How do you build belonging in your school and your school community? (Middle-Level Collaborative)

This post is a collaboration between a group of middle school leaders from across the country.  Periodically, these passionate and dedicated middle school principals share their thoughts on issues of relevance for those “in the middle”.  

Donald Gately.  Middle School Principal, Long Island

EINN39NWoAAcqZQThe feeling of belonging is arguably one of the most critical variables in the success of a young adolescent at school. Think about the places where you feel most safe, happy, willing to take risks. These are all places where you feel that you belong. Ideally, we feel that we belong when we’re with our family, our closest friends, our partners.  The climate at the ideal Middle School should resemble these settings. 

A practice that interferes with this sense of belonging is suspension.  Suspension is a “time-honored” practice that schools utilize in cases of severe violations of the code of conduct.  Typically, a child is required to remain home from school for a period of days or sit in what’s called “In-School Suspension” a room at school where they complete assignments provided by their teachers.  In both instances, the child is separated from the rest of his peers and from most of the adults in the school. If we agree that a sense of belonging is crucial for middle school kids’ success, it is difficult to justify this practice.  When children misbehave, even in ways that are significant, this is the time we need to embrace them, not isolate them. Yes, we need to teach right from wrong, consequences are fine, but can we find consequences that have the effect of increasing this sense of belonging rather than corrupting it? 

Many schools, including ours, are employing restorative justice approaches to school discipline. In a typical example, which actually occurred at my school recently, three students were found to have vandalized a bathroom. Instead of suspending them out of school, the students participated in a restorative circle along with their parents, some teachers, classmates, and, most importantly, members of the custodial staff. They also wrote letters of apology and our awesome assistant principal stayed after school with them one day to make cookies for the custodial staff. This was so much more powerful and effective than any suspension could have been.  I am extremely excited about the potential of restorative justice approaches to school discipline.  

Chris Legleiter. Middle School Principal.  Leawood, Kansas

EIOM-T_WwAAHjQEThe key to a successful school year is the quality of relationships within the school and the school community. Great leaders recognize they must continually work on building great culture where everyone in school feels like they belong and the school community feels connected and supports the school. 

The question is how is this achieved? While there are many components that lead to everyone feeling like “this is my home”, the one key aspect that is incorporated with these components is how the leaders must model the desired behaviors. Let’s take a look at how this is achieved:

  • Leaders understand the importance of leading with positivity.
  • Leaders are vulnerable with staff and students by sharing personal examples that connect through emotion and stories. This helps drive continual growth through trusting relationships.
  • Leaders lead with grace and kindness as they are the first to congratulate the hard work of others and also the first to apologize when something does not go according to plan. 
  • Leaders find ways to get student voice within the school by having regular “feedback loops” with students to listen to their ideas.
  • Leaders implement methods to support whole child initiatives by recognizing students for great character, support inclusivity and daily SEL work.
  • Leaders have consistent opportunities to share with parents the work of the school so they are informed.

Leaders understand how they treat others and develop an inclusive school community is the foundation of their work. This takes intentional efforts through modeling the desired behaviors and leading with vulnerability.

Brenda Vatthauer, Middle School Principal, Hutchinson, MN

Middle school adolescent perception is real, well in their mind it is real.  At times, their perception misses the mark, is twisted, is off, but it feels “real” to a middle school student.  To help middle school students grow and enrich their learning (academically and social emotionally), a sense of belonging is a must.  A sense of belonging can be perceived with many factors of influence, by both adults and students.  The feelings from their perception can distract or enhance growth and development in middle school. To help build a positive sense of belonging, thoughtful consideration should be given to the following:

         Be Real-Let your personality show through your “title” at school.  Attend student events, cheer, show you care and be real through expression. Your body language speaks a thousand words and students can read it well.  Step out of your comfort zone and be genuine with the students.   

         Make It Personal-When you work with students, use examples that they can relate to.  Focus on them, their interests, their talents, their routines, their cultures.  By making conversations personal, you are making a connection and helping them feel a sense of belonging. 

         Listen-We have two ears and one mouth for a reason, to listen more than we speak.  Listening to students is so important. By listening, we not only learn about them, but they feel valued.  Listening also may include asking questions to allow more of the message to be drawn out and to gain a deeper understanding.  This also leads to a greater sense of person to person “connection.” 

         Know Student’s Names-Being new to the middle school, I have to admit I struggle with names.  It is a work in progress for me, but necessary. It’s ok to creatively create your own reminders to help remember student names. Students feel valued when they hear their name.

Welcome Student Voice in Decision Making-A true sense of belonging is when student voice is encouraged when decisions are being made within the middle school.  Students will work harder, perform at a higher level and feel a stronger connection to the school community if their ideas can be part of solutions.

         Be Visible-Being visible in the hallways, classrooms, during lunch, recess, before school, at the bus loading and at extra-curricular activities shows connection. This communicates a powerful connection to all students.  Some middle schoolers will “ignore” you, walk by you, not say “hi” but they will see you. Over time, a continual visible presence will help connect a sense of belonging with each other.

         Create Check-Ins During Homeroom/Class-One of the most powerful ways to establish a sense of belonging is to routinely allow time for circle check-ins within each classroom.  Many character traits are developed throughout the year if staff take the time to create a sense of community and belonging through circle check-ins.  

Dennis Schug, Middle School Principal, Long Island, NY

EVERY ACTION presents opportunities for us to demonstrate our values. Where I stand and where I visit throughout my day. How I interact with students, staff, and visitors. Announcements on the PA system. Scheduling my priorities (versus prioritizing my schedule). It all matters.

But what’s most important to me is simple. It’s to foster a sense of belonging for each student, promoting regular opportunities for each to be known, and to feel that they are known by a caring adult in our school community. I am proud to lead this work, but I am not alone. In fact, I can still hear my grandmother’s voice saying, “Many hands make light work.”  

As I reflect on this week, three examples come to mind. This week I: 

  1. Established a routine to check in and check out daily…with a kid who needs positive reinforcement.


  1. Participated in a meeting…run entirely by students.


  1. Worked with a student in need, identified and removed his obstacles, and watched him shine.

No doubt, I beam with pride over ongoing school-wide initiatives such as Start with Hello Week, Unity Day, and the Kindness Challenge (to name a few!) and the positive impact these have on school culture. But it’s these small moments that make a big difference.

Like those most challenging puzzle pieces (the ones that are tough to find or figure out how they fit), when we discover their place in the puzzle, we realize how magnificent it feels when they all have their place.

About dfgately

Middle School Principal Jericho, NY
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