The Cues and Conditions of Student Belonging

As education systems have increasingly focused on the social-emotional aspects of learning (SEL), students’ sense of belonging has emerged as key to their positive, successful experiences in schools (Osterman, 2000). However, research has made clear that student belonging is inequitably experienced in the racialized contexts of schools (Gray, Hope, and Matthews, 2018). For nearly three years, EOS utilized traditional measures of belonging uncertainty aligned with those developed by Walton and Cohen (2007). While this measurement approach highlighted inequities in sense of belonging, we came to believe that the moment in time focus on student-reported belonging placed an undue burden on low-income and students of color to identify with and “belong” in racialized school environments. In addition, we found that educators were likely to mistake acquiescence for belonging without attention to the enabling conditions or leading indicators of perceived belonging. That is, the assumption that students of color should feel like they belong in racist education environments was something we found to be problematic. To better understand students’ experiences of belonging and provide actionable steps for schools to create belonging-rich spaces, we engaged in a year-long deep-dive into experiences of belonging for students of color.

WHAT WE’VE LEARNED: Belonging Redefined

EOS collects data from students and schools through our proprietary Student and Staff survey instruments. Nearly 1.5 million students have taken our survey. In Fall 2018 and then again in Fall 2019, we piloted a set of survey questions designed to understand the conditions that led students of color enrolled in AP/IB classes to report a feeling of belonging. Through analysis of survey data from over 90,000 students of color enrolled in one or more AP/IB class and extensive focus groups with 114 students from diverse partner schools, we identified five leading indicators of belonging. Each indicator was significantly associated with reported belonging in AP/IB classes (our lagging indicator) and with academic outcomes, including AP/IB GPA.

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