The Power of SEL to Build Belonging & Promote Learning

What does it look like when students have a sense of belonging in the classroom? Here's a glimpse. 

Creating a sense of connection, inclusion, and belonging in our classrooms and schools has never been more important. If these foundational building blocks aren’t in place, the academics suffer and so do our children. 

So what does that sense of belonging look, sound, and feel like in our classroom?  

I often ask teachers to start by thinking back to their own school days. 

  • Think about a teacher who made you feel that you belonged. What was it about them and what did they do, that helped you feel that way?
  • Also think about a teacher who didn’t make you feel that you belonged. What could they have done (differently) to have helped you feel that you belonged?

At Morningside Center, we start working with teachers on their social and emotional skills, practices, and awareness even before we begin focusing on students. We explore how we as teachers show up to the classroom. What are we modeling as we build and sustain a kind, supportive, and inclusive classroom with our students – a place where every child feels seen and heard, where they know that they belong?

Educator Molly Heekin speaks to the power of The 4Rs Program in her classroom.

Research tells us that when students don’t feel that they belong, they can’t settle into the classroom or be fully open to learning. When students don’t feel safe or supported, they can’t let down their guard. Their brains will monitor for threat, which takes up precious bandwidth and energy that could otherwise be used for academics.

What’s more, if students lack a sense of safety, they may not take the kind of risks needed to grow academically. We know that students are more willing to make mistakes and be nudged out of their comfort zone when they feel they can trust their teacher, peers, and the environment. So getting to know each other, and building understanding and empathy, is where our work with students needs to start. 

The 4Rs (Reading, Writing, Respect & Resolution) is Morningside Center’s curriculum-based program for teaching pre-K through 5th grade students to build safe, trusting, and inclusive communities using social and emotional skills. Through The 4Rs, combined with restorative talking circles and courageous conversations, students and staff can create a welcoming culture and community – a place of trust and learning for all.   

Of course building this kind of community takes time. 

I recently talked with Molly Heekin, who spearheads this work with her second graders in the Onteora School District in upstate New York. In the video above, she reflects on the changes she’s seen in her classroom since The 4Rs Program was introduced to the district in 2019. 

Molly explains that if we work with students from kindergarten on up to build supportive and inclusive classroom communities – and we build the skills and practices needed to maintain and deepen relationships within those communities – then students will get to  2nd grade ready to learn.

As Molly explains, we also need to give students opportunities to keep coming back to the community and to the skills and the practices they’ve learned. We can do this by making space for them to connect and reconnect with their peers, to listen and build empathy, and to try out their skills and practices in real life problem-solving situations. By inviting students to apply what they’ve learned to address problems, conflict, or harm, we are promoting autonomy at an early age.

Molly describes how, when we work with students on all these levels, a powerful transformation can happen not just during 4Rs time but throughout the school day. As a class, students hash out problems together.  And as they recognize each other’s differences and develop “a bigger understanding of what it means to be human,” Molly explains, “it changes the whole community in the classroom.”