Develop a Sense of Belonging

How can you develop a sense of belonging this year? As you prepare for students, families, faculty, and staff to return to campus, there is much to think about: maintaining health and safety, preparing facilities, gathering supplies, and so much more. When you welcome your community back to campus, remember an important part of your preparation: How will you develop a sense of belonging? 

Belonging, One of Our Basic Needs:

According to psychiatrist William Glasser, Belonging is one of our basic needs. He defines love and belonging as one of our essential psychological needs for seeking relationships, making connections, giving and receiving affection and feeling part of a group. Sebene Selassie, mindfulness expert and author of You Belong, describes belonging as coming from within a person and states that difference does not mean ‘not belonging.’ Selassie writes, “Difference” does not equal “not belonging,” but as many of us live farther away from our families and as we connect to multiple communities and cultures, our sense of belonging feels tenuous.”

Setting Meaningful Intentions

Summer is the time to set your intentions for the new school year. When the hallways are quiet and the classrooms are empty, reflect and create intentions for your team that will articulate your work for the upcoming year. Reflection is the first step. Take time to look back before you look ahead on the challenges and successes of the year. Then, create two or three intentions to guide your work.

How do I set meaningful intentions?

Setting meaningful intentions takes time. Strategic work is thoughtful, long-term, and can shift culture. In schools, strategic work should always center student growth and be grounded in the school mission.

  • Center students. Ask yourself: What is best for students? Keep your intentions grounded in this central idea.
  • Keep your school mission, vision, and values as the foundation.
  • What are the areas in your school or your team that need improvement? Make a list.
  • What themes do you see emerging in your list?


This is a moment for reflection and restoration. This has been a challenging and complicated time in schools and this summer will be an essential time for reflection as well as for restoring energy, empathy, and compassion. 

When working with students, we often ask them to reflect on their work and their process as good teaching practice. Reflection is an essential part of meaningful assessment and ultimately growth. We need to allow ourselves, as educators and leaders, the same time and space to do this vital work in order to process what we have learned, what we want to do differently or the same, and make plans to move forward in thoughtful and intentional ways. 

Reflecting on our practices can deepen our understanding of ourselves. When we reflect as a team, we can make our teams stronger; deepening the connection between colleagues, building empathy and strengthening relationships. 

PBL Works designed some helpful tools to use with faculty/staff for reflection.


Traditions usually uphold our history and are connected to strong memories. They help us remember people, places, and events and have the opportunity to give us a sense of belonging and community. Traditions are familiar and can bring comfort, pointing to the passing of time. 

In schools, we have many traditions at this time of year: moving up ceremonies, graduations, retirements, and more. We celebrate the successes of our students, faculty, and staff while engaging in traditions and rituals to show the passing of time. This is yet another time of transition.

Should traditions change as our communities change? Many of our schools don’t look the way they did at their founding. This is a good thing. Change is essential. Sometimes there are opportunities to bring new life to long-standing traditions in a way that honors the past as well as acknowledges the present. How do we do this? We begin with reflection as these are big decisions.

Finishing the Year with Gratitude

As the school year comes to an end, a gratitude practice can intentionally direct hearts and minds to name and offer thanks for little things. It can focus our thoughts on positive aspects of our life and our work. It can help turn a deficit mindset of feeling, that nothing is ever enough, into a plentiful mindset of feeling fulfilled. Our capacity to feel generous is increased when we feel we have enough. When we practice gratitude, we focus less on wanting/grasping and resisting/pushing away. Practicing gratitude as a team is an opportunity to see our interdependence and feel a connection. 

Gratitude practices, over time, can have an impact on physical and mental health and the brain. “… simply expressing gratitude may have lasting effects on the brain,” noted Joshua Brown and Joel Wong in their research on gratitude. Research has shown connections between gratitude practices and physical and mental health.

Hope is a Plan!

Conventional wisdom says that hope is not a plan. I disagree. Hope is most definitely a plan. Cultivating hope is a skill that we need to practice and develop, and hope is especially needed when facing hardship. This is a time globally, locally, and in our workplaces of crisis. Hope has agency and purpose. It encourages a perspective that can help us see possibilities and choices. Hope, as a skill modeled by leadership, can lead to increased engagement and better health.

Look at the data and imagine an outcome. The data holds us in realism and the imagining helps us think broadly and deeply about ‘what if’. You have to see some evidence in your world to imagine the possibility. Dr. Jacqueline Mattis, a clinical psychologist from Rutgers University, encourages us to ‘read the room’ and read the past, putting the pieces together to make reasonable expectations in her conversation with Dan Harris on Ten Percent Happier.

Knowers or Learners?

Are you creating a culture that honors knowers or learners on your team or in your classroom? When you honor knowers, you honor answers. When you honor learners, you honor questions. Knowers value being right. Learners value being curious. Knowers are often quick to come up with answers. Learners may take their time to find the right questions or identify the true problem. As a child, I grew up in a family system that valued ‘knowers’. I quickly became silent, discouraged, and less confident not only at home but also at school. Many of my childhood classrooms and adult work environments honored ‘knowers’. When I finally reached a work environment that created a culture for ‘learners’ to thrive, I also began to grow and thrive. Brené Brown describes being a learner as having the courage ‘not to know.’ Which culture are you promoting? These are just some ways you might be creating a culture that values ‘knowers’ or ‘learners’.

Keep Asking Why

When you heard about the tragic murders of Asians in Atlanta, did you ask why? When you watched videos of police brutality against Black Americans, did you ask why? When you learn about the violence and oppression of marginalized people in this country, do you ask why? 

Did you ask why or were you simply shocked and surprised? I hear people saying, “This is so surprising! I can’t believe it!” We need to believe it and we need to ask why. We need to educate ourselves and know our history. We need to stop being surprised and understand the systems. The reasons for something happening today are deeply connected to the past. It’s not about ‘having a bad day.’ If we don’t understand this, we can’t make a change.

What can schools do? 

Schools have a duty to teach students accurate history that holds many narratives, not just the narrative of the dominant people of the region.

Stay in the Discomfort

It is imperative that we stay in discomfort. Discomfort is a feeling of anxiety, uneasiness, and embarrassment. We must acknowledge this feeling and learn from it. Embracing discomfort is a form of compassion, learning, and honesty. Discomfort is a sign of something happening. Pay attention to the feeling. Do not fight it or feed it.

A recent article highlighted how the people who have historically experienced power, privilege, and comfort in independent school communities are now feeling uncomfortable with the way these schools are educating their kids. Independent schools, many of which are founded on serving and educating white males, are now serving very different communities. Schools need to change when their communities change. The curriculum needs to change. Approaches need to change. The distribution of resources needs to change and so much more.

What can schools do?

  • Schools need to move forward with their decisions and stay the course.
  • Stay in your discomfort as well.

Are You Listening?

An essential part of leadership and managing your direct reports is intentional listening. When you listen carefully to your people, you…

  • Learn about the person
  • Build trust with the person
  • Understand more about the content/issue/circumstance
  • Position yourself to collaborate and problem solve
  • Ask better questions that lead to uncovering the real problem
  • Respond instead of react 
  • Realize you might be wrong

These are just some of the advantages of intentional listening. 

Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist, speaks about various types of approaches to communication in his conversation with Dan Harris on The Ten Percent Happier Podcast. Grant describes the preacher, the politician, the prosecutor, and the scientist. He defines the preacher mode as wanting to persuade because we have already found the truth, the politician is campaigning for approval, the prosecutor mode is about proving the other person wrong and the scientist has a curious approach and wants to learn.