Wahlberg, a leading inclusionista in Scandinavia, and I were in the middle of chat on stage and she stumped me with: “Inclusion is a verb.”

This led to a discussion about what the point of all this inclusion talk is. We found ourselves agreeing that it boils down to achieving “belonging”.

The next day, I participated in an online discussion with inclusion experts from 60 countries and someone asked: What does inclusion mean? In the resulting “word-map”, there was one word that dwarfed all the others: Belonging.

Soon after, I was roped into a panel discussion in a London borough about “gang crime” and the first (and only) thing I said was: “I don’t know anything about gangs or crime or combinations thereof, except I have one question: How can we make our classrooms feel like more of a place of belonging for a child than a gang?”

In this article I want to take a practical look at what “belonging” actually looks like in a school or a classroom and how we can get there.


Positive personal connections

Let’s start by sounding academic so you will believe what I have to tell you. Ostermann (2000) says a community (e.g. a school) emerges when its members experience and share a sense of belonging or personal relatedness.

Members of the community feel that the group is important to them and that they are also important to the group since their needs get satisfied, they are cared for and supported.

A sense of belonging is one of the five elements of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (1943). According to Maslow, until this need is satisfied, no real learning can occur.

Neuroscientist Dr Bruce Perry (2016) says it all in a very neat nutshell: A fundamental and permeating strength of humankind is the capacity to form and maintain relationships – the capacity to belong. It is in the context of our clan, community and culture that we are born and raised.

“The brain-mediated set of complex capacities that allow one human to connect to another form the very basis for survival and has led to the ‘success’ of our species on this planet. Without others or without belonging, no individual could survive or thrive.

Dr Perry argues that learning can only happen if the brain is in a relaxed state. If a child (or indeed an adult) feels threatened, unsafe, stressed, or lonely, the brain’s lower section, the brain-stem, which is responsible for the survival function, takes over the lead.

In this case, the child demonstrates behaviour issues as a consequence of his or her “fight, flight or freeze” brain mode (Perry, 2016).

So, if we want real learning to happen, we need to create the optimum conditions for learning where the child feels safe, nurtured, and emotionally satisfied. What immediately springs to mind are things like positive personal connections which can help to develop school communities where students feel they belong.


A community of belonging

Even before the pandemic, there was a crisis in SEN provision, as was brutally laid bare by the Education Select Committee’s 2019 review (see also SecEd, 2019).

Of course, Covid-19 extenuated the situation and has brought about dramatic learning loss for many students as well as increased numbers and types of social and emotional issues and worsened mental health.

I won’t rehearse the data here as you will all know it – or at least you will have all seen the impact in your schools – but suffice to say that while the government is focused on compensating for learning losses, arguably the real work must include improving the mental health (social, psychological, and emotional wellbeing) of all students and teachers as a priority over learning targets.

However, doing this in a blind reliance on the broken and overburdened system of CAMHS is wishful thinking. We need another way. And that way should involve creating “communities of belonging”.

These are an interconnected, dynamic social system in which each part affects the whole. Children are not only learning the curriculum in school, but also learning how to belong, engage and relate with the world around them.

Communities of belonging provide a safe environment for learning, which reduces “misbehaviour” and improves learning outcomes through the web of positive and interconnected relationships.

Before we go any further, I should appease the skeptics by declaring that I am neither a utopian nor naïve. Human relationships are almost by definition fractious and the learning process necessitates mistakes and wrong turns. This isn’t about creating “heaven on earth”, but a place where people feel safe to be themselves – to such an extent that challenging encounters are possible and normal.


The characteristics of an environment of belonging

Let’s look with more detail about the charactreristics of an environment of belonging in a school setting where students feel that:

  • They belong through warmth, appreciation, and encouragement.
  • They can contribute to and be an equally important part of a community.
  • Their voices are heard and respected through taking on roles of responsibility and authority.

“Students feel” is the imperative phrase here – we need to know our students in order to know how they feel. Here’s some starters:

  • Physical environment: Does it ensure accessibility to all school facilities?
  • Language and communications: Are they appropriate and aligned with the school’s mission?
  • Inclusive leadership: Does it promote the attitude and behaviours of respect and connectedness?
  • Parents, carers, and families: Does the school nurture relations with parents – especially the hard-to-reach?

A key area is of course teachers and their work in the classroom. Consider:

  • Can every child access a quality education alongside their peers?
  • Do teachers understand the importance of building positive relationships, especially for vulnerable children?
  • Do teachers know how to help students be ready for learning?
  • Do teachers view behaviour as communication of children’s different needs and are they trained and supported to provide preventive solutions to avoid cycles of misbehaviour?
  • Are teachers trained in differentiated or adaptive teaching?
  • Do teachers collaborate to discuss difficult cases?
  • Are teachers provided with mental health support for themselves?

This is not rocket science. Most schools know how to do most of these things. Nonetheless, it seems a handy checklist – a metric for knowing you have an environment of “belonging” in your classroom, that students feel safe and are encouraged to participate equally. But of course some students also need to feel safe enough not to participate and some need to be left alone. Let’s think about the majority of students and how well we:

  • Understand the child and their unique sensitivities, habits, family circumstances, etc.
  • Satisfy the child’s basic needs (Maslow’s hierarchy).
  • Ensure the child has someone to turn to in school when they feel overwhelmed.
  • Observe the child and notice if something is different in their behaviour.
  • Interpret causes and act to prevent children entering the negative spiral of misbehaviour.
  • Listen with honesty and willingness to reflect.


Human to human interactions

Most of this “belonging” malarkey is rooted in human-to-human interactions. This is an obviously great strength that most teachers have – we are a profession made up of adults dedicated to nurturing children.

An important shift when we are thinking about “belonging”, rather than “inclusion” or “SEND” or “behaviour”, is refocusing on abilities rather than deficits – and believing that all children can make progress, learn, and achieve. This mindset can be echoed into real practical activity in the classroom such as:

  • Students are welcomed and valued as they are.
  • Successes and failures are inevitable in the learning process, and this classroom is a safe place for both.
  • Routines and processes in the classroom are designed to give all students access to whatever they need for success.

A teacher who is a promoter of belonging then will be one who creates an atmosphere in which students’ unique qualities and needs are as important as the traits they share.

I do not buy-in to the need for labels and groupings of inclusion as is the trend – I wrote about this in my book The Inclusive Classroom (2021). Of course there are some advantages, sometimes. However, if you want to dig into any of the big ticket “labels”, such as PP, SEND, SEMH, hard-to-reach families, looked after children, then what they all have in common is that the children, the families, and the teachers will all thrive in an atmosphere of belonging.


A takeaway list

Here's the takeaway from this article. Take this list to your senior leadership team meeting once a term and give yourself a mark for how well you do, especially when compared against your biggest ticket items. Think about individual children and families and answer the question of this article: How well do they feel like they belong in your school? Follow that up with two further critical questions of: How do you know? Why? Here’s that checklist:

  • Access is ensured for all students.
  • Everyone is welcomed, appreciated, and cared for.
  • The school climate is nurturing and protective.
  • There are safe places to practise connecting and learning.
  • The school leadership embraces diversity, is supportive of inclusion, emancipates power relations across the school, and encourages collaboration, dialogue, and reflection.
  • Students and teachers are respected as human beings.
  • Power relations between teachers and students are balanced.
  • Fear is eliminated in and out of the classroom (see Dr Pooky Knightsmith’s four domains of safety).
  • The teachers know their students well.
  • Dialogue between students and teachers is encouraged.
  • Collaboration among students and teachers is present.
  • Teachers perform active and respectful listening.
  • Parent-teacher relations are balanced and positive.
  • Parents are invited and welcome in the school.
  • (Self) reflection and experimentation are promoted.
  • Diversity is viewed as ability and not deficit.
  • Every student participates in learning activities.
  • Every student takes on positions of responsibility and authority, in and out of the classroom.
  • There us improved social and emotional wellbeing through positive social relations.
  • The sense of belonging of all members of the community is perceivable.


  • Daniel Sobel is founder of Inclusion Expert which provides SEND, Pupil Premium and looked-after children reviews, training and support. You can find all his articles for SecEd on our website via http://bit.ly/seced-sobel


Further information & references

  • Maslow: A Theory of Human Motivation, Psychological Review, 50 (4), 370-96, 1943: http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Maslow/motivation.htm
  • Osterman: Students' need for belonging in the school community, Review of Educational Research (70,3), 2000: www.jstor.org/stable/1170786
  • Perry: The Neurosequential Model: A developmentally-sensitive, neuroscience-informed approach to clinical problem solving. In The Handbook of Therapeutic Child Care, Mitchell et al (eds), Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2016.
  • SecEd: Families seeking SEND support left exhausted by 'adversarial and bureaucratic' system, October 2019: http://bit.ly/2xEogm9


Comments
Great article! Promotion of feelings of belonging in schools is vital to the prevention of self-harm and suicide. See the interpersonal theory of suicide (Thomas Joiner, "Why People Die by Suicide"). According to the theory, the simultaneous presence of thwarted belongingness and perceived burdensomeness produce the desire for suicide.
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