It’s a universal human need. When we feel like we belong, we feel safe to be who we truly are—or who we truly want to become. We feel secure, seen and valued. We feel at home.
At Camp Fire, we design our programs to develop a sense of belonging. It’s one of the seven essential skills and mindsets we measure as part of our #CampFireJourney. We want every young person who participates in Camp Fire to leave knowing they belong—at Camp Fire and in the wider world.
Why? Belonging builds healthy communities. Kids who feel secure in their belonging help others know they belong, too. When young people belong, they help create caring environments that encourage and include others as well.
Bonus: Belonging has also been shown to improve school behavior and engagement. Researchers who study belonging in the classroom say that students who are confident they belong “are more likely to persevere in the face of difficulty and do better in school.”
In short, kids who belong are kids who thrive. So what can we do to help foster kids’ sense of belonging? Let’s ask an expert.
Mecole Darden is Diamond Hill Station’s site director. Part of Camp Fire First Texas, Diamond Hill Station offers after-school programs and all-day programs during holiday breaks and the summer season. Kids ages 4 to 12 from five different schools come to Diamond Hill Station for its spark-based programming.
“It’s very important to feel part of a group,” Mecole says. “Kids need to feel ‘I have somewhere I belong.’ “I’m safe here.’ ‘Anything I need to say, I can say. I can express myself.’”
Start with a Warm Welcome
At Diamond Hill Station, belonging starts the moment kids walk through the door. Mecole says that Diamond Hill Station practices what they call the “Warm Welcome.” Every child is welcomed by name with their greeting of choice as they walk through the door. The kids participate, too: Being a greeter is one of the jobs children can select from the daily job board. “It’s the first thing we do to create a community here,” explains Mecole.
Build Trust with Routines
Diamond Hill Station has a strong, consistent routine. From the Warm Welcome to bathroom breaks, snacktime and how they transition between activities—the schedule is stable and repeatable. Children may do different jobs and have different roles each day, but the routine remains the same. There’s no doubt about the schedule and what part they need to play to keep it going.
“It’s calming for them to know what’s going to happen next,” Mecole says. “They know what the expectations are, and it helps them regulate their own behavior.”
Mastering the routine also give children a sense of ownership. When new children come into the program, the old pros are ready and willing to teach them the ropes.
“That’s something they really do naturally after being there for a while and seeing the consistency,” says Mecole. “Whenever a new kid comes in, a lot of kids take it upon themselves to pull them in and tell them about the expectations.”
Give Them Agency
Having a robust routine doesn’t mean children can’t think for themselves. From selecting their preferred greetings to coming up with their unique daily commitments, children at Diamond Hill Station learn to make choices for themselves.
These lessons extend to rule-following as well: Instead of a long list of guidelines, Diamond Hill Station operates with a few very simple expectations, like “use walking feet,” “respect others,” and “have fun.” Children have to learn to interpret those expectations and help each other keep them. Rather than “tattling,” they are encouraged to remind one another about the expectations and try to work out conflicts on their own before bringing them to an adult.
Kids who have a responsibility in creating a positive environment are building belonging for themselves and others.
Mecole emphasizes how she and her staff communicate in a way that includes and encourages, not shames.
For example, later in the day, the group comes together to reflect on how their daily commitments are going. Children measure their progress with a thumbs up if it’s going well, thumbs sideways if they are having some problems, and thumbs down if it’s really not working.
“We teach them that not having a good day isn’t a shaming thing,” says Mecole. “We talk about what having a bad day means: It just means you get to try again the next day.”
Mecole has seen the impact of this approach, as children learn they won’t be shamed for making mistakes, expressing themselves or simply having different answers or ideas than their friends. They don’t have to constantly doubt their belonging.
“It gives them huge confidence,” says Mecole. “I’ve seen children enter the program in a shell, but after being there a year, they have a voice. They are confident. They are alert. Everything flourishes.”
Create Unifying Traditions
Finally, don’t underestimate the power of traditions to bind a group together. These traditions don’t have to be elaborate; they just have to be shared.
Mecole uses a simple repeat-after-me chant to bring the group together at the start of each session. “We are the station, the Diamond Hill Station!” she sings. “It’s what we use to unite us every day.”
“What We Know About Belonging from Scientific Research,” by Carissa Romero. The Mindset Scholars Network. The Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. September 2015.