Mattering Matters: How to build belonging when students feel more disconnected than ever
It's the first day of school, and before taking attendance the teacher scans all of the new faces. She looks forward to meeting the new crop of students each year.. But she also feels anxious. By nearly every metric, student mental health has been getting worse. Even before the pandemic, schools were facing a surge in demand for care that far outpaced capacity, and most school counselors don’t have the resources to meet the increased need. It was hard to find your place in high school 30 years ago. Today, it can feel impossible. Increased feelings of isolation and loneliness didn’t start with COVID, but it certainly made things worse. It’s time to stop lamenting days gone by and start helping students build the skills they need to connect with themselves and other people. They need practice. They need modeling. And they need to be met where they are, which is on their phones. Unfortunately, the phone itself is part of the problem. Technology has made communication easier but connection harder. Many kids go months (sometimes years) without engaging in meaningful conversations that can foster feelings of belonging.
Take Christina. She's an incoming freshman. Christina is smart and shy and before class stood by the doorway, peering inside. She was seeking a life line, the security of knowing at least one person. But she didn't, and, her eyes glued to her phone, she makes her way to a seat without making eye contact.. Then there's Juanita and Malcolm, people of color whose personal experiences in the community have at times led them to feel unwelcome. They walked in, careful not to display any hint of fear or vulnerability, scanning for judgement and assessing whether the classroom was indeed a safe space. Even this enthusiastic teacher admits a certain amount of ambivalence. She's tired and often feels undervalued and scapegoated. The best have been abandoning the profession, and sometimes she thinks about graduating to somewhere else, too.
Clearly this is not an environment where learning can thrive.
Our students and teachers need us to move on from talking about the problem, and start discussing solutions. To create a healthy learning environment, students need to trust one another. To trust, they need to better know one another, but the vast majority of their interactions occur in limited 50-minute planned increments five days a week. There’s little opportunity for real connection, a way for students to move from suspicion and anxiousness to trust and intellectual engagement. When students connect, they learn.