Every child—every person in life—wants to feel they belong. Next to the family environment, a classroom community is where we often first discover that sense of belonging. Being a member of a positive, inclusive classroom community affects students’ well-being. The Division for Early Childhood (DEC) and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) state, “Early childhood inclusion embodies the values, policies, and practices that support the right of every infant and young child and his or her family, regardless of ability, to participate in a broad range of activities and contexts as full members of families, communities, and society.” This definition of inclusion could be applied to plenty of environments beyond those that cater to early childhood. When students feel included in a positive classroom climate and believe their needs are being met, they’ll feel empowered to become active participants in their learning and reach their full potential.
What Is a Classroom Community?
Let’s break this down. “Community” is defined as:
- A group of people who live in the same area (such as a city, town, or neighborhood)
- A group of people who have the same interests, religion, race, etc.
One may assume that the definition of a classroom community is a group of students and their teacher who are in the same class.
However, the definition of classroom community is much more complex. A classroom community consists of a space composed of students—who feel a sense of belonging—coming together with the common goal of learning. Feeling a sense of belonging is critical since students who don’t feel connected to their classroom community may not put in the effort to unify with their classmates.
Another way to define a sense of community is a feeling of belonging, the belief that members of a community matter to one another, and the confidence that everyone’s needs will be met. Therefore, if students feel like they belong to their class group, they may also trust their classmates to cheer them on and have their backs.
Why Is Classroom Community Important?
According to the Association for Children’s Mental Health (ACMH), one in five children and young adults has a diagnosable emotional, behavioral, or mental health disorder. One in ten young people has a mental health challenge that is severe enough to impact how they function. Also, 72 percent of children in the U.S. will have experienced at least one major stressful event by 18. What role—small or large—can learning communities play in ensuring students feel as though they matter? Creating a safe space that meets students’ needs is just one way to show support, whether students struggle with mental health or need a place to belong.
A supportive classroom community also increases student participation. If students feel confident and safe in their learning environment, they’ll be more open to sharing their thoughts on a topic or raising their hands to answer challenging questions.
Finally, a strong classroom community helps nurture student ownership and accountability. By fostering a sense of community, students will feel empowered to take a greater role in their learning.
Ways to Build a Strong Classroom Community
How can you strive to ensure your students believe they’re valuable members of their community? Building community in your classroom influences your students’ success, so it’s worth taking steps to improve your learning environment. Start with these suggestions to help your students build relationships with their peers and you, plus feel included.
Help Your Students Build Bonds with Their Classmates
Students who feel a sense of belonging and support from their classmates may be more empowered to engage in the classroom. There are endless ways to foster student interactions to help build trust and forge relationships. A common activity is to have your students engage in icebreakers, especially at the beginning of the school year (though icebreakers are fun and meaningful enough for the entire year). Icebreakers help students introduce themselves to one another while getting to know one another. You may be surprised by students who still may not know another student that well by the end of the year. Consider participating to reveal more about yourself and deepen bonds with your students.
Collaborative activities infused in the curriculum—from literacy to math—can help to build a positive classroom climate. Social and emotional activities that focus on building relationship skills can help students become better teammates to their classmates and valuable classroom community members. Shaped contributor Sara Buren provided excellent activities for elementary, middle, and high school that give students the tools to help them strengthen and maintain their relationships.
Ensure a Positive Environment
The first step to creating a positive classroom environment starts with you. You can promote a positive environment by greeting your students every day, which also helps to create a routine. Predictable routines also help create an environment built on trust. This teacher takes greetings to the next level by personalizing greetings for every student with a handshake or dance, which shows all students that they matter to their learning community.
Reinforcing good behavior is another way to ensure a positive environment as it strengthens intrinsic motivation in your students to continue behaving positively. You can simply praise your students for their accomplishments and effort or even have lunch with them. Our list of ideas provides examples of ways to reward individual students, whether teaching in person or remotely.
Practicing mindfulness can set the tone for a positive environment. Your students, of course, look up to you as their role model, and practicing self-care can help you remain calm and pleasant and help your students succeed. This retired teacher provides tips on how you can make mindfulness in your classroom a priority.
Ensure that every student feels seen. Empowering students to share their views will enable them to feel as though they have value in their community. Students come from different worlds—they may not share your background.
Third- and fourth-grade teacher Rebecca Reynolds teaches multilingual students and understands how vital building a classroom community is for diverse students to feel safe and respected in a larger school community. Shaped asked for her perspective:
Teaching ELL students has taught me that many students long to feel welcome in their classrooms. The typical writing activity of ‘What I Did Over Summer Vacation’ is not one that you’ll find in my writing class. A lot of my students don’t have families with the means of going away on vacations all summer. Instead of writing about their summer vacation, I think it’s important for students to be able to answer such questions as ‘What would you like your teacher to know about you?’, ‘What’s one thing that you want to improve on this year?’ or ‘What is your favorite part of the school day?’ Students should be allowed to respond to questions using different modalities. Some students like to draw; some like to make video recordings; some prefer writing a response in a journal. Once you take time to get to know your students, you’ll know how they learn best!
Getting to know more about your students’ backgrounds and realities is the step in the right direction to build a more supportive environment. As Rebecca Reynolds puts it, “It’s an honor when students share their life experiences with you! Students will be excited to know that their teacher respects them enough to let them decide how they’d like to show what they know!”
The importance of building community in the classroom should not be downplayed. A positive learning environment can support student success beyond the classroom.
Social and emotional learning is essential to students’ personal and academic growth and should be infused across content areas. Discover how HMH can meet your SEL curriculum needs.
For more on creating inclusive classroom communities that foster a sense of belonging, watch our webinar Coaching to Create a Culture of Belonging.
Associate Partner, ICLE
Dr. Suzanne Jimenez
Director of Academic Planning and Data Analytics at HMH