Building Strong Classroom Communities in Kindergarten, Elementary, Middle, and High School
Like food, water, and shelter, feeling a sense of community and group belonging is a fundamental human need that enables us to thrive at every age. Learn what the research says about the value of building classroom community and how you can intentionally nurture a sense of belonging for your kindergarten, elementary, middle, and high school students.
Why is building a classroom community important?
As inherently social creatures, humans of all ages depend on cooperation and community to meet our basic needs and support our unique expressions of health, success, connection, and meaning. Along with helping to procure life-giving resources, experiencing a sense of belonging in social relationships supports our cognitive, emotional, and behavioral development and wellbeing. In fact, social exclusion is associated with the neural circuitry and feelings of distress that accompany physical pain, while being a member of multiple social groups has been shown to support one’s overall health and self-esteem.
With abundant opportunities for collaboration and connection, building an intentional classroom community can help students feel valued and included while promoting the practice of the social and communication skills that can help them build and maintain diverse social relationships and community throughout their lives.
5 Tactics for Building Classroom Community in Kindergarten and Elementary School
1. Create a community gallery of student photos.
From pop culture to congress, children (and adults) benefit from seeing themselves and their experiences reflected in the world around them. To help your students feel that they and all of their fellow students are equally represented, invite parents and caregivers to send in photos of students and their families and create a gallery of student photos and descriptions.
2. Lead compliment circles.
Genuinely giving and graciously receiving compliments fosters a sense of appreciation and connection, can uplift the giver and receiver equally, and may even help boost learning new motor skills and behaviors. Try holding regular Compliment Circles, where each student has the opportunity to randomly draw a name and offer a compliment to their fellow student.
3. Add cozy touches.
Along with supporting a welcoming environment, intentionally nurturing the comfort and feeling of “home” can help your students feel secure to learn, explore, and engage with their fellow students. Try creating cozy nooks for students to play and read, integrating soft toys and stuffed animals, hanging art, laying rugs, and bringing nature inside with a fish tank or houseplants.
4. Grow a ‘Gratitude Tree’.
For adults and children alike, the practice of gratitude is a boon to our overall wellbeing. Gratitude helps us develop resilience, foster connection, share appreciation, improve sleep, and lift our self-esteem. Using a tree branch for a 3D effect, help students identify and write down one thing they are grateful for each week on a paper ‘leaf’ and watch the gratitude tree grow as you attach the leaves with staples or string.
5. Engage with families.
From greeting parents at morning drop-off to sending out email newsletters, engaging with your students’ families can help foster a broader sense of security, integration, and community. Along with learning parent and caregiver names, try sending out an occasional email update with a family activity or a success story of how your students are fostering a vibrant classroom community.
5 Tactics for Building Classroom Community in Middle School
1. Create a gallery of student perspectives on community.
To support each student being witnessed and to create the opportunity to engage with multiple perspectives, ask your middle school students to write down “what does community mean to you?” or “how does belonging feel?” and create a gallery that artfully displays your students’ answers, named or anonymously.
2. Facilitate class meetings.
Belonging is being seen and heard, as much as seeing and hearing others. During a class meeting, you can offer questions for students to, without naming names, answer about what’s working for them and where they see areas of improvement to build a stronger community in the classroom, school, and the city or town they live in.
3. Add empathy training.
Along with helping students to identify their own emotions, empathy training can help foster community by teaching students to relate to what their classmates, historical figures, or fictional characters may be thinking or feeling. Consider adding reflective journaling activities, such as asking students to consider another’s point of view and what they would have done if they were in that person’s shoes.
4. Have students create signage on desired classroom norms.
Like the inclusivity and social justice signs that now populate many yards and windows nationwide, guide your students to work in teams to establish classroom values and represent them for visual display.
5. Encourage high-fives or fist bumps.
Though we all may have fallen out of the habit following COVID-19, brief moments of appropriate touch--like a handshake or hug--can help your students feel, quite literally, connected. At the start of each term or at the beginning of the week, encourage your students to go around, say “good morning” or offer a compliment, and give each other a respectful high-five or fist bump.
5 Tactics for Building Classroom Community in High School
1. Start each week with a short bonding activity.
While relationships are important for students of all ages, social bonding is especially relevant for adolescents as they gradually transition toward greater autonomy. To support high school students’ sense of budding independence and peer community, alternate between facilitating discussions on culturally relevant topics and fun, light-hearted icebreaker activities.
2. Create a container for shout-outs.
Receiving genuine praise for positive behaviors from one’s peers can be validating and uplifting for the giver and receiver alike, along with other students in the class. At the end of class or the end of the week, ask your students to write or share a shout-out to celebrate actions that helped make them feel heard, supported, accepted, or uplifted by their fellow classmates.
3. Make Venn diagrams of unique and shared traits.
Have you ever felt like you’re your own island in a sea of people? While celebrating individual experiences and assets can be empowering, it can also make any one of us feel uncomfortably different or isolated. To celebrate both individual and shared experiences, ask students to pair up and make Venn diagrams of what makes them unique and also what they share, posting their drawings on the wall or going around to present to the group.
4. Engage students on the shared experience of stress and self-care.
One of the most difficult things about stress is that we often face it alone, without the tools to hold and work with and through it. To give students the chance to be transparent about stress and share their tools for self-soothing, ask your students to write down what’s stressing them out or their favorite ways to feel less stressed. Have your students crumple up their answers and playfully toss them around the room, like a mock snowball fight. After a few timed minutes, have students pick up one paper each, read the answers of their peers aloud, and offer a brief reflection or insight.
5. Teach and practice Ho’oponopono.
Along with creating the opportunity to teach cultural appreciation (versus cultural appropriation) and the history of Hawaiian people and culture, the practice of Ho’oponopono can help foster a safe, open, inclusive, and transparent classroom community. At the end of the week, ask your students to circle up and respond to “I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you. I love you.” Ask your students to offer apologies and ask for forgiveness, share gratitude for actions of kindness and collaboration, and offer compliments for what they appreciate about each other.