Teacher Practice 2.3: Nurture a culture of trust and belonging

T 2.3 Nurture a culture of trust and belonging

Highlander Institute Spotlight Series


Educators nurture a culture of trust and belonging in a classroom by building caring connections with students and facilitating connections between peers. Students who feel a sense of acceptance, respect, and support in a learning environment are more likely to feel like they belong. These positive feelings are connected with higher levels of engagement, persistence, motivation and achievement. 

Without a sense of belonging, students struggle to focus on learning. “When we find ourselves in…an environment in which we feel like an outsider, we use our mental energy to monitor for threats, leaving fewer resources for higher cognitive processes” (Laldin, 2016).

Students from historically marginalized groups may encounter limiting beliefs about their identities and capabilities from dominant narratives held by society. In some cases, these students require more support from teachers to feel like they are a valued member of an academic community. Yet, in a 2017 survey of 528 educators, 41% said it was “challenging or very challenging” to make their students feel like they belong in the classroom, particularly when it comes to sexual orientation, gender, race, socioeconomic, ethnic, and disability identities (Blad, 2017).


  • Academic outcomes, such as motivation, dropout rates and academic performance, are correlated with feelings of belonging (Osterman, 2000).
  • Teacher trust [confidence in the benevolence, reliability, competence, and honesty of others] among students and parents significantly and positively affects student achievement across schools. Trust is a greater predictor for student achievement than socioeconomic status; “trust seems to foster a context for student achievement even in the face of poverty” (Goddard et al., 2001, p.14).
  • Black Americans are often stigmatized in academic settings, leading them to be aware of, and concerned with, circumstances that could threaten their sense of school belonging (Walton & Cohen, 2007).
  • Two classroom interventions delivered in middle school (one focused on beliefs about belonging, values affirmation, and growth mindset, and another focused exclusively on belonging) reduced discipline citations among boys of color by 57% for 7th and 8th graders and by 65% for 6th through 12th graders, respectively (Goyer et al., 2019).
  • College students’ self-reported level of school belonging in high school positively corresponded with their academic achievement in college (Pittman & Richmond, 2007).


Creating a sense of belonging for students involves learning about and valuing student identities, and integrating what you learn into the classroom to create comfortable, safe and meaningful learning environments. It is critical for teachers to be aware of how their expectation levels and unintentional biases impact student relationships, and actively work to overcome these potential beliefs when developing student connections.

Qualitative research demonstrates how teachers create environments of success and resilience for students who have historically floundered in school by opening up and sharing personal stories in class, and establishing and insisting upon high expectations (Bondy et al., 2007). 

Strategies that invite students to see themselves as capable people with enduring values promotes a strong sense of belonging at school. Ongoing journaling that prompts students (and teachers) to reflect on their identities and core values build confidence and shared experiences within a classroom. Example prompts:

  • What about you has been overlooked or undervalued? 
  • What strengths have you gained from your unique life experiences? 
  • How can you use these abilities to help you achieve your goals — and help the world?

In 2015, the Stanford Integrated Schools Project conducted a year-long study of 84 elementary classrooms and explored the concept of “identity safe” classrooms — where students felt a greater sense of belonging and more positive about school. Read this article to explore how to create an identity-safe classroom.  

In a 2021 EdWeek article, Greg Walton explores 3 ways to make a sense of belonging real and valuable:

  1. Acknowledge how difficult school transitions are for students. When teachers understand and normalize these anxieties, and share stories from their older students (as well as their own experiences), students feel validated. Leading structured conversations about belonging anxieties and how students and teachers can collaborate to make things better sets the stage for students to feel safe.
  2. Support students’ diverse identities and recognize them as sources of motivation and success (see the first strategy listed above).
  3. Be explicit about the purpose of school: it’s about learning and growth, not identifying “who is smart”. Consider making connections to our spotlight on academic mindset


Blad, E. (2017, June 20). Students’ sense of belonging at school is important. It starts with teachers. EducationWeek. https://www.edweek.org/leadership/students-sense-of-belonging-at-school-is-important-it-starts-with-teachers/2017/06

Bondy, E., Ross, D. D., Gallingane, C., & Hambacher, E. (2007). Creating environments of success and resilience: Culturally responsive classroom management and more. Urban Education, 42(4), 326–348. https://doi.org/10.1177/0042085907303406

Goddard, R.D., Tschannen-Moran, M., & Hoy, W.K. (2001). A Multilevel examination of the distribution and effects of teacher trust in students and parents in urban elementary schools. The Elementary School Journal, 102(1), 3-17. https://doi.org/10.1086/499690

Goyer, J.P., Cohen, G.L., Cook, J.E., Master, A., Apfel, N., Lee, W., Henderson, A.G., Reeves, S.L., Okonofua, J.A., Walton, G.M. (2019). Targeted identity-safety interventions cause lasting reductions in discipline citations among negatively stereotyped boys. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Attitudes and Social Cognition, 117(2), 229-259. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspa0000152 

Laldin, M. (2016, February 11). The Psychology of belonging (and why it matters). Learning & the Brain. https://www.learningandthebrain.com/blog/psychology-of-belonging/

Osterman, K. F. (2000). Students’ need for belonging in the school community. Review of Educational Research, 70(3), 323–367. https://doi.org/10.3102/00346543070003323

Pittman, L.D., & Richmond, A. (2007) Academic and psychological functioning in late adolescence: The Importance of school belonging, The Journal of Experimental Education, 75(4), 270-290. https://doi.org/10.3200/JEXE.75.4.270-292

Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2007). A question of belonging: Race, social fit, and achievement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(1), 82–96. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.92.1.82