Fostering a sense of belonging in children – advice from a team leader
A sense of belonging is the foundation for children’s wellbeing and learning, something which is affirmed in the Early Years Learning Framework – you can’t ‘be’ if you don’t belong, and it’s challenging to ‘become’ and reach your full potential if you don’t feel a true sense of belonging to the places you live, work and play in.
Earlier this month The Sector ran a piece from Community Child Care Association team leader, Renee Wright who shared her thoughts on creating a sense of belonging in educator teams. In this follow up piece Renee shares her thoughts on how best to support children to belong with these practical strategies.
Promote positive transitions
It’s essential to work with families to facilitate children’s successful arrivals. Why? Children’s arrivals that are rushed and not supported by empathetic and understanding adults, or by a rotation of adults, don’t set children up to be successful in early learning.
We want children to feel safe, participate and transition from home/school to your service as positively as possible. A few things to try:
Have the same educators complete the morning ‘arrival’ shift for an extended period. Three to six months is ideal.
Who’s the best fit?
Convenience and acknowledgement of other personal and family commitments are important but try and balance this with the ‘best person’ for the shift. It’s ok that some educators may find upset children and families a little too emotionally taxing long term so perhaps they may be more suitable for a late shift. Focus on the strengths of your team.
A welcome space and ritual
Have a connection space/ritual which you maintain during all arrivals so children know what to expect.
Avoid too many toys, which can be a distraction and prevent children from ‘being’.
It’s OK if children need to express themselves by crying or releasing energy in their body (by going for a sprint outside, for example) to reduce their stress levels and keep everyone safe.
Help children feel secure with a warm, open facial expression and by using language to name their feelings. Remember, to support children’s mental health we’ve got to name it to tame it.
Scripts to try
‘Lily, I’m so happy to see you.’
‘Zia, I’ve been waiting for you.’
‘Khanh, I know it’s hard to say goodbye to Mum. I’m here with you and will keep you safe.’
‘You look sad, Mia – you have tears in your eyes. Can Justin give you a cuddle?’
Create a warm and embracing space for children
Think of yourself as a host at a party and your job is to support others to connect. Acknowledge children’s arrivals, successes and contributions to play.
Scripts to try:
During circle time
‘Friends/my special people… Arial is here today [smile and acknowledge child] and something very special happened in Arial’s family. Arial, would you like to share…’
‘Let’s see who we have at the table. There’s [pause and encourage older children to identify themselves] Katie, Emina, Finley and Youssef. Katie and Youssef are eating tabbouleh wraps, and I can smell something very delicious coming from your lunch box, Emina…’ [continue by discussing the diversity of children’s food in a positive way and promoting curiosity about cultural origins, how food was made, flavours, etc.]
‘Jesse, I love the way you’ve painted the fish mouth with a tiny nose like a beak. Why don’t you share your painting with one of your friends and show them what you’ve been working on.’
Provide inclusive environments
Have a variety of experiences and consider how you foster belonging for all children, especially for those with less common play interests or an increased appetite for specific play.
For example, how does a child who has a high need for movement (hopping, running, skipping, climbing) manage to belong if tabletop activities are over-represented and outdoor play is time-limited or low levels of teacher engagement are provided (for example, supervision is prioritised over scaffolding Serena’s ball skills so she can play throw and catch with greater confidence)?
Incorporate children’s voices
Remember to get children involved in designing play spaces and evaluating. Be inspired by Rinaldi’s The One Hundred Languages of Children and encourage children to be artists, painters, sculptors, photographers…
Work with children to display, publish and present their creations – or not, if that’s their preference. For example, you might have a photo display where children hang pictures of things that make them happy, or a word cloud of situations that make them feel frustrated or angry.
Incorporating children’s voices authentically to support belonging means letting children represent themselves fully and not just the highlights!
Consider young children
When young children enter the world of your early learning service, they leave their families, homes, pets, routines and familiar ways of being. Don’t take their dummies and blankets if they need them to self-soothe or just ‘be’. Always be kind, make room for their personal belongings and advocate for their rights.
Partner with families
Get to know families and make it your mission to find out more about children’s home lives – routines, traditions, weekend adventures. Without really investing in getting to know families and the children we’ve been entrusted to care, there is a risk that supporting belonging may be reduced to generalist pedagogies as opposed to truly individual inclusive practices.
Showcase family photos and artefacts, and explore projects with children that focus on appreciation of their similarities and differences. You might incorporate a type of passport club, which focuses on the different food and meal rituals of children’s families or explores the diversity of homes children live in (e.g., apartment, unit, house, farm) and the people who occupy them (e.g., nuclear, same-sex, blended and/or extended family).
Show some love!
Yes, really – familiarise yourself with love rituals that can be facilitated with babies to enhance attachment, and with older children to promote wellbeing and group belonging.
Don’t underestimate the power of touch and song!
Remember, you want children’s inner voices to exclaim, ‘I am whole, I am worthy, I am Enough…’
The above adaptation has been drawn with permission from Renee’s piece in the Victorian Inclusion Agency publication Embrace. To access the winter issue of embrace, and read the original, please see here.