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Rebuilding Students’ Sense of Belonging Post-Pandemic

After months of remote learning, teachers returned to classrooms in the past year under trying circumstances. There were staff shortages. Many students lagged far behind academically. And the bonds between students and teachers that bind them to their schools had weakened. In their forthcoming book Reconnect: Building School Culture for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging, authors Doug Lemov, Hilary Lewis, Darryl Williams and Demarius Frazier explore the pandemic’s impact on school culture and how to build back a sense of belonging in classrooms. FutureEd associate director Phyllis Jordan talked with Lemov of the Teach Like a Champion organization about the book.

The last time we talked, in late 2020, teachers were deeply immersed in remote learning, longing for the day they could be back in classrooms with students. But with schools open for most of the past year, teachers experienced a new set of challenges.

Yes, who would have guessed after a year and a half to two years of remote learning and all the disruptions of the pandemic that the year back might have been the hardest year of all? But I think that's the experience that people have had.

Why do you think that is?

It's a combination of things. One of the factors, obviously, is staffing is really hard. And there have been incredible academic disruptions. Anyone who was watching knew that this was going to happen. There's no way that the classroom doesn't matter and that not being in classrooms would not have massive costs for students, especially the kids who rely on the classroom most. Maybe the surprising thing is, it feels like kids have changed, the kids are different.

How are they different? Are you talking about behavioral issues?

Certainly, there's been a ton of press, supported even more emphatically by teachers that I talk to, suggesting that behavior has been a constant challenge since schools reopened. A group of principals I was talking to were saying that kids who've been cut off the way that they have been for a year and a half have lost a lot of their social skills. They're back with their friends and a small disagreement explodes between them, and the friendship is degraded. I think kids are out of practice at institutional expectations. There's a social contract implicit in every institution—you make small sacrifices in not being able to do exactly what you want at any moment and you are rewarded by the benefits of the institution. In the case of the school, the reward is the incredible learning environment.

But the thing that's been overlooked—and the argument that my colleagues and I make in our new book—is that this has been a pandemic inside an epidemic.

What do you consider the epidemic?

Smart phones and social media. And there are two parts to it. If you read [psychologist’s] Jean Twenge's demographic research, she tracks a demonstrative change in teen behavior and perception starting around 2011. She describes an epidemic of isolation, anxiety, depression, and loneliness. She connects it to the moment when cell phones became universal or smartphones and social media became universal.

What are the consequences of this?

The average 12th-grader goes out less without their parents now than the average 8th-grader did in our generation. And they get their driver's licenses later, and they don't work and they don't volunteer and they don't join things. They're in their rooms socializing. We were out driving around in cars. The good news is they're not having car accidents, and there's less teenage sex or less teenage pregnancy, and there's less drug use. But the bad news is it's because they're all up in the rooms socializing on their smartphones.

Generations ago, when you were bullied, you came home from school and you connected with your outside-school friends or you connected with your family, and you were safe and insulated. Today’s generation comes home with their peers in their pocket, 24 hours a day, in their room, on a platform designed to be untraceable and invisible to adults. I think it is a really hard place psychologically to be a teenager.

I imagine the pandemic only made this worse.

Right, rates of anxiety, depression, and loneliness were already incredibly high. And then kids went home, and every other thing that they had in their lives evaporated. They increased their amount of time on social media by about two hours per kid. There is no way that the consequences of that are not devastating. Research suggests that being socially isolated today has the same effect on physical health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

What impact does this loss of connection have on academics?

There are several. First, students who are anxious, lonely and isolated are less successful academically. But students isolated by the pandemic, the social-media epidemic or both also are less adept at forming relationships with peers or teachers that connect them to school. And perhaps most significantly, students who spend large amounts of time on social media see their attention degraded. And attention, the ability to focus and concentrate complete a task in the face of potential distractions, is at the core of learning.

If you're a teacher or a principal, how do you turn this around?

The classroom is often too isolating a place, but the best teachers are really intentional about creating and magnifying signals of belonging that happen between students. A simple example of this is a technique that I call habits of discussion: I ask, "Phyllis, what did you think of the novel?" And you respond, "It was beautiful, and it really moved me what happened in the third chapter." That's a pretty revealing thing to say about yourself, pretty risky thing to say in front of a room with teenagers. What happens next is really important.

Let's say after you speak, no one talks at all. No one even acknowledges your words, and there's silence in the room, and you feel like, "I should not have said that. I will never speak again in class. Did anyone hear, care about what I said?" Or one person raises their hand and they say, "What I was going to say is," which is a way of saying to the rest of class, "I just want to talk about what I wanted to talk about before Phyllis spoke." You could not feel more disconnected from the group.

But if the student who comes after you says something like, "I agree with Phyllis and I want to develop her thought," or even interestingly, "I saw it really differently from Phyllis." Even if they disagree with you, it is more affirming to the importance of your words than if they ignore you.

That builds a culture where we listen to each other and where we talk to each other instead of past each other. It creates better conversations about novels and math and science, but it also has the results of making students feel a profound sense of belonging in the classroom.

How do teachers instill this sort of culture?

The teacher basically establishes a series of habits and routines that he or she asks students to engage in. One of them is habits of discussion.

Another system that a teacher could install is what I call it habits of attention, telling students “When we're having a discussion, we're talking to each other. It's really important that we track the speaker, which means give them our eye contact.” Eye contact is really, really important. So many times a kid makes a comment in class, and they look out across the classroom and no one is looking at them. Kids are looking down at their desk or they're looking down at their phone.

What great teachers do is they start out with a really clear model of what the optimal learning culture looks like. They accept that it will not happen on its own. It has to be engineered.

Can you accomplish this with phones in the classroom?

Phones should not be in school. A cell phone is a distraction machine that fractures your thinking and your attention. And attention is necessary in almost every learning task, so every academic task that we do is degraded and eroded by an attention-fracturing machine.

Do smartphones also interfere with students building connections at school?

I interviewed a student for the book and she says, "I was so excited after pandemic to get back in the school building. And I remember walking down the hallway and seeing my group of friends. I was so excited to see them and I walked up to them, and they're all looking down at their phones, swiping, and no one even looked up at me. And I was like, 'Why am I even in school? I should just be at home, doing remote classes.'" One of the things we have to do to reconnect kids, yes, the classroom has to feel vibrant, but we have to create spaces where kids can reconnect socially, rebuild their connections to one another.

What do these spaces look like?

We have to build what I would call antidotes, which are positive, productive ways for kids to interact that reconnect them with other young people. That means thinking a lot about extracurricular activities and the sense of belonging that kids get from these activities. I talked to a principal at a school, and they thought a lot about the audience experience and how they could get more people to come to the sporting events and make being at the games a really connecting social experience.

If you go to a college sporting event, they're throwing t-shirts into the crowd and they're all singing together. The principal thought, “We can do that, too. We can give you more of a sense of belonging by going to the games.” And by having more people at the games, the kids on the team feel more special. They took a common thing that schools do, sports, and rewired it to create signals of belonging for both the participants and the people who watch it. And they did the same thing for the drama club and the debate club.

Another example is a school in Cardiff, Wales. They restricted cell phones. Students can't have a cell phone out during the day. So, what happens at lunch, after lunch, at recess? They set up the courtyard outside of the dining hall with chess tables and a giant Jenga set and a ping pong table. And there are card tables. Suddenly, kids are sitting at the table playing cards with each other. There's a lot of eye contact and subtle jokes and little comments. You learn a lot of social skills, and you develop connections.

About a third of the school districts we've looked at are planning to spend some of their federal Covid-relief money to put mental health professionals into schools. Do you think that's something that's going to make a difference right now?

There are people who are traumatized, and we have to be ready with mental health services, but we shouldn't assume that everyone who's been through difficulty is traumatized. It signals to them that we think they're fragile and weak and brittle. So we should have mental health professionals for people who have really been through difficulty and we shouldn't expect that classroom teachers somehow are going to be able to be the mental-health providers for those kids. What they can provide is engaging, connected environments that signal belonging to the great majority of students.

We're going through a time, though, when teachers feel worn out, frustrated. How do we get teachers engaged in building belonging?

 One of the things that engages teachers is feeling successful. They deserve high-quality curriculum so they don't have to go home after an exhausting day and try and lesson plan from scratch. And they deserve loving support when kids act out in class or struggle with behavioral expectations. There's nothing that drives people out of teaching faster than knowing that their classroom is disorderly.

How can administrators help with this?

 My colleagues and I are working on what we call a “dean of students” curriculum. When you get sent to someone because your behavior is counterproductive in school, what happens to you? The [administrators] have a limited set of tools in how they can do to respond. For 80 percent of the kids, the reasons are predictable. They were rude, disrespectful, and disruptive in the classroom. They did something on social media. They did something academically. They copied someone's work. We know the mistakes that kids make because we made them ourselves. If it's predictable, we ought to be prepared. There are lesson plans that we can use as teaching tools. And this can both solve problems around behavior and make the classroom a place where teachers are happy to be.

To go back to this notion of signaling belonging in the classroom, this can also make teachers feel connected. The joy you feel when there's a great discussion and everyone is connected in it, and kids are talking to each other and they treat each other with that respect. And they treat you, the teacher, with that respect.