Love and Belonging in Our Schools and World

Educators are well aware of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and its place in the educational system. But this awareness doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re doing it right.

How does your school support the three foundational levels of each human’s needs: physiological, safety and love/belonging? In schools, we can’t do a lot for the physiological needs of each child, but we do provide food. The next two levels are where schools can do amazing work.

We would like to think that every child feels safe at school, but that isn’t always the case, especially in large schools where the individual student feels lost or unseen. It’s vital that we get feedback from our students, rather than guess about where they’re at.

Many kids cruise through their school days with no sense of danger but some feel bullied or threatened on a regular basis. A student with learning differences who visited my school recently had been pushed down stairs and broke his ankle last year in his school. That is definitely not feeling safe at school. And bullying is so challenging for us to catch and address as educators. It is often subtle, yet pervasive.

While the hierarchy of needs suggests going bottom up, I actually think we need to go up a level to love and belonging to address many of our safety issues in schools and the world. If I feel like I am loved and valued and that I have a place in my school or community, I am more likely to help others feel loved and valued. If I feel threatened or invisible, it is easier for me to just threaten or dehumanize others. So love and belonging feels integrated with safety.

Create a Culture Survey

My challenge to schools is to complete a culture survey and ask tough questions about students feeling safe, seen, heard, and valued. Do they feel like they belong? Do they feel like at least one adult knows them and cares? Do they feel like they have friends and are welcome? And then a couple of open-ended questions like what makes the school feel welcoming and inclusive? And what could we do to make our school feel more welcoming and inclusive?

Knowing how your students feel about the school and whether they feel valued and safe can allow you to make necessary changes, if needed. And this is possible at every grade level.

Listen In

Our country has been feeling a stronger sense of division than ever. The resulting increase in hate crimes and serial murders are not a surprise. We each need to be a strong and loud voice for love and inclusion. We need to make sure every child belongs. What are some steps you can take in your school and encourage in students’ homes?

A huge step for educators and parents would be to find time to listen, without distraction, to our children. It means initiating conversations as well as making ourselves available when our kids need to talk. 

When my girls were teens and distancing themselves from adult influence, it was easiest to get them to talk and express deep and uncomfortable emotions when other activities were going on, especially when I was driving them somewhere. Giving our precious children undistracted screen-free time to listen deeply and with empathy would make a world of difference. This is an expression of love. 

We know from our young children who imitate our expressions and mannerisms, our children are watching us and modeling their behavior on ours. Do any of you out there have an uncomfortable example of perhaps your own road rage being modeled by your elementary or middle school child? 

I remember that happening when I was in the Philippines and lanes on highways were treated as stripes of decoration. Drivers floated all over the road and until I got used to it, it drove me crazy. I heard that frustration echoed in my then-sixth grade daughter’s comment of  “pick a lane jerk!” (Oops!) Hopefully she has picked up I’m more positive aspects of my modeling.

Work on Empathy

Beyond listening, we need to continue to train ourselves in empathy. In an episode of the Education Evolution podcast, Scotland Nash of the Anti Defamation League PNW Chapter gave some suggestions on how we can interrupt our own words and make sure that we are using empathy and becoming aware of our biases, with the hope of becoming anti-biased. This is a part of the top of Maslow’s hierarchy where we want to be respected and esteemed and also respect others and hold them in esteem. This is an important step before we get to the top of the pyramid and work on being at our very best.

Listening and growing our empathy are steps we all can take in every relationship. As a hate crime and murder hit close to home in July 2020, I realized that if our schools are not places where children feel valued and are thriving, our schools could actually be places that are damaging children and creating a sense of dehumanization that makes harming and hating others possible. 

As the common denominator and largest influence outside of the home, schools are implicit in the hate growing in our young today. That is such a harsh realization. I care for my students and don’t want to feel the burden of hate put on the doorsteps of schools. But if a child feels invisible or stupid in our schools, we have dehumanized that child. If our system is driven by staying on track with the curriculum, then completing the content of a course is of higher value than meeting the child wear they are. 

Our broken system of education is guilty of placing covering content over creating love and belonging for each child.

Some educators may say it’s not our responsibility to create love and belonging. We used to say that about transporting kids to school, and kids had to walk miles and miles to school at times. We used to say that about feeding children. Now we have breakfast available at school as well as free and reduced meals. We used to say that before and after care were not our responsibility. Now we know that this is another need that we can and will address. 

These are all logistics. We have stretched schools beyond academics to meet these needs. But we have not stretched schools beyond academics to make sure every child feels loved and welcomed.

A Challenge for Educators

My challenge is for the educators. Our present, outdated system will not allow us to put aside curriculum when there is a human need that seems more important. We all have to demand that we get to work in humane systems and can put the often rote and quickly forgotten learning on the backburner when there are more important lessons and teachable moments that arise. 

Until we all demand to work in a place where our professionalism allows us to put humanity over course content, we won’t have this needed change. 

Educators, this means changing policies and our outdated institution. It won’t be easy. The first step is for us to take off the blinders that allow us to think we are all doing good in our schools. With the number of mental health concerns in our youth, and unacceptable dropout rates, we are not doing good for all of our children. Let the blinders come off. Feel your discomfort and let it be that grain of sand that irritates the oyster. Help our institutions make caring and empathy more than a theme of the month or a special lesson in an advisory class. Let’s make it a grassroots effort to put kids before content.

Loren Demetroutis of Big Picture Learning was recently on the Education Evolution podcast, talking about interest-driven learning. When we value our students and trust that their passions are important and a way into learning, we have a valuable tool for making learning meaningful and helping students feel seen and valued. 

What can you do in your classroom to become more interest-driven? How can you listen to a student and adapt an assignment or maybe even throw it out and let a passion project replace it? We have to take the discomfort of knowing that we are a part of the hate problem in the world and do something with it. Loren’s ideas could be your next step.

Educators, what subject area could possibly be more important than creating safety, love, and belonging in our schools? Let’s do those culture surveys and start listening to our precious learners. We can build the empathy and create the interest-driven learning that helps all of our rainbow of learners feel seen, heard, valued and thriving.

Abraham Maslow had it right. We all need to feel safe and to feel love and belonging. We need this in our schools. And then hopefully our students will go out and create this safety and love and belonging in the world. Teachers, are you up for this challenge? Please say YES!

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