A group of diverse people doing an all hands

Helping ALL students feel like they belong


Sometimes, a change in approach is all that's needed to make everyone feel valued

When students don’t perform well in a subject, the typical responses relate to student motivation, e.g., they need more grit, they don’t have the right growth mindset, or they just need to work more effectively. In other words, the student gets the blame. During his presentation, “Promoting Belonging in Math Through Instructional Choices and Practices,” Jamaal Sharif Matthews, Ph.D., associate professor at Montclair State University, N.J., shared his research on the role of belonging in school success and how it may be even more substantial for ethnic minority and socially marginalized youth. While his work is primarily centered on mathematics education, Dr. Matthews’ work on building instructional practices to promote belonging can apply across subjects and grade levels.

First, Dr. Matthews discussed the importance of kids feeling like they belong and are valued in the classroom. Unfortunately, he said, the current education system was never intended for black, brown, or poor children to belong. And even though some changes have been made, there hasn’t been enough progress. Today, black and brown children still attend schools named after confederate leaders and zero-tolerance policies significantly target black, brown, and poor students over others. Student interviews reveal that marginalized youth feel like school isn’t meant to help them and it doesn’t matter how well they do in class.

In addition, Dr. Matthews explained how some behaviors, like students putting their heads down on the desks, are not active disinterest but a stress response. When students feel like they don’t belong in the classroom, their brain perceives a social threat. Their body goes into fight or flight, and the flight can look like the student is checking out.

Furthermore, marginalized students also get signals from their teachers that they don’t belong in the class. For instance, they get content that isn’t as rigorous as the other students, their interests and experiences are not reflected in the content or instruction, and contributions from people who reflect the students’ own backgrounds are missing. In other words, they perceive that their teachers don’t value them, their history, or what they could contribute.

Related: Resources for creating a school culture of empathy, inclusion, and kindness

In order to increase students’ feelings of belonging, teachers need to change their approach to make all children feel valued. He said while this can start with building good relationships, instructional practices are even more important. Dr. Matthews listed his 4Hs of Belonging-Centered Instruction that “provide meaningful locales that you can think about and connecting with and understanding students and their backgrounds.”

  • Home: relating lessons to consistent activities engaged in the home space, such as the heating bill or budgeting for groceries
  • Hobbies: feature examples with personal activities, something the kids do at least once a week, like work or sports
  • Hopes: focusing on personal aspirations, interest, or goals
  • Heritage: connecting to a tradition or people that’s a source of pride like the legacy of black female mathematicians

Dr. Matthews recommended interest interviews as one method to get the information teachers need. He develops a survey asking about their personal interests that students take home. There could be several questions on it, but the students only need to answer four. The next day, the students can interview each other and submit the interviews for credit. If the students aren’t comfortable with that, then the teacher can conduct individual or small-group interviews as needed. Some teachers even spread the interviews out during the year so that they have a continual feed of information. Then, the teachers use the information for everything from building content for tests to creating whole units. By doing this, students feel valued by their teachers.

“It’s really fascinating the things you can learn about your student that perhaps you didn’t even know before,” said Dr. Matthews. “But this activity is more than that—it’s more than just getting to know your students. This is an important activity because it’s geared toward demonstrating to your students that their knowledge and their experiences are important for your instruction and their own learning. That’s really important because it gives students an opportunity to feel seen and heard, which increases feelings of belonging.”

About the Presenters

Jamaal Sharif Matthews is an associate professor of educational psychology at Montclair State University in New Jersey. He earned his joint Ph.D. in education and psychology from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. His research explores the connections between social cognition, achievement motivation, identity development and learning during adolescence. He examines these issues among historically disenfranchised populations, specifically black American and Latinx adolescents in urban schools, applying a critical race perspective on the psychological processes that undergird adaptive and healthy school functioning for these populations.

Dr. Matthews conducts much of his research within the context of mathematics classrooms, math education and learning. The arc of his most recent work details how math instruction, executive functions, and cultural stigma interact in explaining how urban adolescents negotiate their sense of belonging in mathematics classrooms and their value of mathematics. His research has also revealed how racial identity development during adolescence can buffer the negative effects of racial stereotypes and stigma on mathematics motivation, facilitating resilient mindsets toward learning and thriving in mathematics. He has published this and related research in top academic journals, including the Journal of Educational Psychology, and Developmental Psychology, among others. Dr. Matthews has received several national awards and acknowledgements, including three competitive and prestigious dissertation awards from the American Psychological Association and ProQuest.

Alison R. Shell, Ph.D. is a research fellow on the Learner Variability Project team at Digital Promise. Her work focuses on digging up evidence to support the factors that underlie learner success. She earned her Ph.D. in cognitive psychology at the University of Maryland, with a focus on the cognitive processes that underlie language.
Prior to moving to Washington D.C., she was involved in research projects in the Boston area, including investigating the biological underpinnings of autism and working to develop more linguistically sound reading assessments for young-adult readers.

About the Host

Barbara Pape is the communications director for the Learner Variability Project at Digital Promise Global (DPG). She has 20 years of experience in strategic communications, writing, and policy analysis, primarily in education. Previously, she served as executive producer of the award-winning Teaching & Learning conference, sponsored by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, where she developed content and oversaw outreach and communications. As a writer, she has written for numerous publications, including Harvard University, the National Education Goals Panel (U.S. Department of Education), and Parents magazine. Pape also served as editor and publisher of the first electronically delivered education newsletter, the Daily Report Card.

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