If you think back to the days when you were a child attending school, what comes to mind? Do you have positive memories, negative memories, or maybe a bit of both? Positive memories may include hanging out with friends, having a great teacher who believed in you, or enjoying a particular subject in school, like math or gym class. Negative memories may include experiences that made you feel lonely, isolated, sad, awkward, or scared. At the heart of these experiences, there was likely a need for a true sense of belonging.
Belonging is experienced when you can be your most authentic self and feel connected to a group or community. According to an article written by Jennifer Wickham published by the Mayo Clinic, having a sense of belonging is so important because when you feel you have support and are not alone, you often cope more effectively with difficult times.
If you can help increase a sense of belonging in your children, then you can strengthen their resilience to overcome challenges. Caregivers, parents, teachers, coaches, and other professionals who work with children all play an important role.
Here are five things you can do to increase a sense of belonging in your children:
1. Encourage your children to look inside themselves for motivation. Teach your children to be proud of themselves rather than seek approval and praise from others. For example, say to a child: “You must be so proud of yourself. You worked so hard.” When a child focuses on their own efforts and progress, they build self-confidence. You will see your child light up when they feel proud of their own accomplishments. Recognize these moments and celebrate them.
2. Foster a growth mindset. Carol Dweck’s theory suggests there are two main mindsets: fixed and growth. Having a growth mindset is essential for success because you believe your skills can improve with effort, and setbacks are an opportunity for learning. If a child is using fixed mindset statements such as, “I’ll never be good enough to make the soccer team,” then respond with a growth mindset statement such as, “You may not be ready just yet, but with a little more practice and hard work, you will.” When you help a child use positive, growth-mindset language, over time they start believing in their unlimited potential.
3. Talk about things that have happened or could happen. Ask your child questions and have conversations with them as often as possible. Talking about things that have happened is an opportunity to validate their feelings and debrief a situation to figure out lessons learned. Talking about things that could happen is an opportunity to work through a scenario and equip your child with different ways to respond. If your child does not want to talk about it, it can be helpful to share stories from your own experiences.
4. Teach empathy. Empathy is the ability to take the perspective of another person and understand or feel what they are experiencing. It is a critical social skill required for building and maintaining successful relationships. Listening to your child and saying to them, “I’m really glad you shared that with me. I’m here for you,” goes a long way. When you validate someone else’s feelings, you are acting in a compassionate way. Role modelling empathy in the classroom, on a sports team, or at home can help children understand positive behaviors that support belonging.
5. Find your team. Help each child identify their interests. Ask, “What activities or hobbies make you happy?” or, “What do you enjoy doing the most?” When you encourage your children to participate in activities that unleash their creativity and happiness, you get to see their most authentic selves.
Help your children identify their allies. Ask, “Who are the people in your life who love and support you through good times and bad?” Family, peers, teachers, and coaches can make up a team that supports belonging. Now more than ever, children want and need a sense of belonging. With genuine connection, conversation, and confidence to be their authentic selves, you can help your children feel heard, seen, loved, and accepted.
Jen is the co-owner of WordPLAY Consulting Inc. and a Recreation Program Specialist with The City of Calgary. Need to create more connections across your education, sport, or recreation organization? Visit wordplaycanada.com. Feeling Social? Follow on Instagram.
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