A sense of belonging is a basic human need that drives beliefs and behaviors, whether that’s in school, at home, while rooting for a school team, or the hundreds of other thoughts and actions we complete daily.
This need to be part of something larger than ourselves has fueled the actions of education leaders in the past year amid the pandemic. They sought out students and, in some cases, fed them during the first days of school closures and beyond. They developed entirely new safety procedures and created entirely new curricula, delivering them through virtual, hybrid, and in-person learning during the 2020–2021 school year.
Behind these plans and actions was the desire to make sure all students were included by starting with their most basic needs. The inclusionary puzzle became more complicated when schools rose above those must-have needs and up Maslow’s Hierarchy from basic to psychological to self-fulfilling needs. Questions like the following likely arose in your school or schools:
- How do we teach students who don’t show up or only tune into class once in a while?
- How can I reach students who lack access to adequate technology for their learning?
- My staff is burned out from creating both in-person and distance learning. How can I give them another district initiative when they are barely hanging on?
As school districts step back and attempt to take a collective breath and reflect on all that has occurred in the last year and a half, how can schools make sure students, staff, and leaders feel connected to each other, their learning, and the greater community? However this happens, it will take greater intentionality of those areas of need which are consistent and always evolving. The first step is to define what a truly inclusive school means today versus what it meant in the past.
What Is an Inclusive School?
Inclusive school settings are sometimes defined as classrooms where general education and special education students do most of their learning together. In this article, I use it in the broader sense to mean ensuring all students, especially students who are underrepresented or marginalized, feel like they belong—whether that’s in the choir, higher-level courses, or student government.
Inclusive schools not only consider the race, gender, and economics of students but also examine ways in which students who are marginalized may be excluded from certain opportunities (and consider ways to address the issue). For instance, some schools have few Black students in Advanced Placement (AP) classes and accept this as the norm. According to a 2020 report from The Education Trust, Black students are underrepresented in programming that provides learning opportunities outside a typical classroom at every grade level. At the elementary school level, Black students make up 16% of the student population but only 9% of students enrolled in gifted-and-talented programs. Additionally, despite representing 15% of eighth graders nationwide, Black students make up only 10% of students in eighth-grade algebra. At the high school level, just 9% of Black students nationwide take at least one Advanced Placement class despite comprising 15% of the total student population.
You can couple these sobering statistics with the disproportionality of Black students who end up in remedial programs after high school—56% enroll in college remedial courses, compared with 35% of white students, according to one report—along with the fact that they are almost twice as likely as white and Hispanic students to face suspension at the high school level, as one 2016 study found.
Now consider what makes a school inclusive. An inclusive school would consider why these disproportionalities exist and what barriers Black students may face. How can your school ensure Black students are supported in an AP environment, for example?
Too often schools hide behind long-standing traditions which manifest themselves with courses, classrooms, and discipline data that suggest exclusionary practices have created racial barriers to learning. Beyond the numbers, school administrators can simply walk into AP and honors courses to witness the results of policies and procedures that have resulted in inequitable learning environments, where there’s no meaningful representation of some students outside the majority population or within the faculty.
Instead of accepting such exclusionary practices as the norm, schools would become more inclusive if they were to not only discuss and question these disproportionalities but also intentionally plan and follow through on actions that could ensure more representative learnings and opportunities. Talking is nice but acting on the data is much better.
Asking the Right Questions
Ensuring you have an inclusive school doesn’t have to be a complicated or time-consuming endeavor. It can start simply with asking staff, students, and families these straightforward questions through free or paid survey programs. Questions should include the following:
- Do you feel like you belong in school?
- If so, what actions by teachers, support staff, and leaders have made you feel this way?
- If not, what actions by teachers, support staff, and leaders have made you feel this way?
- Have there been opportunities for you to share a challenge or a problem with a teacher, colleague, or supervisor?
- Were you provided with solutions, suggestions, and support for the challenge?
- What happens when you feel lost or alone at school? At home?
- What could we do at school to make it a happy and healthy place where students learn?
The answers to these questions are likely to reveal how, why, and where children and adults feel like they belong (or don’t). It will also highlight the exclusion some students may feel and hopefully sets the stage for you to ensure strong connections from student to teacher to education leader.
Unfortunately, inclusionary efforts can be confounded by the seemingly endless tasks schools must answer to simultaneously—improving connectivity, providing greater flexibility in pace and path in learning environments, and meeting the varied learning needs of students with a wide range of backgrounds. It can be confusing for schools when it comes to starting and maintaining the seemingly impossible: creating atmospheres where all children will learn and excel.
Creating Inclusionary Practices
So, once you have your answers to how students, staff, and families feel, how you do begin to create inclusionary practices? First, you’ll be able to establish what it means to be included. You may be surprised how children and adults express the extent of how included they feel, especially if you leave survey responses open-ended. In both schools I have led and in consulting with leaders from across the country on the challenge of inclusion, I have heard belonging expressed in the simplest ways, such as:
- “I feel welcome at school because teachers know my name.”
- “Staff smile at me and say good morning.”
- “If I bring a problem to a teacher, they try to help me solve it.”
- “When I called the principal, she took time to explain why my son received a consequence. Even though I didn’t agree, I felt heard.”
New federal aid will help many districts purchase the necessities of improved infrastructure, build staffing to more appropriate levels, and increase technological advances that are necessary for teaching and learning. This is all well and good, but just as effective—if not more so—are the low-cost changes that can be made to bolster social and emotional well-being and create environments of inspiration, whether in classrooms, boardrooms, or on screens. Creating an inclusive school can lead to increased attendance and engagement for all.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.
To read more about building more resilient and empathic cultures of learning, check out Anthony Colannino’s new book: Leading with Head and Heart: A Practical Guide to Elevating the School of Today—and Tomorrow.
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Education Research Director, Core Literacy & Early Learning
Dr. Vytas Laitusis
Education Research Director, Supplemental & Intervention Math