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Equity in Education Part V: Belonging is Essential to Student Success

Updated: May 26, 2021

By Kaela Farrise, CEI Program Assistant, Innovation & Research Support

This is the fifth part of the special series Equity in Education.

The true purpose of education is something that has been debated for hundreds of years without one ultimate conclusion—but one expert, Dr. Yvette Jackson, will tell you the purpose is to support students in reaching their full potential. Dr. Jackson, who is an internationally recognized leader in assessing the learning potential of disenfranchised urban students, participated in a webinar last summer that is even more meaningful in this moment where she gave teachers and school administrators the keys to success (Center for Educational Improvement, 2019). As teachers and students return to schooling this fall, these lessons have taken on even greater importance and urgency.

Helping All Students Reach for the Stars

When students feel safe and comfortable in the classroom, it sets a foundation for them to self-actualize—or reach their full potential—when other conditions are met. One of the key components in achieving a safe and comfortable environment is fostering a sense of belonging. Dr. Jackson believes that teachers need to start the conversation on belonging by getting students to think about the ways in which they are alike and what they have in common. Identifying commonalities makes it possible for students to recognize the value that others bring to the group. That’s not to say that differences are not important, however. Dr. Jackson goes on to say that once commonalities are established, differences can be held up as gifts to the group and diversity can be celebrated as the vehicle through which real creativity and innovation can be achieved. In this way, students come to feel seen and believe in their own abilities.

What Comes After the Conversation

While these early conversations lay the foundation for a sense of belonging, there is continuing work to be done for students and teachers. Dr. Jackson outlines three things that teachers must continually do to push young people to reach their full potential. She uses the acronym AIM to help teachers remember:

Affirm students’ strengths and sense of belonging.

Inspire students to set goals and be self-determined.

Mediate students through the idea of personal agency and having something to contribute.

Dr. Jackson says that through the implementation of these principles, the goal for teachers is to have all students who come up against failure say to themselves “I haven’t got this yet,” implying that they can conquer the task or lesson eventually with more work. This idea is supported by the research of Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck and her work with fixed versus growth mindsets. A fixed mindset says “I can’t do this,” while a growth mindset says “I can’t do it yet.” This growth mindset has even been found to help buffer against the negative impacts of poverty on academic achievement (Claro, Paunesku & Dweck, 2016). Teaching a growth mindset will be even more important for teachers as students return to physical schooling and teachers work to fill in core content that may have been missed while students were distance learning or disconnected from school entirely.

Implementation Takes Time

To help develop a growth mindset and foster those conversations that spark belonging in the classroom, teachers need to understand each student’s unique profile. Dr. Jackson suggests teachers take time—even the whole first month of school—to determine what a student’s strengths and interests are. This can be done by giving students different learning experiences to get a good sense of how they take in information and how they like to demonstrate knowledge. Ultimately, the learning will happen as long as students continue to believe in their own abilities and have the support they need to succeed. When teachers create classroom environments—whether virtual, in vivo, or hybrid–where all students feel capable, seen, and supported, every student can be successful.


Center for Educational Improvement. (2019, Aug. 17). 8/15 webinar part one: Equity for all students.

Claro, S., Paunesku, D. and Dweck, C. (2016). Mindset tempers effects of poverty on achievement. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(31) 8664-8668.

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