CYC-Online 101 JUNE 2007
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attachment and belonging

Helping students feel they belong

Mary Beth Hewitt

Belonging is a key component to a healthy life. When people feel like they belong, they care about what those around them think of them. There is a reciprocity to belonging: If you care, I care – if you don’t care, I don’t care. In conducting teacher workshops, the author has encountered growing numbers of teachers who report there is a whole new class of students who act as if they don’t care about their behavior and for whom authority has little or no meaning. This article discusses strategies for creating belonging, even with students who reject the idea.

One of the factors that I have found very important in determining how much students care about their behavior is how valued they feel by the people around them. If they feel unimportant and are treated like “a number” instead of a special individual, then why should they care what other people think? Think about your own reactions to being “anonymous.” When you are with people whom you care about, whose opinion you respect, then you contain your impulses because you care how you treat them and what they think. You are interested in preserving those relationships. When you are with strangers you believe you will never see again, you may give in to your impulses, thinking, “Who cares, these people don’t know me or care about me, and 1 won’t see them again.”

How do you know when you belong?
I asked a number of students how they knew that they belonged to a group (be it in or out of school). The following are some of the responses that I received, and I was struck by their similarities:

One of the simplest ways to begin to establish a sense of belonging is by smiling and making eye contact. Polly Nichols, a woman who taught for years in a mainstreamed setting and later went on to teach methods courses, noted that her students with emotional problems who were attending mainstreamed high school classes had typical complaints about every teacher except one. She asked them what they had liked about him; they said that he was “nice.” When pressed for more information about why they thought he was nice, they simply said that he always said “hi” and called them by name.

Nichols was sure there must be something more extraordinary about this man and began observing him between classes: “A walk down the hall revealed teachers standing in pairs or alone, arms crossed, faces watchful, true standard bearers of the need for quiet and order in the hall. Mr. Moeller, by contrast, relaxed against his doorjamb and said such things as “Hi” or “How’s it going?” or he nodded and just smiled” (Long & Morse, 1996, p. 90). In all of her observations, she didn’t find anything else remarkably different that this man did with his students other than use eye contact, smile, and use the students' names and pleasant words.

By contrast, in her work with teachers who were having difficulties managing the behavior of students, she observed that the behaviors employed by Mr. Moeller were conspicuously absent and noted that instead these teachers used “stern faces, distance from students, and eyes focused on academic materials or point sheets except when surveying to pierce a bad actor with a piercing stare ... ” (Long & Morse, 1996, p. 91). Simple everyday pleasantries can make individuals feel either that they are welcome and belong or that they are trespassing in enemy territory.

What’s in a name?
One of the quickest and easiest ways to create a sense of belonging is to call a person by his or her name. Time and again, I have seen the power that this very simple gesture has. I recall in particular a staff recognition dinner many years ago. The superintendent came up to me and asked me some of my staff members' names. He then went over and greeted each one personally. Later on, at least three of those people came over to me and commented on how impressed they were that he had remembered their names! (I didn’t feel the need to tell them that he had asked me first-what was important is that he had bothered to take the time to ask at all and in so doing had made them feel they were important individuals to the organization.)

I remember a young student I know becoming very upset when she learned she was not accepted into a scholastic organization. When she approached the principal with a letter expressing her feelings, the principal said, “Who are you?” She was devastated. How could this person make decisions about her life without knowing who she was?

A few other things to consider regarding names: You should always use the individual’s preferred name for him or herself, and you should spell it correctly A girl named Margaret may wish to be called Margaret, Meg, Peg, or Maggie. A boy named Charles may wish to be called Chuck, Chip, Charlie, or Charles. With the number of blended families these days, it is also important to call the adults in your students' lives by their correct names. Do not automatically assume that everyone in a family has the same last name!

Matching faces to names is not very difficult, but it does take a little time. You can use class pictures from previous years or old yearbooks, or you can simply ask others. When we moved a large number of students into a new facility in an existing school building, we prepared a scrapbook of pictures so that the staff members could familiarize themselves with our students' faces before the students arrived. Our students were surprised and pleased when they got off the bus and were greeted by name.

Feeling important and valued
Recognize that relationship building is not something that can happen artificially. When I first started teaching, administrators suggested that I give the students an “interest inventory” at the beginning of the year. Although such inventories can be useful, they are also artificial, and I found that they were usually only effective with younger students. In the early grades, students are usually more open to sharing information about their likes and dislikes because they don’t yet have the fear that they will be laughed at or judged. Older students, on the other hand, may view an interest inventory as prying. Certain students are not easily forthcoming with information about themselves because they really have not thought about their preferences. It will be up to you to notice their likes and dislikes, their strengths and weaknesses. Genuine caring is an action: taking the time to notice what’s important.

One time when I was doing an observation in a classroom, one of the boys was being especially defiant. The teacher put on some music, and the boy went over and began rummaging through her bag, looking at CDs. “Do you have any Michael Jackson?” he asked. This would have been a prime opportunity for the teacher to ask a few questions: “What Michael Jackson songs do you like?” “Would you be willing to bring in one of your own CDs or recommend one for me to get?” What a wonderful opportunity to create a sense of belonging. Unfortunately, what many adults will do in this type of situation is admonish the student for going through the teacher’s belongings or simply say “no” and immediately try to get the student back on track. What they do not realize is that getting such a student back on track can be easier if they take a few seconds to show interest in what is important to him or her. In the book Reclaiming Youth at Risk: Our Hope for the Future, the authors noted, “Your authority is based on the strength of your status as a beloved and admired model person” (Brendtro, Brokenleg, & Van Bockern, 1990, p. 60). Beloved and admired people who make you feel like you belong ask questions about your interests.

What are some things you can notice about a student? Examples of subtle cues include:

I was doing a consultation in a school one day when a little girl became visibly upset because she had lost part of her necklace. As I was helping her search for the missing stone, I began asking her questions about the necklace. I learned a little about her family, when her birthday was, and her favorite color. Later that morning, she gave me a card she had made during her free time. In about 3 minutes, we had made a connection. One parent shared with me how her son worked very hard for a teacher who, like her son, was a Buffalo Bills fan.

Even if you do not have common interests, making an effort to understand the interests of a student speaks volumes about caring. I have a friend who has the ability to make people feel immediately at ease. He asks them about something in which they’re interested (e.g., stock car racing) and then asks them questions about it. He is a good listener and gives them the opportunity to be in the spotlight. He does not judge, which is especially important with teenagers. I recently had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Martin Brokenleg speak at a conference about communicating with teenagers. He said that if you want to relate well to children, don’t act like a “typical” adult. When confronted by a student who has body piercings and purple hair, asking questions such as “How do you get your hair that color purple?” and “Which of your piercings hurt the most?” are ways to start a conversation. On the other hand, “What possessed you to dye your hair that awful color?” and “Someday you'll regret putting holes in your body!” are sure ways to create a sense of distance.

Brokenleg’s point was that when dealing with cultural differences (and I believe there is a strong difference between the culture of children and the culture of adults), we need to work to build bridges – not walls. I took a group of my students (all junior high boys) on a field trip, and we came across a raccoon skeleton. The boys wanted to bring it back to class. My adult mind said, “Germs.” My kid mind said, “Hey, cool.” Sometimes to get kids into my world (academics), I have to go into their world (fascination with a raccoon skeleton). I picked up the skeleton with a bag turned inside out, and the boys proudly carried it back to the school. (We boiled the bones before examining them). I watched this group of boys who had previously been “turned off” by the study of the skeletal system in science class become enthusiastic and active learners, all because I had let them do something that was of interest and importance to them. Creating a sense of belonging can be seen as a series of compromises. Because I care about you, I'll listen to what’s important to you. Because you care about me, you will listen to what’s important to me.

Suggestions for involving young people

  • Become familiar with students' faces and names prior to the first day of class (e.g., look at yearbooks or class pictures).

  • Ask students what they want to be called, and make sure you call them by their preferred name. Remember to spell it correctly also!

  • Smile, make eye contact, and exchange pleasantries. (These are the key steps in “greeting others” that many of us teach in social skills training and are the key components of any interpersonal skills training course.)

  • Notice what is important and of interest to the student. This information can be used to establish the “I care about you as a person” connection, which is often necessary to make students even feel as if they want to belong.

  • Share information about your interests with students. If we want children to feel comfortable sharing with us, then we need to share with them.

  • Continue to treat a student with kindness, while at the same time being tough on behavior. You can disapprove of a behavior without degrading the person. Use “I messages”: “I feel angry when I’m called names. Next time you’re angry I’d appreciate it if you’d say “I’m mad” rather than calling names.” “I’m glad you've calmed down and are back.”

  • Show your support for students by attending nonacademic functions such as sports events or concerts.

  • Concentrate on the individual’s strengths and invite him or her to share those talents with the group. Examples might include a sense of humor, knowledge about a particular topic, artistic or musical talent, physical strength.

  • Respect the dilemma of “mixed loyalties.” Don’t be judgmental or pressure students into choosing between different groups.

  • When confronted by misbehavior, make certain you teach (not just talk about) pro-social skill alternatives to help students be successful in a school setting.

Why do some students reject overtures to belong?
It’s fairly easy to establish a sense of belonging with students who want to belong. The challenge comes in creating this feeling in young people who do not want to be a part of your world. If we all have a basic human need to belong, why do some individuals seem bent on rejecting our overtures? For many young people, belonging is a scary concept: Once I let you know about me, l am vulnerable. Once I belong, I can also be rejected. Once I care, I can also be hurt. Ergo, if I never belong, I can never be rejected (because I'll reject you first) and I can never be hurt. Exclusion from a group I care nothing about doesn’t hurt.

According to Brendtro et al. (1990), “Relationship reluctant children may be fearful, suspicious or antagonistic. They may be superficially charming but expert at keeping adults at emotional arms length” (p. 58). When approached by a friendly adult, a student who has this type of belief system may verbally lash out and reject the adult at first. If the adult persists, the student may try to get the adult to “show his or her true colors” by pushing emotional buttons. If the right button is hit and the adult loses control, the student can then say, “See, he or she looked nice on the outside, but I knew he or she was just like all the other adults who say they care but, deep down inside, you know they hate you.”

You cannot just tell students to trust you; you have to show them through your consistent, caring actions. If you become emotionally abusive and hostile with a student who is being emotionally abusive and hostile, you are engaged in mutual rejection. Unconditional acceptance of the student as a person, regardless of his or her behavior, is essential; it is also very difficult for many adults to do. In the Summer 1997 issue of CHOICES, the article “Sticks & Stones Can Break My Bones, But Names Can Never Hurt Me (Or Can They)?” described some of the ways young people will try to dissuade others from caring about them. If we can keep uppermost in our minds that the student is not rejecting its personally, but rather is trying to defend against painful feelings, we can continue to care about the child even when we don’t approve of the behavior.

All too frequently, however, we make our caring contingent upon behavior. Some people say things such as, “He doesn’t deserve to belong.” Stated Long and Morse (1996):

Fritz Redl strongly attacked the common notion that some children are so bad that they “don’t deserve” positive attention: The children must get plenty of love and affection whether they deserve it or not.... Gratifying life situations cannot be made the bargaining tools of educational or even therapeutic motivation, but must be kept tax-free as minimal parts of the youngster’s diet, irrespective of the problems of deservedness. (p. 110)

A definition of kindness that strikes a chord with me is “the ability to love someone more than they deserve.” Going back to the list of responses at the beginning of this article, we can see that one of the things the students wrote was “They welcome me back no matter what. They may not like what I did, but they don’t hold it against me,” and “They can disagree without making me feel “put down”.” Being kind to the person while being tough on the inappropriate behavior is one of the most difficult balancing acts staff members face.

Social isolation, exclusion, expulsion, banishment, and exile are the harshest forms of punishment, but only if the person being punished cares about the group doing the punishing. School really is an artificial group; being a member of a group you don’t want to be a member of and not having a choice of leaving on your own sometimes prompts individuals to force the group to exclude them. To some students, school is a place where they feel alone, incompetent, and hated. Unless we can make them feel connected, successful, and loved, they will continue to do their damnedest to get us to reject them.

Belonging to several groups at once
This might be subtitled “Loyalty and the Importance of Nonjudgmentalism.” Group loyalties can change develop mentally. As children grow, their need for independence sometimes conflicts with their need for belonging, and they find themselves in a quandary. How can they belong to several groups at once? This is especially apparent during the developmental stage of adolescence. Suddenly it is no longer “cool” to do things with your family. Teenagers start asking their parents to drop them off a block away from school rather than facing the dilemma of having Mom or Dad pull their car up in front of the school and kiss their embarrassed son or daughter on the cheek, shouting, “Don’t forget to wear your coat!”

A high school teacher shared with me a conversation she had with a student. She had recognized that when she gave him positive verbal praise in front of the class, he reacted negatively, so she decided to try giving him the praise in private. She asked him to come out into the hallway, and she complimented him on his recent essay. He responded by saying, “Thank you.” Then he hastily added, “When we go back into the classroom, could you look mad? My buddies think you asked me out here to yell at me, and it wouldn’t be cool if we both looked happy with each other.” If we are going to help students deal with the dilemma of conflicting loyalties, we need to make an effort to respect their feelings concerning other groups. Don’t force a child to choose between groups. Any parent knows that trying to force a child to make such a choice only heightens the child's sense of loyalty and need to defend the other group.

Another dilemma faced by young people might be titled, “How can I belong to several groups if their behavioral expectations and values are in conflict?” One sure way to discourage belonging is to be judgmental and either directly or inadvertently impose our values on our students. As an example, I will use the issue of swearing. If we make a global statement that swearing is improper behavior, what message is being received by a student who comes from a group (peer group, family, or neighborhood) where swearing is common? I am not proposing that we drop all values or expectations for school behavior. We can set our behavioral expectations for appropriate language, dress, ways to handle disputes, and so forth in school without making value judgments about the appropriateness of those items in other settings. I liken this to the posting of speed limit signs. A speed limit sign clearly states the maximum allowable speed in a particular area. It does not give the reasons for the limit, nor does it make any judgments about different speed limits. This is the speed limit here; what the speed limit is in other places is not an issue. By not making value judgments and stressing instead behavioral alternatives, we facilitate the students” ability to belong to several groups, even if those groups have conflicting values.


Brendtro, L. K., Brokenleg, M., & Van Bockern, S. (1990). Reclaiming youth at risk: Our hope for the future. Bloomington, IN: National Educational Service.

Long, N., & Morse, W. (1996). Conflict in the classroom: The education of at-risk and troubled students (5th ed.). Austin, TX: PRO-ED.

This feature: Hewitt, M.B. (1998). Helping students feel like they belong. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 7(3), pp.155-159

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