The CYC-Net Press CYC-Online



in the classroom

A pedagogy of belonging

Mitchell Beck and James Malley

The psychological sense that one belongs in a classroom and school community is considered a necessary antecedent to the successful learning experience. In an era when traditional sources of belonging have diminished due to changing family and community demographics, the school plays an increasingly important role in meeting this need. There is evidence that conventional classroom practices fail to engender a sense of belonging, especially among at-risk students. Indeed, conventional practices may exacerbate feelings of rejection and alienation and place these students at higher risk for dropping out, joining gangs, or using drugs. Schools can increase the sense of belonging for all students by emphasizing the importance of the teacher-student relationship and by actively involving all students in the life of the classroom and the school community. Specific examples of programs that promote a sense of belonging for students are discussed.

To belong: To have a proper, appropriate, or suitable place. To be naturally associated with something. To fit into a group naturally — Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary

Can children succeed in a school in which they do not feel they belong? Most children fail in school not because they lack the necessary cognitive skills, but because they feel detached, alienated, and isolated from others and from the educational process. When children feel rejected by others, they either internalize the rejection and learn to hate themselves or externalize the rejection and learn to hate others. In East of Eden (1952), John Steinbeck described it as the story of the human soul:

The greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved, and rejection is the hell of fears. I think everyone in the world to a large or small extent has felt rejection. And with rejection comes anger, and with anger some kind of crime in revenge for the rejection, and with crime, guilt—and there is the story of mankind. (p. 270)

Like it or not, the rapidly changing demographics of U.S. society have shattered traditional sources of belonging. The breakdown of the nuclear and extended families, the increase in single parenthood, the increase in the number of hours that working parents are away from the home, and the growing transience and mobilization of society have left the children of the United States with a sense of feeling disconnected. Consequently, at the same time that we boast about the great technological achievements of the 20th century, we are witnessing a sense of alienation and apathy among our youth that is unprecedented. Drug and alcohol abuse, self-mutilation, violence and gang membership, high-risk sexual activity, depression, and suicide are all signs that something is seriously awry. "We don’t cares’ has become a shameful incantation that reverberates in school hallways and classrooms across the nation.

In one school district in Medina County, Ohio, 30 at-risk youth completed a survey based on Maslow’s pyramid of needs (Academic Innovations, 1997). Although all of the respondents gave themselves positive ratings in the lower order needs of security, survival, and safety, they consistently ranked themselves low in the sense of belonging. They didn’t feel they belonged anywhere —"not in school, in their families, or in their communities" (p. 3).

Maslow (1971) believed that most maladjustment and emotional illness in our society could be traced to the failure to gratify the basic human need for belonging. Students who exhaust their energies attempting to meet this deficiency have no reserves left for higher level connotative and cognitive functions.

Adler (1939) also believed that failure in school usually stemmed from feeling unconnected to the teacher, other students, or the school community. In examining Adler’s theory of "belongingness," Crandall (1981) found that when students felt they belonged, they had an enhanced sense of worth and increased self-confidence. On the other hand, if they did not feel they belonged, they felt helpless and had no sense of control over their environment. Goodenow (1993) found that when children felt they belonged, they were more motivated, had higher expectations of success, and believed in the value of their academic work.

Glasser (1986) asserted that the need for belonging is one of the five basic needs written into the human genetic structure. He observed that most pedagogy uses externally applied stimulus — response methods and techniques to ensure that the student absorbs the maximum amount of knowledge in the minimum amount of time. Critical of simplistic "work-them-harder-and-longer" critiques like Nation at Risk (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1988), he asserted that our dependence upon stimulus-response threats and punishments had been abysmally unsuccessful. What was going on inside the student was more important that the outside situation. The methods employed by the teacher mattered little if they did not satisfy the basic need for belonging-ness: "Hungry students think of food, lonely students look for friends" (p. 20). The student who feels lonely or isolated will invest more energy in seeking a sense of belonging and support than in learning quadratic equations. Glasser developed the "learning-team" model to help students gain a sense of belonging by providing the initial motivation for them to work and achieve academic success.

Belonging and At-Risk Students

The most precise definition of an at-risk child involves a preschool history of neglect, rejection, and abuse. The school often becomes the last bastion of hope where children can experience positive human relationships in order to gain a sense of acceptance and belonging. Unfortunately, engendering a sense of belonging is not typically a high priority in most schools. Reflecting the downsizing, "do-more-with-less" mentality of corporate life, modern-day educators tend to emphasize a pedagogy that stresses economy, efficiency, and technology over human relationships. Competition, grades, and scores on mastery tests have become the sine qua non of the U.S. education process, a process that is largely inimical to promoting a sense of belonging among students.

Kagan (1990) cited evidence that institutional factors within schools may contribute to a feeling of estrangement and failure in at-risk students, causing them to drop out. Kagan suggested that the disengagement of these students from school settings may be a symptom of institutional—rather than individual—pathology. This seems to be especially true in schools that emphasize ability grouping and "tracking," which usually creates an "in-group" / "out-group" mentality. Instead of promoting a sense of belonging, the use of tracking actually labels and socially isolates at-risk students into a subculture that eventually becomes hostile to the academic goals of the school. In the same vein, Hamilton (1983) suggested that the socialization function of schools operates differently for students of different races and classes. Disadvantaged students tend to be socialized for subordination, while advantaged students are socialized for responsibility. This suggests that schools may "exacerbate rather than reduce racial and economic stratification in American society" (p. 332).

Kaplan and Johnson (1992) noted that when students who are failing don’t feel accepted in the mainstream, they tend to seek their "own sense of belongingness" in a context that is more antisocial. In other words, it is better to belong to an antisocial group than to no group at all. Burnett and Walz (1994) stated that gangs become "popular" because they provide students with a sense of belonging or acceptance unavailable anywhere else in their lives. At an age when young men feel especially insecure about their masculinity, the feeling of power that comes from joining a gang can be a significant attraction. Cotton (1996) ironically pointed out that economically disadvantaged and minority students, who are prone to suffering problems of identity and thus would especially benefit from small schools, are most often concentrated in larger, inner-city schools. It is no wonder that such schools are often breeding grounds for gangs.

Noting that democratic values, social responsibility, and a sense of efficacy grow out of a person’s sense of connectedness and one’s identification with the community, Berman (1997) called for a new pedagogical model. He recommended one in which classroom practices and a proper school climate existed for the primary purpose of developing within the individual a sense of self and a sense of connectedness with others. A pedagogy of belonging emphasizes the importance of the teacher-student relationship and actively involves all students in the life of the classroom and school community.

Belonging and the Teacher-Student Relationship

The bond between the teacher and student creates the foundation upon which a sense of belonging can develop. Bronfenbrenner (1979) said that the teacher-student dyad was the primary crucible for learning and human development. Before we can expect children to feel a sense of connectedness with the larger school community they must first develop an attachment with the teacher. Because teachers often spend more face-to-face time with children than any other person, by default they have become the most significant others in their students’ lives and an important source of security and stability. This is especially true for students already burdened by a sense of rejection.

It is a lamentable paradox that the very students most in need of healthy human relationships tend to resist them. They are fearful and suspicious of—and often antagonistic toward—adults in general. Unfortunately, in an environment in which control and orderliness are predominant school values, many untrained teachers fall prey to the manipulative savoir faire of the student who has been rejected by others. Such children do not seek out affirmation; they look for more rejection as a way of confirming that they are unworthy. Falling into the trap of this rejection-promoting behavior, many teachers respond in quite predictable ways: They become controlling or counteraggressive. The teacher’s behavior usually manifests itself in one of five ways:

1. The teacher feels the need to win every battle and engages in a power struggle with the student.
2. The teacher needs to save face by having the last word.
3. The teacher talks down to the student.
4. The teacher confronts the student with frequent use of the question "Why?"
5. The teacher preaches, moralizes, and threatens the student.

The teacher’s counteraggression confirms students’ sense of unworthiness, and they usually respond in one of the ways described as the "6 R’s" by Norton (1995):

They become resentful and withdraw;
They become resistive of additional efforts to gain their trust;
They become rebellious and refuse to cooperate;
They retreat by becoming truant, by dropping out, or by turning to drugs;
They become reluctant to do anything;
They become revengeful and engage in overt activities designed to "get even."

In order to break this aggression/counteraggression cycle, teachers must choose different behavior patterns. Long (1997) noted that for children who have been deprived of stable and nurturing relationships, continuous acts of kindness become one way to foster a trusting teacher— student relationship. This author (Beck) recalled the following scenario involving Jason, a 15-year-old student at an alternative school for youth with severe emotional disturbance:

During the initial counseling sessions, it was clear to Mitch that Jason was resistant to any efforts by Mitch to get close to him. Jason did everything he could to keep Mitch at a distance. For example, upon learning that Mitch was Jewish, Jason kept telling Mitch that he was damned forever. At the end of every counseling session and whenever he encountered Mitch in the hallway, Jason would say: "Dr. Beck, you are going to burn in hell for not accepting Jesus Christ!" This went on for months while Mitch stayed his course by treating Jason with respect, kindness and unconditional positive regard. Then one day the unexpected miracle happened. After Mitch was called to settle Jason down after he had displayed some acting out behavior, Jason turned to him and said, "You know, Dr. Beck, all the time I told you that you were going to hell, I didn’t really mean it." At last, Mitch sensed that Jason formed the beginnings of an attachment.

Self-disclosure is another way in which the teacher can share a common sense of humanity with the student. By reducing the power differential, self-disclosure breaks down relationship resistance and starts the process of belonging and attachment. This was very much in evidence in the movie Good Will Hunting, in which actor Robin Williams played the role of a therapist working with a young man steeled by a life of rejection and abuse. The major therapeutic breakthrough occurred when the therapist allowed himself to be vulnerable and shared with the young man the pain he had suffered when he lost his wife after a long, difficult battle with cancer.

Belonging and Participation in the School Community

Traditional pedagogical models have employed the teacher as a "talking head" who occupies most of the classroom time in one-way communication to the students. Such a model produces learners who are utterly passive-dependent and devoid of any sense of social responsibility for the communities in which they live. A pedagogy of belonging actively involves all students in the life of the school.

Cooperation promotes a sense of belonging because all members of the classroom work together to achieve a common purpose. When goals are achieved, every member experiences a sense of accomplishment. Cooperation forms the basis for a community based upon democratic principles. Cooperation also helps the student develop a capacity for teamwork, which increasingly is becoming a requisite skill for career success.

Berman (1997) conducted an extensive review of the research on cooperative learning. He found that a cooperative learning community "creates the bond among people that moves democratic decision making from negotiations around competing self-interests to a consideration of the common good" (p. 136) Other important findings in his research included:

1. Members of a cooperative community care about each other and feel committed to the welfare of others.
2. Members of cooperative learning communities show significant development in prosocial behavior and social competence.
3. Students in cooperative learning environments were more effective in social problem solving and in resolving conflicts.
4. Students in these cooperative learning communities had an increased commitment to democratic values.

Berman noted that current teaching methods and school governance procedures undermine social responsibility. Berman’s vision of a pedagogy for the 21st century is one in which the teaching curriculum would emphasize social responsibility to help young people understand how their lives are intimately connected to the well-being of others and to the world around them. The following are examples of programs cited in the professional literature that do this by involving students in their school community.

Gorrell and Keel (1986) examined a cross-age tutoring arrangement in which eighth graders tutored first graders. They found that the children developed emotional attachments to each other. Bonding was established as the students had fun, played games together, and shared in decision making. The older students gained the additional benefits of developing an increased awareness of the needs of others and a heightened sensitivity to younger children’s needs and concerns.

McNamara (1996) described a 20-week small-group experience in which members participated in service tasks designed to create a sense of belonging, increase responsibility, and provide skills training. Based on the belief that bonding occurs when an individual makes meaningful contributions to a group, the qualitative research project combined at-risk youth with students without problems in a series of service projects. For example, one project involved teaching a social skill to younger children. The author reported encouraging progress: The majority of participants seemed to benefit from the experience and displayed more positive attitudes toward school.

Noll (1997) was concerned that students with learning disabilities (LD) were deficient in the social skills necessary for gaining a sense of belonging. This would put them at high risk for dropping out of school and experiencing adjustment problems for the rest of their lives. She developed a cross-age mentoring program in which ninth graders worked in a cooperative learning program to teach social skills to seventh graders with LD. Results suggested that the seventh graders had an increased sense of inclusion and reduced acting-out behavior, and the ninth graders had increases in self-esteem and improved conflict-resolution skills.

Sonnenblick (1997) studied middle-school girls who lacked a sense of belonging, putting them at risk for dropping out of school and becoming involved with gangs. She instituted the Girls Acquiring Leadership Skills Through Service (GALSS) Club for the express purpose of involving at-risk girls in the school community and thereby increasing their sense of belonging. Results suggested that student participants became more self-assured and mature and that they took more responsibility for themselves within the club.

Cross-age tutoring, mentoring, and service learning are just a few examples of some of the innovative cooperative learning projects that are being implemented throughout the country. Research findings are almost universally favorable in terms of promoting a sense of belonging, increasing maturity and social responsibility, and improving teamwork skills.


We have called for a new pedagogical model that promotes a sense of community and belonging by strengthening teacher — student relationships and integrating cooperative learning strategies into the curriculum. Considerable evidence exists that many of our traditional educational practices have actually contributed to the problems experienced by young people in the modern-day United States. The impersonality of large bureaucratic schools; the emphasis on compliance, control, and orderliness; and the preoccupation with grades, competition, and individual success have created a social milieu that contributes to a sense of alienation, apathy, and isolation. Bright, mature students with positive self-esteem and support from intact families may tend to succeed in such environments. However, rejected and neglected children with damaged spirits and a diminished sense of self are at high risk for failure, dropping out of school, joining gangs, and/or becoming substance abusers. As we prepare to cross the threshold into a new millennium, education must focus on teaching all people how to live in an inclusive community where each person is treated with respect and dignity and enlisted to participate fully in the life of the community. A belonging pedagogy emphasizes the democratic ideal in which caring, cooperating, and serving form the cornerstones of the learning process.


Academic Innovations. (1997). Life 101: career guidance for at-risk youth [On-line]. Available: http: / / academicinnovationscom.

Adler, A. (1939). Social interest: A challenge to mankind. New York: Putnam.

Berman, S. (1997). Children’s social consciousness and the development of social responsibility. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Burnett, G., & Walz, C. (1994). Gangs in the schools. New York: ERIC Clearinghouse on Counseling and Student Services. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. PD 372 175)

Cotton, K. (1996). Affective and social benefits of small-scale schooling. Charleston, wv: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small School. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 401 088)

Crandall, J. (1981). Theory and measurement of social interest. New York: Columbia University Press.

Glasser, W. (1986). Control theory in the classroom. New York: Harper & Row.

Goodenow, C. (1993). The psychological sense of school membership among adolescents. Psychology in the Schools, 10(1), 79—90.

Gorrell, J., & Keel, L. (1986, April). A field study of helping relationships in a cross-age tutoring program. Elementary School Guidance and Counseling, 20, 268—276.

Hamilton, S. (1983). The social side of schooling: Ecological studies of classrooms and schools. The Elementary School Journal, 51, 313—334.

Kagan, D. (1990). How schools alienate students at risk: A model for examining proximal classroom variables. Educational Psychologist, 25, 103—125.

Kaplan, H., & Johnson, R. (1992). Relationships between circumstances surrounding illicit drug use and escalation of drug use: Moderating effects of gender and early adolescent experiences. In M. Glantz & R. Rickens (Eds.), Vulnerability to drug abuse (pp. 299—358). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Long, N.J. (1997). The therapeutic power of kindness. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 3, 242—246.

Maslow, A. (1971). The farther reaches of human nature. New York: Viking.

McNamara, K. (1996). Bonding to school and the development of responsibility. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 4(4), 33—35.

The National Commission on Excellence in Education. (1983). A nation at risk: The imperative for educational reform. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Noll, v. (1997). Cross-age mentoring program for social skills development. The School Counselor, 44, 239—241.

Norton, R. (1995). The quality classroom manager. Amityville, NY: Baywood Publishing.

Sonnenblick, M. D. (1997). The GALSS Club: Promoting belonging among at-risk adolescent girls. The School Counselor, 44, 243—245.

Steinbeck, J. (1952). East of Eden. New York: Penguin.

This feature: Beck, M and Malley, J. (1998). A pedagogy of belonging. Reclaiming Children and Youth, Vol.7 No.3, pp133-137