You know that feeling when you enter a room and instantly realize there is a meeting happening and you were not invited? Think about your actions and reactions. Do you apologize? Do you try to make yourself small? Do you try to quietly close the door to minimize further disruption? It’s really embarrassing, right? Now, imagine that same feeling every time you entered a room. That would be painful and not very motivating. Our goal should be to ensure that students never have that feeling when they enter their schools and classrooms. Instead, they should know that they belong in these learning environments. Notice that we talked about the feelings that occurred in this situation. As Cohen (2022) notes, “Belonging is the feeling that we’re part of a larger group that values, respects, and cares for us—and to which we feel we have something to contribute” (p. 5).
This definition confirms that belonging is a feeling and that the feeling is about membership; we are part of a group. But it’s more than that. We believe that the group values, respects, and cares for us. Each of those is a critical aspect of the feeling that we can create in our classrooms and schools. But really think about the last part of Cohen’s definition: something to contribute. When we have a strong sense of belonging, we believe that we have things to contribute to the group. In other words, at school, belonging involves receiving and giving help. Multilingual learners should not simply be the receivers of help but rather regularly be placed in situations in which they can offer help.
From an academic perspective, there is considerable evidence indicating that students who feel they belong learn more. According to the Visible Learning database, the effect size of belonging is .46 (www.visiblelearningmetax.com), an above-average influence with the potential to accelerate academic learning. The impact of belonging also extends far beyond academics. Studies suggest that belonging also affects our health and well-being (e.g., Raufelder et al., 2021). In fact, a sense of belonging can be life-saving; there is evidence that suicide rates are lower among students who have a strong sense of belonging (Vélez-Grau and Lindsey, 2022). There are also studies indicating that a positive sense of belonging correlates with positive health outcomes, including self-reports of wellness and reduced numbers of doctor visits (Walton and Cohen, 2011).
Fostering Belonging for Multilingual Learners
We have adapted and adopted a model first proposed by Eric Carter (2021) and his research review of belonging for students with intellectual disabilities. We have used the eleven dimensions of belonging to identify actions educators can take to ensure that their students experience a positive sense of belonging. An illustration of the eleven dimensions can be found in Figure 1 (Smith et al., 2024). We’ll focus on each of these dimensions and discuss how schools and classrooms can foster a sense of belonging for multilingual learners.
Are we extending a warm welcome whenever multilingual learners arrive? How are students greeted when they arrive? There is a surprising amount of research indicating that greeting students at the door has positive impacts on academics and engagement while reducing problematic behavior (e.g., Cook et al., 2018). But equally important is how students are greeted when they are late. Sometimes students feel shamed by circumstances beyond their control. Of course, educators should analyze patterns of tardies and work to ensure that students are in class every minute possible. However, the way we welcome students whenever they arrive sends a powerful message about their belonging.
Are we pursuing multilingual learners’ presence and actively extending new invitations? All classes and extracurricular activities should be open to multilingual learners. Unfortunately, some students do not feel invited to be a member of some clubs and activities. Schools should review their policies and practices to ensure that all students feel invited to the range of opportunities that exist. For example, school leadership and club committees should consider what student voices are not represented and in what ways they can be invited to be members.
Do we ensure that all students are present for learning? Attendance is a significant concern, and missing school compromises opportunities to learn. Educators need to redouble their efforts to ensure that students are in school, in their classes, engaged with their peers to the maximum extent possible. And we need to question and interrupt our disproportionate suspension and expulsion policies that cause some students, including multilingual learners, to miss millions of instructional days (NEA Today, 2021). Further, we need to ask ourselves: Is our community composed of individuals whose languages, experiences, and backgrounds vary? Educators should analyze their demographics and recruit students with different languages and backgrounds to their campuses.
Do we know multilingual learners personally and for the strengths they possess? It should go without saying, but educators should know their students’ names and how to pronounce them. Sadly, that’s not always the case. More than half of students surveyed believed that their teachers did not know their names, and more than half did not believe that their teachers noticed when they were absent (a reminder about the topic of being present) (surveys.quagliainstitute.org). But this factor also notes the value of a strengths-based approach rather than a focus on what students cannot do. The shift in language to multilingual learner moves away from deficit thinking, but more is needed. When students are discussed, their teachers should start with strengths, asking themselves what the students can already do. We are not in denial about unfinished learning and the need to develop academic, linguistic, and social skills. But focusing on deficits increases the likelihood that we lower our expectations and accept less rigorous work from students.
Are we receiving multilingual learners unconditionally and graciously? Our race, ethnicity, religion, family structure, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, gender identity, and other characteristics and experiences define who we are and how we experience the world around us. Students have unique identity profiles that are sometimes valued and sometimes not. The task of educators is to ensure that students feel valued, accepted, and celebrated for who they are. There is even evidence that placing welcoming signs around the classroom and school sends a message to students that their identities are accepted. Of course, the actions of educators must align with the words of acceptance that are displayed around the school.
Are multilingual learners actively engaged with, and alongside, peers in shared learning and common goals? Collaboration in learning is an important social aspect of a school. Students need to know that their contributions are important and that they have opportunities to work with others to complete meaningful work. This requires language supports, which are another dimension of belonging, as well as the design of tasks that provide students with chances to collaborate. Being involved also means that students are active with their peers and that their teachers structure the groups to maximize participation and success.
Are we seeking out multilingual learners’ preferences and perspectives on issues that matter? Student voice matters, yet there are very few policies in most schools that have been revised or implemented based on students’ perspectives. Educators should regularly seek out the perspective of students, such as through the MyVoice survey (surveys.quagliainstitute.org), and then act on the ideas from students. In classrooms, teachers can make sure that various students are heard by creating different response opportunities. Sometimes, teachers can use universal response, in which all students share their answers at the same time (such as on dry erase boards, using response cards, or in polls); other times they can seek volunteers, while other times randomly calling on students. When using random student generation tools, such as name sticks, make sure that the students know that they can seek help. In addition, it’s useful to identify the student before the question and to allow sufficient wait time for the student to process the language.
Are we providing the assistance multilingual learners need to participate fully and meaningfully? In addition to high-quality instruction that includes teacher modeling as well as opportunities to collaborate and practice, multilingual learners need sufficient scaffolding to build their success. We have previously discussed the types of scaffolds useful for multilingual learners (e.g., Fisher et al., 2023). As a reminder, teachers can use just-in-case and just-in-time scaffolds to ensure that students have the support they need to experience success. Without sufficient support, students will think they do not belong in the given class and may give up on themselves.
Are we creating opportunities for friendships to form and deepen between all our students? Educators cannot force students to be friends, but we can provide opportunities for friendships to develop. Teachers have an influence over reducing barriers to friendship formation. We can form seating charts that encourage students to meet a range of peers. We can structure group tasks that encourage interactions between and among students. And we can notice when there is any type of bullying behavior and immediately interrupt it. Further, we can help students repair relationships when they are damaged. Having friends is protective against bullying and increases the enjoyment and sense of belonging in school (Thompson and Byrnes, 2011).
Are we recognizing multilingual learners’ talents and providing them opportunities to share what they know with others? As we noted earlier in this article, contributing to the group reinforces a sense of belonging. The question is, how do students know that they are needed? Some teachers create classroom jobs and responsibilities to ensure that all students know they are needed. Others focus on peer tutoring structures that allow students to teach each other the things that they have learned. In addition, service learning, internships, and other opportunities to give back to the community can provide students with experiences helping others.
Are we loving our multilingual learners deeply and unconditionally? Some argue that this is not really an aspect of belonging for our students. But remember the definition of belonging from the beginning of this article? It’s a feeling. And what better feeling than to feel loved? The Greeks identified eight different types of love. We’re talking about agape, the love for humanity, and developing the love of self. When students feel loved, they develop secure attachments with their teachers, which contributes to their sense of belonging.
As Carter and Biggs (2021) note, “We all hope that students will feel truly ‘at home’ in their classrooms. We want them to feel valued and accepted by their peers and teachers. We strive to create connections among students that lead to reciprocal relationships.” Without a strong sense of belonging to their classrooms and schools, students are placed at risk. When students know that they belong, they attend school more often, form strong relationships with peers and teachers, enjoy the educational experience, learn a lot, and are proud of themselves. It’s up to us, their teachers and leaders, to create conditions in which students know that they are valued, respected, and cared for and have things to contribute to the group.
Álvarez, B. (2021). “School Suspensions Do More Harm Than Good.” NEA Today. www.nea.org/nea-today/all-news-articles/school-suspensions-do-more-harm-good
Carter, E. W. (2021). “Dimensions of Belonging for Individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.” In J. L. Jones and K. L. Gallus (Eds.), Belonging and Resilience in Individuals with Developmental Disabilities (pp. 13–33). Springer Nature.
Carter, E., and Biggs, E. E. (2021). Creating Communities of Belonging for Students with Significant Cognitive Disabilities. University of Minnesota, TIES Center.
Cohen, G. L. (2022). Belonging: The Science of Creating Connection and Bridging Divides. Norton.
Cook, C. R., Fiat, A., Larson, M., Daikos, C., Slemrod, T., Holland, E. A., Thayer, A. J., and Renshaw, T. (2018). “Positive Greetings at the Door: Evaluation of a low-cost, high-yield proactive classroom management strategy.” Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 20(3), 149–159.
Fisher, D., Frey, N., and Almarode, J. (2023). “Scaffolding Success for Multilingual Learners.” Language, 22(9), 27–29.
Raufelder, D., Neumann, N., Domin, M., Lorenz, R. C., Gleich, T., Golde, S., Romund, L., Beck, A., and Hoferichter, F. (2021). “Do Belonging and Social Exclusion at School Affect Structural Brain Development during Adolescence?” Child Development, 92(6), 2213–2223.
Smith, D., Frey, N., Fisher, D., Stewart, R., and Pompei, V. (2024). Belonging in School: An Illustrated Playbook for Creating a Place Where Kids Want to Learn and Teachers Want to Stay. Corwin.
Thompson, J., and Byrnes, D. (2011). “A More Diverse Circle of Friends.” Multicultural Perspectives, 13(2), 93–99.
Vélez-Grau, C., and Lindsey, M. A. (2022). “Do Connectedness and Self-Esteem Play a Role in the Transition to Future Suicide Attempts among Latina and Latino Youth with Suicide Ideation?” Children and Youth Services Review, 139, 1–9.
Walton, G. M., and Cohen, G. L. (2011). “A Brief Social-Belonging Intervention Improves Academic and Health Outcomes of Minority Students.” Science, 331(6023), 1447–1451.
Nancy Frey and Doug Fisher are professors of educational leadership at San Diego State University and teacher leaders at Health Sciences High. They have co-authored many books including Confronting the Crisis of Engagement: Creating Focus and Resilience for Students, Staff, and Communities (Corwin Press, 2022).
Alejandro Gonzalez Ojeda, EdD, is an assistant professor of educational leadership at San Diego State University, where he is also the graduate advisor for the Preliminary Administrative Services Credential program.