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How Can We Enhance Belonging to Promote Exploration?

July 14, 2022

Filed in: Learning & Education

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This was the fourth and final question tackled at our first annual Brain Development Symposium by panelists Nancy Deutsch, PhD, Director of Youth-Nex at the University of Virginia, and Joyce Pae, Principal at the Chicago Academy K-8 School.

“I want to start with thinking about the why,” Nancy began. “Why is belonging so important during adolescence in order to support exploration?”

Some of this, she said, goes back to attachment–adolescents need to feel safe in order to be able to explore the world, especially during this window when young people are discovering who they are and where they fit in in this world.

“That sense of belonging is even more important to them. They’re trying to figure out ‘Where do I belong as a person?’ ‘Where are my identities accepted?’” Nancy said, adding that young people are also particularly sensitive to where their identities are not accepted.

Taking this into consideration, our panelists suggested various ways to enhance belonging.

“We need to think about how to create environments where young people feel that their whole selves belong,” said Nancy. “Where they can bring every piece of their identity into that room and have it be respected and valued.”

When creating these environments, we have to make sure we’re doing more than accommodating youth, and instead, also validating their experience. Nancy offered the example of a transgender student, who was accommodated by having to ask the teacher for a key to the faculty restroom. But the result was that this student received a message that this space did not belong to them.

Joyce and her team have been working to enhance belonging at the Chicago Academy. During the pandemic, the school shut down, giving Joyce and her team an opportunity to examine the middle school. They realized that 80 percent of disciplinary issues at her school were caused by 8th grade boys.

“By 6th, 7th, 8th grade, that sense of belonging had waned so much that our students were now actively showing us through their behavior that they did not feel like they belong at the school,” said Joyce. “They did not feel a sense of connection with us, and they did not feel like we were serving them.”

To make the students feel heard, Joyce and her team conducted a survey, asking students to share their interests. “And then we started showing them that we were listening,” she said.

The team sent invitations to students for focus groups to give them platforms to discuss the topics they cared about. Students were able to reevaluate rules, like the school dress code, and question why those rules existed. Joyce and her team created regular check-ins with students to better understand their needs and give them a voice.

“Creating a forum for them to have a voice really made a difference,” Joyce shared. “What we saw in our data was that our 8th grade conflicts decreased dramatically.”

Nancy then shared an example of fostering belonging from her work at Youth-Nex.

Youth-Nex recently started a Youth Participatory Action Research Program in which youth identify an issue that they want to address in their community or school, they learn to research the issue, and they come up with a solution.

“That is one way of finding a sense of belonging, Nancy said. “What are the issues I care about, and who are the other people who care about that, and how do we work together?”

Both panelists emphasized how important it is to ensure that all youth, in particular those from marginalized communities, feel that they belong. As adults, Nancy said, it is important that we show them that “you as a whole person should be showing up in this space.”

“And youth can be our role models,” said Joyce. “Our students have the most amazing capacity to affirm and accept each other.”

Adults can foster a sense of belonging for youth by creating safe spaces where young people feel they can discuss their identities and express themselves.

“We have to work more to ensure that our students see themselves reflected,” Joyce explained. “If we don’t provide opportunities for our students to discuss and explore their identities, then it won’t happen on its own.”

Key Takeaways

Young people, particularly those from marginalized communities, need to feel that they belong and that they are accepted before they can feel safe to explore.

To foster that sense of belonging:

  • Create a space where all aspects of young people’s identity are valued and respected.
  • Don’t just accommodate, but validate youth.
  • Establish a forum for youth to have a voice in co-creating their spaces.
  • Support young people to find an issue they care about, and others who care about it, too.
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