Belonging is a human need that must be met before learning can occur.

“The psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed that healthy human beings had a certain number of needs, and that these needs could be arranged in a hierarchy, with some needs (such as physiological and safety needs) being more primitive or basic than others (such as social and ego needs),” Neel Burton wrote in a 2020 issue of Psychology Today.

For children, this means they need to be fed, clothed, housed and loved before they are able to learn in school.

Humans crave belonging. That’s why they join clubs, spend hours online searching for the people who understand them, and look for jobs, friends and partners who accept them.

Children don’t get a lot of choice when it comes to their classrooms, teachers and other students. So it’s up to teachers to figure out what it takes to make sure students feel they belong in their classrooms. This means combing through every aspect of the learning experience you create to make sure everything tells children they belong.

It might seem overwhelming, but there are some concrete strategies to cultivating an all-races, all-religions, all-abilities, LGBTQ and gender-inclusive learning environment.

Model inclusive language in everything you do

Instead of addressing children by gender, try using non-gendered words like “students,” “scholars,” or “friends” to be more inclusive of all identities. Take this a step further by dividing children according to birth month, color of clothing, or number.

Don’t remark on play as gender-related. Resist from commenting on boys who play with dolls or girls who play football at recess.

Revise back to school paperwork by ensuring all handbooks, forms and other communications are inclusive of all family structures and gender identities (e.g., use phrases such as “families and caring adults” in place of “moms and dads”). Offer everything in different languages, if necessary, or show parents where they can access a translator.

Learn how to say your students’ names

Never, ever, ever make a negative remark about someone’s name. Your name is your first identity. Be sure to ask every student how to say their name, but do it privately so you can be sure you’ve got it right.

Stock your library shelves with diverse books

Help students identify their place in the world through stories and materials. In 1990, Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop wrote about mirrors and windows for Reading Is Fundamental. Mirrors are books with characters and settings that resemble their own lives. Windows are books where children can learn about all the diverse people out in the world making it beautiful.

Challenge stereotypes out loud when you see them in books. Why is this mom making dinner every single night? Can dads make dinner? Help give kids the voice to challenge what they see and notice.

Prepare for teachable moments

Brainstorm things you might hear throughout the year and write down what you plan to say as a response. It’s easy to go blank in the heat of the moment when a child says things like, “That’s gay!” or “You act like a girl!” or “You’re not a real family because you have two dads and no mom.”

Be prepared to interrupt hurtful comments about a child’s identity or their family. On the website Welcoming Schools, they explain the importance of not ignoring hurtful behavior. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a first grader who might not know what the word “gay” means, a sixth grader trying to sound cool, or a tenth grader “teasing” a friend. All of these have the potential of creating an unsafe classroom or school environment and must be addressed.”

Incorporate marginalized voices in your lessons.

Curriculum materials are expensive and this means they are often out of date. Be more intentional about finding magazine articles, books and speeches by people who aren’t white, straight men. This gives your students a wider view of the world.

Work to find materials that celebrate every voice. When children see that you love to learn and share stories about and by people of different races, gender-identities and abilities, they will begin to see that who they are is valuable.

Make sure your field trips are accessible

Not all disabilities are visible. You may have students with anxieties about certain field trips. There may be some whose culture or religion doesn’t allow them to do certain things. Take time in the beginning of the year to reach out to families to see if there is anything you might not be aware of. Look for ways to accommodate as many differences as you can.

You may discover new ways of looking at field trips you never considered before. And if you must leave a student behind, consider finding an online field trip for that student so they can experience it virtually.

Accept different ways of learning

Some kids cannot sit still. They aren’t being manipulative or testing you, they just need to move more than others. Guess what? That’s okay, too!

Keep spaces open for your students who are listening but want to sway or wiggle. Encourage kids to talk about what they’re doing when they learn best. Kids can be very articulate about why they do things.

Try to remember to ask a student, “why’d you do that?” before assuming anything.

Celebrate differences

Encourage everyone in your classroom to talk about their differences. A common practice in the classroom centers around finding things we all have in common, but often sharing our differences helps us come together as well.

Push kids to look at differences in everything they learn. How are these two numbers different? How many ways can you look at this one thing?

Consider reading the Wallace Stevens poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” which helps kids see how valuable examining different perspectives is.

Let children lead

Imagine this: You’re reading a story about a Chinese family and everyone turns to the one Chinese child in the classroom to answer a cultural question.

Don’t be that teacher.

Instead, let children come to lead or offer information on their own. If children wish to be invisible during conversations where the subject might be close to home, let them absorb instead of discuss. One person’s differences do not make them an expert, and they might also be able to learn something from hearing what others can offer about a topic.

Take time every day to learn a little bit more about your students

You can learn a lot by asking students about their lives. Finding out if kids need two sets of books or papers because they share their time between guardians goes a long way to building trust. Helping students get homework done when their guardians are out of town or working late helps them see that you know they can do it and they matter to you.

Don’t use food as a way to celebrate things.

Many students may not be able to partake in certain kinds of foods. It tends to be more exclusionary than celebratory for many of the students in your classroom.

Make it a point to celebrate every students’ accomplishments

Everyone wants to feel appreciated. When we celebrate a child who isn’t appreciated at home or one who gets in trouble at recess a lot, we show them what it feels like to be seen and accepted. Often this feeling helps a child feel more confident and empowered to grow their identity and become a part of the classroom in a way they never had before.

When we think about identity, we may focus on cultural things like clothing, or physiological things like skin color, but it’s also important to understand that our identities are made up of shared ideas, ideologies, biases and ways of seeing the world around us. The more we respect each other and allow everyone to be who they choose to be in safe, kind ways, the better we grow as a community.

Story by Kimberley Moran.