Feeling like you belong is closely tied to children’s mental health. Unfortunately, children who are a part of marginalized or underrepresented groups are more likely to believe that they don’t fit in at school or in other social settings, compared to their peers. Those feelings of belonging uncertainty can have a negative impact on their well-being.
Children who sense they belong
Children who believe they don’t fit in
· More likely to experience positive emotions, such as gratitude
· More likely to experience self-doubt and low self-esteem
· More persistence on difficult tasks
· Poorer sleep quality
· Pay more attention in class
· May struggle with anxiety or depression
· May struggle with academic performance
Who is Impacted?
Minoritized students, including Black and Brown children, often experience barriers to feeling like they belong in school.
They may not see many teachers or administrators who look like them. They may also receive more out-of-school suspensions and feel like their school is unfair. If their grades slip, it may confirm to them that they fit the stereotype about their group and don’t belong in an academic environment.
How Can I Help?
It's important to recognize that belonging is a subjective feeling and that underrepresented children have many barriers to feeling that they fit in.
There is a ‘discipline gap,’ in which underrepresented students tend to receive more severe punishments, that needs to be addressed at the level of the entire school system. However, we know that increasing a sense of belonging in children can also serve as a protective factor in these environments. Everyone has a role to play in helping minoritized kids feel accepted in school. Teachers can focus on building a sense of belonging in their classrooms.
Children can also be taught to develop a mindset that reduces the focus on racial stereotypes and normalizes common difficulties with fitting in. Helping minoritized children recognize that it’s normal and common to wonder if they fit in can be crucial to their feelings of belonging, their mental health and their academic success. According to research, it’s particularly helpful when students realize that nearly everyone at school has those thoughts when they enter a new school setting, not just minority students.
Providing social support to children from minoritized groups may help to reduce the risk of loneliness, depression and anxiety. Research shows that the social isolation of pandemic lockdowns reduced feelings of connection and belonging among transgender youths. Other studies found that feelings of family and school belonging and connectedness helped decrease suicidal thoughts among Latine children.
With all these efforts in place, minoritized youth may stay engaged and involved, gaining a greater sense of belonging. Over time, they may benefit academically and improve their health and future career opportunities.
To help your child experience greater feelings of belonging:
- Find mentors to model positive behavior. Your child may benefit from connecting with family, friends, relatives or even kids who are a few years older. Hearing that others who look like your child have successfully navigated high school or college may give them the confidence to increase their sense of belonging.
- Seek out settings where your child fits in. Underrepresented kids may not feel connected at school, but they might enjoy clubs or cultural organizations where they have something in common with others in the room. The more places that your child experiences social connectedness, the better.
- Check in with your child. Find out how they’re feeling at school or in other social venues. Make sure that they aren’t experiencing online bullying or receiving negative feedback on social media, because hurtful online experiences can harm a child’s real-world perception of belonging. Take time to talk about belonging uncertainty, and find ways to help your child overcome barriers to fitting in.
Although children from an underrepresented group are at risk of belonging uncertainty, they can still feel connected and have a strong sense of belonging. By taking steps to encourage their feelings of belonging, and by checking in with them through regular conversations, you can help improve their mental health.