Last week, I had the opportunity to facilitate a professional development training session for a private high school staff on the general topic of cultivating student belonging. I’ve come to understand over the years in consulting with principals and other administrators that schools become healthy when two critical ingredients are present: connection and belonging. Those might sound synonymous, and some people use the terms as such, but they’re distinctly different dynamics that must be cultivated.
From each student's perspective, connection happens when a kid feels like they know the other people around them, peers and adults. When they know what makes their teacher tick, for example, or learn details about their personal lives and gain context about who they are outside their role as educators, they will feel more connected. Without it, they will go through the motions, avoid interactions, and remain invisible. Disconnection means they won’t learn as much, engage as much, or try very hard.
On the flip side, belonging is just as important but directionally different. From the student's perspective, belonging happens when the people around them actively pursue getting to know them. It’s a product of feeling valued, known, and appreciated. Similarly, when students feel like they belong, they learn, engage, and try harder.
But those outcomes aren’t the only reason to cultivate belonging. Kids need to be validated by their peers and the adults in their lives. They need a genuine sense of others interested in them, their ideas, interests, strengths, weaknesses, or faults.
Developmentally, adolescence is all about the pursuit of an authentic identity that resonates deeply within and accurately reflects externally what’s going on inside. Kids try on multiple personas throughout their teenage years to pursue their real identities.
Validation is the secret ingredient to helping them find the confidence to settle into their authentic selves.
* A quick caveat: validation is not blanket acceptance. Helpful validation is corrective just as much as it is affirming. Kids need accurate mirrors, which include direct feedback. It can look like someone scrunching up their face after they share an outlandish idea and saying, “Really?!? That doesn’t sound like you.” You might think of validation as helpful triangulation, where a kid receives feedback from multiple sources and angles to get to clarity more effectively. Kids don’t need us to affirm everything that comes from their mouths, nor would that be honest. Let’s face it, they sometimes have some absurd things to say, and they need other people to help them navigate to better ideas and expressions.
So what does it look like to help participate in healthy, productive validation as a parent, teacher, or another adult in a kid’s life?
It might not be flashy, but validating a kid can transform their life at the most strategic time.
For years we’ve been studying what a young person needs in order to transition into a healthy, thriving adulthood.
They're uncommon sense ideas, really.
Download this checklist and use it with your students (or kids).