What it is and why it matters
Belonging is a heavy word, complex and fraught with layers.
Intuitively, it’s associated with acceptance in a group—an antidote to loneliness and rejection. The desire to belong is rooted in our evolutionary history, when our ancestors relied on group living for hunting, food gathering, and safety; in other words, for their very survival. It’s a primal craving so hard-wired in our brains that the humanist Abraham Maslow placed “love and belonging” halfway up the hierarchy of basic human needs, a prerequisite to living up to one’s full potential.
But does belonging to one group mean breaking away from another? Is one excluded when another belongs? Does belonging mean fitting in by changing who you are? In schools, the term has become a buzzword because a growing body of research shows belonging contributes to academic success, peer bonding, and better emotional and physical health. Still, as a concept, belonging is tough to measure.
“That’s why we’ve been working hard to define what belonging means to us at GDS, as individuals and as a community,” said Marlo Thomas, the School’s director of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). “We’re grappling with two truths. The diversity in our School lends itself to more inclusivity, more breadth and depth of cultural awareness. But it also presents more opportunities for conflict because that’s what happens when more people come into a space together. Now, our values have more tension points.”
Adding to the tension are the alarming trends in mental health among youth. One in three high school students nationwide has persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, a 40 percent jump from 2009 to 2019, according to federal statistics. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the mental health crisis, prompting U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murphy to issue a call to action, in which he emphasized the role schools can play in helping students find “a sense of purpose, fulfillment, and belonging.”
At GDS, belonging has been a pillar of the School’s mission since it opened its doors in 1945, an integrated institution in a city that kept its public schools segregated. But GDS is not immune to the political and social strife outside its doors, which is why it’s been doubling down on its effort to further infuse belonging into its culture.
The approach makes sense because any cognitive energy that kids spend feeling uncomfortable or out of place at school comes at the expense of their classroom performance, said Bobby Asher, director of student life and wellness at GDS. “We want kids to feel that school is home,” Bobby said. “Belonging is bigger than ‘nobody makes fun of me.’ It’s feeling ownership, equal, positioned in space, empowered.”
Fun? What a strange concept
By several measures, GDS is making progress on all those fronts.
Our students consistently report a very high “sense of belonging” on average
compared to the hundreds of other schools surveyed by Challenge Success, a nonprofit school reform organization affiliated with Stanford University. The results show very little variation when the data are disaggregated by race and gender. The most recent 2021 survey ranked GDS on the high end of the range compared to schools of similar size and type nationwide, said Sarah Miles, research director at Challenge Success.
The results showed that roughly two-thirds of GDS High School and Middle School students somewhat or strongly agree that they “feel accepted” at the School and that “other students like me the way I am.” In describing GDS, “fun” and “caring and welcoming” were among the top three terms cited by students in both divisions.
Drew Schrader, a school program manager at Challenge Success, said he rarely sees “fun” as a top descriptor among high school students in particular and notes that “fun” and “belonging” are mutually reinforcing concepts. “We never have fun in a place where we feel we don’t belong, or that we’re a bad match, or that we’re being judged,” Schrader said. “We call fun the ‘tailwind.’ You can have interesting, meaningful, hard work. But wow, doesn’t it make everything easier if it’s fun?”
A group of GDS students reached similar conclusions after they spent the 2021-22 school year gauging the High School’s culture of belonging. In a paper presented to the School’s leadership team, the group concluded that GDS does a great overall job of making community members feel welcomed and appreciated, though new students entering 9th grade felt less integrated than students who had been attending GDS for years.
“We had a few suggestions of what we could do to kind of help the freshmen out a little bit,” said Deepa Bhargava ’23, one of the students involved in the research, which took place in an Upper Level class called Youth-led Participatory Action Research (YPAR). “But seeing that a lot of students in 10th, 11th, and 12th grades felt they belonged means that in time, these freshmen hopefully will feel the same way when they become more familiar with the teachers, their classmates, and the building.”
Deepa speaks from experience. Having joined GDS in first grade, she’s grown to appreciate the School’s rituals and traditions. Calling teachers by their first names, she said, makes them feel more accessible to her. She loves that Head of School Russell Shaw knows everyone by name and greets students at the door most mornings. And she’s deeply bonded with her varsity volleyball teammates and her co-leaders on the Environmental Task Force, which hosted the school’s first-ever EcoMarket Day in spring.
“I’m passionate about sustainability, and at GDS, I found my space with a niche of students who feel the same way I do,” Deepa said. “Doing this event with them is one of the reasons I feel I belong here.”
Affinity Groups: Why it’s not all about making friends
Finding a “niche” is the key. Research shows that simply having friends or being surrounded by people is not enough to foster self-esteem and a sense of belonging. Far more important is being part of a group with people with whom you identify, as in people who are “psychologically important and internalized as part of social identity,” according to a 2015 study published in PlosOne.
Jacqueline Elna Metzger ’23 instinctively understood the need for that kind of engagement in 2020. The pandemic had shut down in-person schooling. The police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd had riveted the nation. And Black GDS students started posting on social media about incidents in which they felt devalued at the School, where 48 percent of the student body and 47 percent of faculty and staff identify as people of color.
Even while the School began digging into a proper organizational response to these events, Jacqueline and some of her friends were inspired to create CROWNS, an affinity group for GDS female students who identify as Black, African American, and/or of African descent. “We really wanted a space where we could talk comfortably about experiences that are specific to being Black and female,” said Jacqueline, whose mother is from Sierra Leone. “I named it CROWNS because Black women’s hair is so politicized. It’s one thing that connects all women who identify as Black.”
The group discussed how it feels when other people touch their hair, even when the gesture is well-intentioned. They often talk about colorism or skin-tone discrimination that favors light skin over dark skin in the same racial or ethnic group, especially among women. They notice how so many Black women are murdered or go missing without much attention.
Having this outlet not only offers her some psychic relief but also raises social awareness schoolwide, Jacqueline said. “We’ll leave a meeting and talk to our friends who are not Black, who are not female, about the things we’ve discussed, and they’re all curious and open to listening,” she said. “Even if it’s a casual conversation at lunch, people outside of the affinity group still get something out of what we’re doing and talking about.”
Words Hurt and Ache
The emotional distress, or “social pain,” brought on by social rejection and exclusion has become a growing area of neuroscientific research. One study shows that acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol) can help reduce social pain the same way it does physical pain because both types of suffering are activated in the same region of the brain. Other research concludes that prolonged exposure to racial offenses can lead to headaches, chest pain, and other physical reactions. So basically, words really do hurt.
In his graduation speech to the Class of 2022, Miles Huh said that the GDS community “offered the safety for me to develop my own identity and become comfortable in my own skin,” and he credited that in part to his membership in AAA, the Asian American affinity group.
Miles, who is of Chinese and Korean descent, said that he had a “complicated relationship with race” prior to joining GDS in 9th grade. His middle school had few Asian Americans, and he always felt that his culture was the butt of lots of jokes. Classmates spoke in stereotypical Asian accents around him, asked him if he eats dogs and cats, and questioned whether his vision was impaired, Miles said more recently.
“You give up on correcting people. I felt defeated,” Miles said. “I was afraid of confrontation, so I made excuses for them. … I’m not proud to say this, but I’d sometimes laugh along or do the voice. It was easier than saying: ‘Hey, that’s not cool.’”
But at GDS, students promoted self-advocacy, especially his older peers in AAA, who acted as mentors. They spoke about hot-button issues, such as the legacy of the Korean-Black conflict in the wake of the 1992 L.A. riots and the “Tiger Mom” narrative. At School, he felt he could sit or talk to anyone without fear of ostracism. He even felt welcomed into the theater community, knowing full well he wasn’t a great actor. “I wasn’t dealing with 64 microaggressions anymore,” Miles said. “That worry lifted off of me and allowed me to grow into the person that I am now.”
The summer after his freshman year, Miles finally spoke up. He was volunteering at a camp, where some of the 8-year-olds he was overseeing would make “squinty eyes” and speak with an accent when they saw him. “Time at GDS gave me the voice to say: ‘It’s not okay,’” Miles said.
Identity and Social-Emotional Skills Go Hand-In-Hand
Starting this school year, a new provision in the GDS enrollment contract mandates that parents and students support the School’s effort to actively work against racism, hatred, oppression, and bigotry.
GDS also initiated a third-party audit of its DEI practices that led to immediate actions, including a commitment to integrate a multi-year DEI vision into the School’s strategic planning starting this year. In addition, the School is adopting restorative practices to resolve conflicts and repair relationships. It’s gathering data to gain insights into the community’s vital DEI indicators, such as student achievement, incident reporting, and hiring/retention. And it’s monitoring its progress on a dashboard that’s currently being developed. All of these steps are part of a broader anti-racist initiative underway at the School.
At the granular level, the focus on the intersection between belonging and identity is being bolstered with a health education curriculum steeped in SEL, also known as social-emotional learning. SEL focuses on developing self-awareness, regulating emotions, and building interpersonal skills.
“DEI and SEL go hand in hand,” said Bessie Oster, a health education consultant working with GDS. “If we’re talking about body image, are we talking about White beauty standards? If we’re talking about nutrition, what does that mean in different cultures? What does it mean in terms of socioeconomic status?” If pricey organic food is presented as a marker of healthful eating, she said, that might not feel right for some kids and erode their sense of belonging in the class.
Caitlin Hutcheon, GDS HS health and wellness teacher, said that when she’s teaching students about stress, she delves into how racism plays a role. Her lessons on intimacy include talks about healthy LGBTQ+ relationships. “And I’m always having them think about: If you’re in an unhealthy relationship, or suffering from addiction or suicidal ideation, which adult will you go to about it?” Caitlin said.
What Students Bring to Class
Challenge Success, the Stanford University affiliate, reported that more than 70 percent of GDS students said they have an adult they can go to at school if they have a problem. In a recent meeting with faculty and staff, Head of School Russell Shaw said the results underscore the awesome influence educators wield in students’ lives.
“Each student arrives in the classroom with their own story. This story, shaped by life experience, is sometimes rich and joyful and sometimes deeply painful,” Russell said. “A student’s story informs how they show up each day, even when it’s a story of which they’re not completely conscious. Our job as educators is to take time to know our students and their stories. When we do, they feel it, and they are more likely to thrive.”
Marlo, the DEI director, said that it’s incumbent on educators to do the same kind of self-reflection that we’re asking students to do about their identities and unintended biases. Speaking at an orientation for new faculty and staff, Marlo urged everyone to think about their own personal journeys as students, when or if they ever saw reflections of themselves at school, and whether they found emotional and psychological safety there.
“We remember the teachers we loved, and we remember the teachers who we didn’t like so much,” Marlo said. “And that’s for good reason.”
High School learning specialist Meredith Chase-Mitchell remembers her school days in Brooklyn, NY. The daughter of two Caribbean immigrants, she moved to the U.S. with her parents. Meredith remembers placing her home-packed lunch on her lap, trying to hide it from her classmates in the cafeteria. She wanted to toss the mango and fresh carrot juice and replace it with pizza or anything that would help her fit in.
It wasn’t until she joined a Black sorority in her predominantly white college that she connected with other girls whose parents came from other countries and whose moms had accents. “Being in that sorority taught me that you have to love yourself before you can branch out and fully embrace others,” she said. Now, as faculty advisor to CROWNS, she’s gratified to see that the members are learning that lesson earlier than she ever did.
Meredith likes to think it’s because GDS practices and reminds students of the values it cherishes: kindness, activism, antiracism, and self-advocacy. “But young people are hard to read,” she added. “Are they all getting it?”
Jacqueline said she does. She remembers how, during her sophomore year, GDS gave her a “collective hug” when her mother died of cancer. Her math teacher would make sure she got her lunch. Her theater friends dedicated that year’s show to her mother. A GDS couple now acts as her guardians. Jacqueline said she wants to pay that kindness forward through CROWNS and her new role as GDS Staff-Student Council president.
“I really want to make sure that everyone at this School understands that nobody has to leave key parts of their identity at the door to fit in,” Jacqueline said. “In the end, that’s what belonging really means.”
- High School
- Lower School
- Middle School