One of the wondrous things about starting a new school year is the surge of energy that powers the campus when our students return. It’s as if a light switches on and everything is brighter. As a newcomer, I’ve been welcomed by our students with warmth, courtesy and kindness. On my morning walkabout, I greet them in clusters on the stairs and benches, or individually en route to their first destination. Naturally, I’m met with a range of “good mornings” – some energetic and others gentle, but overall Iʻm struck by the general sense of ease that our students possess.
I have an inkling as to what might be at the root of that ease. My hunch derives from some professional retreats that were held at the beginning of August with our MS/HS faculty leadership and deans. In preparation for our studentsʻ arrival, we engaged in reflection around school culture, with a specific focus on the notions of “belonging” and “community”. We took everyone through an exercise of distilling the essential ingredients of “belonging” in the Mid Pacific community. The results were consistent and clear among our faculty and dean participants.
- Individuality is valued and differences are celebrated
- Finding one’s passion and developing one’s strengths are valued
- Growing one’s heart - building empathy, offering support matter
I believe this explains the ease and sense of comfort that I’ve been witnessing - there is an understanding among our faculty, deans, and students of how to cultivate “belonging”.
Coincidentally, the August 16 issue of the National Association of Independent School Bulletin featured findings from a survey on Community and Belonging on the impacts of “belonging” on student outcomes. We know that “social belonging is a fundamental human need, hardwired in our DNA” (The Value of Belonging at Work, Harvard Business Review, 2019). The Community and Belonging survey found that, for students, a sense of belonging correlates to higher levels of mental energy, the ability to manage both time and stress, and the confidence to try new things and to embrace challenges.
Additionally, the research found that, in schools, the following factors correlate strongly to a studentʻs sense of belonging: cultivating curiosity, fostering engagement, and “tapping into a level of student agency and autonomy that is positively fueling passions” (Research Insights: Supporting Belonging and Community in School Life, Gulla, 2023). Creating conditions for student agency helps them become better decision makers and develops their time and stress management skills. Ultimately, “belonging” ushers students towards learning with confidence, and foundationally supports their ability to take on challenges.
The ability to choose electives and to pursue certificate programs contributes to student agency and autonomy in ways that support individuality in the midst of community. Additionally, students experience heightened engagement when they are following their passions and identifying their own talents. These components of belonging - respect for individual choice, embracing diverse gifts, supporting personalized pathways - not only boost and buttress academic outcomes, but also reinforce the emotional health and wellbeing of our students, which we value deeply.