Finding their fit: giving kids the sense of belonging

Have you ever walked into a room full of strangers and wondered, do I belong here? Butterflies take flight in your stomach and your throat tightens. Even though you may want to turn around and leave, you wade in. That’s because we’re built to make social connections. It’s in our DNA. In fact, we are intrinsically motivated to reach out to others. When we bond we feel accepted and supported. Research shows that people who feel like they belong enjoy greater self-esteem, have fewer illnesses, and live longer lives. 

Conversely, for those who feel like they don’t belong there can be actual physical pain as psychologists determined in a study at UCLA. Neuroimaging shows that it’s not just our feelings that get hurt when we’re socially separated. We truly experience the sensation of pain because we borrow the pain signal associated with physical discomfort to blunt the negative effects of social discomfort. In other words, we feel better when we belong.

Kids worry about finding their niche, fitting in and ultimately belonging, especially when they’re making transitions like moving to a new neighborhood or starting at a new school. It also happens when kids feel different or like an outsider due to race, ethnicity, language or even a physical disability. That can trigger stress, worry, and anxiety. 

When people are uncertain about their belonging, they search for cues to help them determine if they fit in, if they are liked, and if they are valued and respected. This search for cues about belonging and related anxieties can deplete cognitive resources, and make students feel less motivated and engaged.

A healthy sense of belonging looks like this:

  • Expressing myself authentically vs. pretending to be someone I’m not in order to fit in
  • Identifying genuine similarities between myself and others
  • Recognizing the role I play in a community and what would be lost if I left
  • Respecting and helping strengthen shared community resources
  • Helping others feel welcome in the community, recognizing that a lot of people struggle with feeling like they belong

Belonging is a mindset

Belonging is a mindset, and research shows that it can be changed making it possible for a kid who feels like they don’t belong to be accepted. Angela Duckworth, founder and CEO of Character Lab, explains how she shifted her outlook as an elementary school student. “I could have walked into Woodcrest Elementary School assuming that no matter what I did, I’d never really fit in. Instead I smiled at the kids, thinking, “I like you. I like me. And at some point, you’re going to like me, too!”
By the end of the week, Duckworth was inviting classmates to her house after school. They reciprocated with invitations to their homes and relationships were built. Her confidence to take this step began a self-fulfilling virtuous cycle: confidence led to taking the initiative to make friends, which led to social acceptance, which strengthened her confidence. Had she not reached out, it could have gone a different way instigating a vicious cycle of anxiety leading to withdrawal leading to rejection, leading to more anxiety.

Belonging at school

Fitting in at school is critical to a student’s resiliency. A recent study indicates that increasing belongingness helps students, particularly the underrepresented, to withstand challenges in the classroom. It leads them to think, “I like coming to school because my teachers care about me and I have good friends in my classes.

This respect and value leads to trust in their teachers and peers, making kids more likely to feel safe at school, so they can turn their attention to learning. That leads to stronger motivation, improved performance and ultimately higher GPAs. 

In fact, research conducted by social psychologists Greg Walton and David Yeager confirmed the importance of belonging for college students as explained by Angela Duckworth, “We followed these students for four years (and counting). To my surprise, preliminary analyses suggest belonging uncertainty matters more to college persistence than grit, or self-control, or growth mind-set.”

The sense of belonging is so critical to our kids’ success that it is one of the 16 most powerful habits kids should develop to enable them to be successful at both academic and non-academic pursuits. It’s crucial as our kids prepare to take on life’s challenges. Their environment, culture, community, and day-to-day interactions with others all impact the sense of belonging.  

Just like food and shelter, the sense of belonging is crucial to health and happiness. Here is how you can help your kid cultivate it so they know they are not alone.


Nurture belongingness at home by focusing some time and attention on these steps.

  • Let your kid know they matter. That develops a strong bond, known as secure attachment — a connection to parents, siblings, and other family members that give kids a sense of identity and teaches loyalty and empathy. Rituals, customs, and traditions also add to the belonging.
  • Build connections by telling stories. Science tells us storytelling builds attachment. We’re creating a bond of belonging and trust that passes from storyteller to listener. 
  • Respond when your kid asks. When parents don’t respond to their kid’s questions, it sends the message, “shut it down.” But pediatrician Dr. Alan Greene explains that when a kid asks ‘why’ they’re making a request to engage and spend time discovering together.
  • Take pleasure in their accomplishments. When you celebrate small wins you propel your kid forward with encouragement. Your words communicate their value.
  • When a situation does arise when your kid feels they don’t belong, use these four steps help them shift their thinking
    • Describe the challenge of belonging you observe your kid facing, stressing that this is likely common and can be overcome.
    • Share specific examples of how others conquered a similar situation. Make it personal by describing the ones you experienced.
    • Give your kid time to reflect on this.
    • Then, encourage them to share their story. Putting ourselves in the shoes of others not only helps your kid recognize they can belong, but increases their sense of belonging, because they’re connecting to the group.

Cultivate belonging through self-direction

  • Take a personal inventory. Ask your kid to make a list of what they like about themselves. Dr. Jennice Vilhauer, director of Emory University’s Adult Outpatient Psychotherapy Program says,“the difficult part is not doing the activity. It is making yourself believe that the activity will have enough benefit that you will put forth the actual effort to do it, and experience the results.”

    Undertaking this exercise will allow your kid to become aware of their positive attributes, increasing their self-worth and decreasing their self-criticism.
  • Make the effort to make friends. Our need to belong is what drives us to seek out relationships with other people. It also motivates us to participate in social activities such as clubs, sports teams, religious groups, and community organizations. Now we’re a part of something bigger and more important than ourselves.
  • Find areas of commonality.  Discover what you have in common with those around you. This may require vulnerability. When you find out that another student was scared to speak in front of the class, you’ll realize I’m not so different.

Make belonging a team effort

  • Model belonging by scheduling activities with your friends. This shows your kid you’re committed to the group of people you associate with.
  • Practice how to make friends by rehearsing social situations with your kid.
  • Make your kid’s social life a priority. When they ask to invite friends over, carve time out of the family schedule for that. 
  • Be spontaneous. If your kid wants to Invite a friend over for ice cream, let it happen.

We enter new situations and meet new people throughout our lives. Developing the sense of belonging young will help your kid in a lifetime of new experiences.  

 

Foster belonging during a pandemic

In a season of isolation and uncertainty, how can kids develop belongingness? A survey of 20,000 students in grades 5 – 12 conducted this summer by Youth Truth determined that while relationships have been better than might have been anticipated during remote learning, students’ sense of belonging has suffered. Only one in three students said they really feel like part of their school community (30 percent) and feel connected to school (31 percent). On average students reported that this is worse than usual.

Make time for intentional, meaningful conversation with daily check-ins. Take a few minutes to tune in to each other. You’re opening up the lines of communication and building trust by letting your kid know you’re interested in what they’re saying by responding:

  • I noticed…
  • I wonder…
  • I feel… 

Reach out

If you can do so safely, create a social bubble with another family.  Otherwise, connect virtually. Build a community around a common interest your kid shares with classmates and other kids. They can explore a new passion together, read books, or play games.

Consider the needs of others

Kids with a sense of belonging are empathetic to others because they understand the importance of being part of a group. Ask kids to consider how they might respond to the needs of others during this time.

  •   Check in on elderly neighbors – at an appropriate social distance
  •   Write letters of support for essential workers
  •   Make masks and other PPE for friends and neighbors
  •   Send teachers and other members of their bigger community words of encouragement

Belongingness can be reciprocal. As your kid reaches out, others will reach back in and connections will build that will lessen the loneliness of social isolation and set up deeper relationships in the future.

Feeling valued and respected are critical to our kids' success at school
Cultivating self-direction helps your kid feel like they belong
Social exclusion is physically painful
Belonging conversation