Sense of Belonging Critical for Students

July 9, 2020

Like all teenagers, Black students need to feel like they belong, especially in school, where “belongingness” can impact mental health and future outcomes, according to a new paper in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

To help these students, teachers and administrators need to recognize and understand how racial oppression has undermined belongingness needs, according to the paper, “Why Black Adolescents Are Vulnerable at School and How Schools Can Provide Opportunities to Belong to Fix It,” by DeLeon L. Gray, Elan C. Hope and Christy M. Byrd.

Adolescents who experience rejection and ostracism “have higher rates of absenteeism, are less engaged in class activities, and earn lower grades than their peers whose belongingness needs are fulfilled,” the authors explain, citing several studies and existing literature. 

Teen-agers benefit from friendly gestures including eye contact and recognition of successes or accomplishments. They also tend to perform better when surrounded by people they trust and who share their same racial group. 

In the public schools, most teachers are white, and they do not always succeed in treating all students fairly.  One cited study found teachers generally believe students who disrupt the classroom should be punished equally regardless of race.  But after a second disruption, teachers are more likely to recommend harsher discipline when the student is Black.

These actions can signal to the student, and his or her peers, “Black students do not belong in those schools.”

Online training modules can help teachers become more sensitive to the needs of Black students—as can a commitment to academic lessons that increase a sense of belongingness for Black students.

When students learn in class about the many ways Black people have contributed to a field or discipline, “they can imagine themselves as active contributors to the school environment,” the authors explain.

The authors also advise policy makers to invest in training programs for administrators in high-needs school districts and suburban districts where Black students are underperforming relative to their White counterparts.

Indeed, in some districts, “teaching practices that honor and affirm the identities of ethnic groups sometimes are not only unwelcome but also dismissed or ignored.” 

Funding is available, such as the $1 billion Congress appropriates each year to career and technical education programs.  Some of this money could be used to create opportunities for students to become school leaders in creating a culture of belongingness, according to the paper.

Once schools commit to understanding the belongingness needs of Black students, they can uplift practices and policies that support students “in the fullness of the culture and histories they bring with them to schools,” according to the paper.

The authors received funding for their research from the National Science Foundation.