Community and belonging are some of humankind’s most important needs. We all need some kind of community, regardless of age, gender, race, or anything else. Having a community gives us a sense of belonging – the knowledge that our existence matters to other people.
We tend to think of community as something that families are responsible for – for example, we might think of parents taking their kids to their place of worship to connect with their spiritual community.
But your classroom may be the most important place in many children’s lives, and fostering a sense of community there can help them feel safe, loved, and important.
Here’s what it means to “build community” in a classroom setting.
Why Building a Classroom Community is Important in K-12 Settings
So what, exactly, is community? First and foremost, community is about relationships. It’s a place where people come together and feel like they belong. In the classroom setting, building community is about creating a space where every student feels safe; where students and teacher work together toward a common goal, and celebrate both collective and individual wins.
And research shows that fostering a sense of community in the classroom is extremely important. Not only does this help your students feel good about coming to school, but it also has a direct impact on their mental well-being and academic achievement.
Impacts of community on student mental health
Community, and having strong relationships at school, benefits students’ mental health.
Research has found that having a strong and safe relationship with at least one adult in their lives (like their teacher) helps kids to become more mentally resilient. This means that they’re more likely to be able to bounce back from the effects of trauma. And with 1 in 4 students going through a traumatic event by the time they turn 16, this is a critical benefit.
Studies have also found that having a strong sense of community is associated with better mental health throughout the lifespan (at any age). During the COVID-19 pandemic, a strong sense of community (and community helping) was linked to higher psychological well-being and a decreased risk of depression and anxiety.
Having a strong classroom community can help your students feel like there’s somewhere in the world where they belong; a place in the world where they can show up, and be accepted as, themselves. It can also provide them with safe people to turn to in times of crisis.
Impacts of community on learning
Having a strong classroom community also helps kids learn. Kids who have positive relationships with their teachers are more likely to be engaged in learning to be more motivated. Classroom community has also been linked to better cognitive learning, learning engagement, and learning outcomes.
This might be because in a classroom with a strong community, students feel like their voice matters. And when what they say matters, students may be more likely to reflect on material, engage in classroom discussions, and take an active role in their learning.
What Building Community Looks Like in K-12 Settings
No matter if you teach kindergarteners or high school students, there are ways to build a strong classroom community at every grade level. Although there are specific community-building activities you can use that are geared toward each age group, following these tips will help you create community in any classroom.
Traditionally, the teacher sets the rules, and the students follow them. There might be some classroom rules you can’t budge on, but co-creating classroom expectations together with your students could help you foster a strong community. By co-creating expectations together, you give your students a say in what would help them feel safe in the classroom.
Our students can be our biggest teachers. They could come up with classroom expectations and rules that you would have never thought of on your own.
Promote a positive environment
A solid classroom community should be positive – meaning it’s a space where everyone feels that their voice is heard, students recognize each other’s strengths, and there is an overall enthusiasm for learning.
One of the most important things you can do to promote a positive classroom environment is to model positive behavior yourself. For example, use praise often, and point out your students’ strengths. Listen mindfully when your students talk to you. Be outwardly excited about learning.
On top of modeling this behavior, you can also implement specific practices into your students’ daily schedule to promote a positive classroom community. For example, lead a daily gratitude practice. Every day, invite your students to write (or draw) about something, or someone, they feel grateful for.
Research shows that practicing gratitude can increase feelings of happiness and improve interpersonal relationships.
Build relationships with your students
Building strong relationships with your students is an incredibly important task for educators. As we mentioned before, having a strong relationship with their teacher can help your students cope with and bounce back from traumatic events in their lives.
But having strong relationships with your students can also help them in other ways, like helping them perform better academically, increasing their motivation for learning, and improving student behavior. This is even more true for kids who have behavioral-emotional problems.
To build strong relationships with your students, really listen – mindfully – when they talk to you. Pay attention to the details they tell you about their lives, and find ways to let you know that you remember. Attend extracurricular activities when you can, and give them lots of affirmation.
Encourage interactions between students
To build a truly meaningful classroom community, it’s not only your relationship with your students that matters – their relationships with each other matter, too.
How can you foster deeper and more supportive relationships between your students? Try building relationship-building activities into daily learning. For example, have students work in pairs, groups, or even as a whole class on assignments (rather than individually). Set a classroom goal, both short-term (daily goals) and long-term (yearly goals), that your students can work together towards and accomplish together.
This can help your students feel like must have each other’s backs, and be more invested in their classmates’ success (rather than just their own).
Bring Mindfulness to Your School With Calm Classroom
A school-based mindfulness program, like Calm Classroom, can strengthen your school community and help both students and teachers. Mindfulness can improve relationships, and make us more grateful for and connected to one another.