There are two different definitions to the word belong. Something can belong to me, like a book or a car. Or I can belong to something, like a family or my church. Being accepted into a group of people fills a raw and foundational need of every human. We each have an inherent need to belong to a group of people that is bigger than ourselves. We are wired for relationship and science backs this up.

Abraham Maslow, the father of human needs, focused his attention on what humans need to be happy. He found that immediately after the basic needs of food, water and safety, is the need to belong. The need to have intimate relationships must be fulfilled before any learning can take place. These same findings were echoed by William Glasser who asserted that developing healthy, loving, strong relationships are the first of humans’ basic needs and must be fulfilled before one can be creative, can learn and be innovative.

Why is belonging important to school success? Belonging is a primary need. It is fundamental to human happiness and well-being. Motivation, happiness and even health are inextricably tied to the feeling that we belong to a greater community. If a student doesn’t feel they are accepted into the group, then they feel lonely and isolated. Isolation and loneliness can harm a student’s sense of well-being and intellectual achievement. Research has demonstrated that even a single instance of exclusion can undermine IQ performance and self-control (Baumeister, 2002 & Goodenow, 1993).

Shouldn’t we be taking this into account as we think about education reform? Too often we hear about test scores, teacher accountability, increased homework load, and the need for students to take responsibility. However, before any of these things can take place, we need to help our students to feel like they belong. 18% of the 7000 kids who drop out of school every day drop out because they feel like they do not belong. They do not feel like anyone cares about them. It was extremely disheartening when I interviewed children and asked about their teachers. I asked all of them to tell me how many teachers, over their education career, where caring, loving teachers who they felt truly cared about them. Most of the students, having 10-12 years of education under their belt, said, “one.” How is it that in 10, 11, or 12 years of school a child can feel like only one teacher cared for them?

Our focus is in the wrong place. Education reform is concerned with test scores and productivity. We need to reinvent education and concentrate on belonging first. When our children feel like they belong, when they feel safe, when they are emotionally healthy, then we will see a rise in test scores and productivity as a natural side effect to feeling like they belong. It is time we step up and talk about creating schools that put love, care and respect of students first. We need to hire teachers and learning coaches who can create loving, respectful, beautiful, and caring spaces that will challenge students to be their best.

Education is a human system; it is not a mechanical system. Our students are human and not machines. Our current education system struggles to honor that human side. The human side is messy. There are detours and bumps in the road. This does not make for a very efficient system where we can be sure students are all learning the same thing at the same time. Do we need to reevaluate the need for every student to learn the same thing at the same time to honor the human side of education?

Let’s start asking these questions. Let’s push back on our school system and demand that the education system start looking at the elements that will help our students succeed, like the need to belong. Let’s support schools and educators that are putting students ahead of test scores and productivity. Let’s make a difference for the future of our children. Let’s help our students belong.

Baumeister, R. F., Twenge, J. M., & Nuss, C. K. (2002). Effects of social exclusion on cognitive processes: Anticipated aloneness reduces intelligent thought. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,83(4), 817-827. doi:10.1037//0022-3514.83.4.817

Goodenow, C. (1993). Classroom Belonging among Early Adolescent Students: Relationships to Motivation and Achievement. The Journal of Early Adolescence,13(1), 21-43. doi:10.1177/0272431693013001002

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