Sunday, January 10, 2016

Belonging Doesnt Grow on Trees

I was thinking while avoiding the pile of washing (waiting patiently to be folded and put away) behind me on the spare bed: What would be the best topic to write about in 2016? I thought with the start of a new year, belonging was the most logical choice for me.


 For many people, big and small, 2016 will be filled with new beginnings...
  • Perhaps as a child starting their first day ever in a setting?
  • Perhaps a child starting at a new service, because they needed to leave their old one? A mix of familiarity and starting all over again.
  • Perhaps as a fresh bright-eyed graduate starting a new role?  
  • A student commencing studies?
  • Starting a new position at a new service – or even an old one?
  •  Volunteering or perhaps being on placement?
  • Beginning a leadership role? Team leader? Director/Manager? Educational Leader?

I am sure many of us are feeling quite lost. I know I did. In fact, although I’ve been at my current service for 9 months, I still don’t feel a sense of belonging. We all want to feel that we belong, and that brings us to this question:

How do we facilitate a sense of Belonging? For Children? For Colleagues? For Ourselves?

I don’t have all the answers. I’m just nutting out and putting down my thoughts on this thing that is often presented in the shape of a tree: A Belonging Tree.

A belonging tree isn’t going to do it. [I’d love to know who started this belonging tree thing] Putting a child’s name on a birthday chart so high up they can’t even see it isn’t going to facilitate a sense of belonging.  It especially won’t facilitate belonging if they can’t read or recognise their name or are so young their eyes cannot focus at that distance.  Family photos on a wall? Nope. Names on lockers, names on hats, children’s photos on walls etc – they don’t create belonging. They are merely a collection of strategies that together plus something else MAY help to foster a feeling a belonging. These strategies are not guarantees.  You cannot implement them and then walk away and say that your efforts at ‘belonging’ are done. Tick those boxes. No. Just no. It just doesn’t work that way.

I believe the most important thing we can do to facilitate belonging is through relationships. It is so critical that we respectfully connect with people as people:
  •        educator to child
  •         educator to parent
  •         educator to family
  •          educator to educator
  •          educator to leaders
  •          leader to educator

How did you feel?
  • How did you feel when there wasn’t a space for you to put your belongings?  Either as a child, a student, relief educator or employee?
  • When you weren’t greeted when you arrived?
  • When your name wasn’t spoken?
  • When your name was pronounced incorrectly, repeatedly?
  • When your name was overlooked on a list?
  • When your name was spelled incorrectly on your paintings, repeatedly?
  • When conversations around you didn’t include you?
  • When conversations in the staffroom excluded you and included topics you could never participate in?
  • When your position title: “floater” implies you don’t have any belonging to a space – you merely waft in and out with no connection?
  • When people had their backs to you?
  • When they didn’t bother to greet you and say good morning/afternoon/evening/night?
  • When an educator you were working with in a team calls up the staff person you were covering and tells them how much they miss them and can’t wait for them to return so things can get back to normal?
  • When colleagues don’t greet you much less even acknowledge that you are in the room?
  • When colleagues discuss their plans for spending time together but exclude other educators in the room?
  • When you see an educator giving consistent special attention to one particular child and not to you?
  • When you were crying because you felt so alone, and someone said “Stop crying, you’re fine.”
  • When you didn’t speak the language that everyone else was speaking?
  • When you were down low, and everyone towered over you?
  • When someone refused to give you a hug because someone else said “Put her down, or she’ll expect you to hold her all the time. She has to learn.”?  
  • When you’re frustrated and want to do something so badly and someone laughs at you and says “Oh he’s such a little girl!”
  • When you’re a girl and you hear someone use your gender as an insult?

I could really go on ... But you get the gist.

I feel horrible even writing those ... but the sad truth is they are all real. They exist. They existed in my past, I’ve experienced or witnessed them or colleagues have shared these stories with me. These moments may exist in someone else’s present and sadly they may exist for someone else in the near future.

Would you feel you a sense of belonging in those spaces?

Probably not. You might one moment, but not the next. 

So what do we do? How could we foster a feeling of belonging?
  • Smile reassuringly. Be genuine – not artificial.
  • Be welcoming. Greet people, big and small and say “Hello. Good morning.”
  • Make eye contact – see them. Let them know that you see them! They exist!  If they don’t want to make or maintain eye-contact don’t force them! That’s creepy. Don’t be creepy.
  • Speak their name. Make every effort to pronounce their name correctly. Ask their parents – write it down phonetically. Fo-Net-I-Call-Ee.  Learn it. It’s ok to make mistakes. Just don’t make mistakes for a year. Or change their name to suit you. That too is not cool.
  • Re-assure and acknowledge feelings: “I know that you are upset; I can see that you are feeling sad/scared/angry/happy/joyful.”
  • Be present and connect. “I am here to be with you. You are not alone.”

I think we give Belonging lip service. I think it’s something that is taken for granted. I think it’s a piece of plywood we have had  laser cut in the shape of a tree and tacked on a wall or written on a notice board. I think we just gloss over it because it’s compulsory. It's something we "have" to do in order to pass Assessment & Rating.

I challenge you - in 2016 to really think about your education spaces. Do you feel a sense of belonging? If yes, how and why? What contributes to those feelings? How could you embrace others in your space to support their sense of belonging? It doesn’t have to be ‘new’ colleagues, it could certainly be established team members. If you don’t feel a sense of belonging, how could you support yourself to feel a sense of belonging to your space? What changes would you need to make to manifest this for yourself? Would you need to speak up and voice your feelings or would modelling be enough? 

How does all this translate and have impact upon the children in our care? 

How important is Belonging to you, really, and what are YOU going to do?

Please put the trees down ... 

And no, don't pick up the bloody rainbow ...

Belonging is more than a tree ... 

It is more than a tokenistic display ... 

Belonging is a feeling. 

© Teacher's Ink. 2016


  1. Love it. Some excellent things for educators to reflect on here

    1. Thank You Nicole - Welcome to my Brain! <3

  2. Excellent reflections. The damn trees are something that have been bothering me for a while and this has provided some excellent reflection points to think on.

    1. Thank you letsee! I love trees - but belonging trees? The poor trees are probably wondering a) why they had to be murdered b) why they had to be reformed into a shadow of their former glory and c) have their identity taken away only to be given a new one!

      Damn I wish I thought of that sooner!


  3. Well said!!! Working casually for the first time in my 16yr career I am yet to feel valued, respected or that, as a professional educator, I belong in their environment.Even for a day. Yes these centres 'talk' about belonging but their interactions dont display it.

    1. I know - Its difficult isnt it? Look for belonging to and with the children <3

      They are really why you are there!

  4. Relationships are key to everything, not just belonging. Love your thoughts and agree 100%.

    1. Thank you! My next piece is reflecting on relationships! I hope to get myself sorted tomorrow to post it! :D

  5. You said you were going to be challenging and you have been. Fantastic reflection.

  6. Great post Gaby! But are you sure I can't pick up the rainbow...... ???? ;)

    1. Thanks Trisha! No. No. No Rainbows for you. No. Just No. Ok? No.

  7. What you have said is all so true. For some educators it does take practice but we do get their in the end. Terrific information to pass on to everyone. Thank You!

    1. Thank you Anonymous! It takes a great deal of practice. I'm forever practising!

  8. Fantastic I love it! I felt the disconnect as you asked the questions and i value belonging. I want a learning play space that is truly inclusive that makes you feel like you belong one where you can be you. I am going to use your blog as further research community learning thank you so much.

    1. Oh wow, Kerry, I'm so touched that you found it so valuable.

      Its so important to be ourselves!

      Thank you for taking the time to comment! <3

  9. Love your clarity on this topic.
    Some suggestions that follow on from yours . . .
    * when a child is distressed, let them cry or scream. If it is distressing to other children, take them elsewhere if possible or ask someone else (if possible) to stay near them, if you can't. Often it is OUR distress we seek to avoid when we say "Stop crying now".
    * respect their way of handling this stress - do they want to be left alone? held? Accept that, in order to cope, the child may need to reject you or avoid you for a period of time. This is a normal coping mechanism.
    * if a child needs to cling, make it as feasible as possible. e.g. "You can stay with me. You can sit beside me, lean on me, etc." Just being near you (not actually in your arms or on your lap) is very comforting for some children and allows you to continue doing what you need to do.

    1. Yes. Yes. YES. Its ok to have feelings and express them. I was comforting a child on the floor the other day - in a doorway. It took a while. But we got their. He found his peace and we then went and looked at the snails and my fish in our foyer. He helped me feed them and then spent the rest of the morning being my friend and helper. I took the time to acknowledge him. I did try to offer him a cuddle - but despite our friendship he refused. So we sat together on the floor. I didnt think it was ok to leave him alone crying.

      I think you've made some fabulous points. Thank you for extending on this with us!


  10. In Ontario, we have a document called "How Does Learning Happen". Belonging is one of the four foundations.... I think your article is brilliant, for you address many issues I face as a ECE......thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    1. I am definitely going to be doing some googling Anna Marie! If there is anything you think I should be paying attention to please post a link or two or three for me! <3

  11. As a relief teacher, I can relate to your list How did you feel. Happily there are two places that I go to that I feel I really belong and this is because of the staff and families at these services

    1. Its fabulous you have two spaces that embrace you. Sometimes we don't fit in other space and I think that is ok sometimes as well. We can't belong everywhere! Yet we do need to make a living! Its a tough balance. With those other less-belonging spaces - try and belong with and to the children - They're always happy to connect even when our colleagues challenge us. <3

      Thank you for commenting :D

  12. This comment has been removed by the author.

  13. I enjoyed reading what you wrote and definitely related to the points you made either personally experiencing some myself or hearing/seeing colleagues in those situations....quite confronting when you reflect that YOU might have treated a child like that...I still like to have an aesthetically beautiful room...inviting for children, families and staff...I may not have a tree but I still display family photos...not to get brownie points for assessment but for the children. are a wonderful tool for starting conversation and it can be a real comfort for children to see and touch photos of their family...I believe anyway...I will definitely be excited to read more of your thoughts...thanks :-)

    1. To me - what you are doing is authentic. It's not to tick boxes or make the compliance monkeys happy. Its to make genuine connections with others. And photos are a brilliant way of doing this! I too love a beautiful learning space ... One of my great loves! Interior and Exterior design! I think our spaces are critical in belonging as well. They nurture us!

  14. Thank you, so many valuable valuable points, is it OK to print for a team discussion? An sure this will inspire a new, no fresh, outlook on some practices and most definitely put a thinking cap on some. Very inspiring.

  15. Thank you, so many valuable valuable points, is it OK to print for a team discussion? An sure this will inspire a new, no fresh, outlook on some practices and most definitely put a thinking cap on some. Very inspiring.

  16. Thanks for sharing, such a great read, if it OK to share at a team meeting? Might be a great way to reflect, review, renew, refresh, revitalize.

    1. Please do! I write for myself but I also hope that it can be useful for others in one way or another! Print away! <3