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