Fostering Belongingness to Support Student Participation

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Adapted from Motivated: Designing Math Classrooms Where Students want to Join In by Ilana Seidel Horn.

Many students enter mathematics classrooms with a sense of trepidation. For some, their discomfort reflects a larger sense of detachment from school. They may not feel welcomed because of the gaps they experience navigating between their home language or culture and the expectations at school. The social milieu of school may make them feel like an outcast, as they see peers who seamlessly “fit in” while they remain on the outside. Unlike the sports field, their community center, or the stage, academic settings may make them feel untalented and incompetent. For other students, school itself is fine, but there is a distinct dread upon entering math class. Math has never made sense—or it made sense when it involved whole numbers, but as soon as the variables showed up, all hope was lost. A standardized test score that deemed them “below grade level” may have demoralized them. They may get messages at home that “we’re not good at math,” setting up any potential success as familial disloyalty. For some students, they love the subject, but must contend with others who do not see them as fitting their ideas of “a math person.” They have to combat stereotypes constantly to be seen as a legitimate participant in the classroom, as they defy expectations.

“Each child wants to know immediately if he is a worthy person in your eyes. You cannot pretend, because the child knows all the things about himself that worry him. If you act like you like him, but ignore the things he is anxious about, it doesn’t count. The child is glad you are nice to him, but deep down he figures if you really knew what he was like, you’d hate him. So your liking him without knowing him just makes him feel guilty.”  —Vivian Paley, in White Teacher

For most students, teachers who create a sense of belongingness can overcome these forms of alienation. Belongingness comes about when students experience frequent, pleasant interactions with their peers and teacher. It also comes about with the sense that others are concerned for who they are and for their overall well-being. Like the Vivian Paley quote in the epigraph suggests, belongingness is fostered through authentic connections—seeing students for who they are, their strengths, their challenges, and accepting and embracing both as we work with them and help them grow.

Use the belongingness audit below to identify how and where you might be able to build a stronger sense of belongingness with the students in your own classroom. For more information on how to grow your students’ sense belongingness to increase motivation and participation, check out Motivated, by Ilana Horn.


Belongingness Audit

  1. What is the physical space of your room? How is it organized? Is it welcoming? What messages does it send about students—who they are, what matters in your class, what it means to be smart, what it means to be a good citizen of your classroom? What opportunities are there for access to different space and movement in your classroom?
  2. How do you learn students’ names? Teach them each other’s names?
  3. What do you do to get to know your students beyond math class? How do you welcome them? How do you connect to their families?
  4. Think of a student whose participation concerns you. What do you know about this student’s:
  • academic history in math
  • socioeconomic status
  • family situation
  • nationality
  • transience (prior schools, foster status, homelessness)
  • parents’ or guardians’ jobs
  • home responsibilities
  • after-school work commitments
  • religious affiliation
  • home languages
  • home technology access
  • personal interests (sports, music, television, movies, books, hobbies, arts)
  • physical health
  • history of behavior or discipline concerns
  • socioemotional learning strengths and challenges
  • existence of individualized education plan or a 504 plan
  • challenges such as Tourette syndrome, Asperger syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
  • vision or hearing problems
  • gifted/advanced learner identification
  • LGBTQ identity and transitions
  1. How might these different aspects of your students’ experience contribute to or inhibit their sense of belonging in your classroom?
  2. What schooling practices do you engage in that might impede belongingness (e.g., competition, correcting the inconsequential, emphasizing being on-task rather than engaged)?
  3. How do you set a tone of respect among the students themselves?
  4. How do you respond to students’ noncompliance with structures and routines? When students are late, forget homework, or do not study, do you go into “teacher mode” and scold them? Or do you work to learn why these things have happened and solve the problem together?
  5. How do you balance supporting students’ self-expression with your school’s dress code?
  6. How do you reach out to students’ families and communities? How do you keep the lines of communication open at key moments (around report cards, when you note a change in a student’s behavior)?

♦ ♦ ♦

To learn more about Motivated: Designing Math Classrooms Where Students Want to Join In, and to download a sample chapter, click here.


ilanaseidelhornIlana Seidel Horn is Professor of Mathematics Education at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College, where her research and teaching center on ways to make authentic mathematics accessible to students, particularly those who have historically been disenfranchised by our educational system.

She is the author of Motivated: Designing Math Classrooms Where Students Want to Join In and Strength in Numbers: Collaborative Learning in Secondary Mathematics.

Listen to Ilana talk about motivation and social risk on The Heinemann Podcast

Read Ilana's blog: teaching/math/culture

Follow her on Twitter: @ilana_horn

One thought on “Fostering Belongingness to Support Student Participation

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