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Listening to Black Girls to Cultivate Belonging in Middle and High School

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A Black young teenage girl walks through a school hallway wearing and backpack and looking back with a smile. Her friends walk a few feet ahead of her.
 (Drazen Zigic/iStock)

Brooke Harris-Thomas developed self-confidence and an interest in math at an early age, thanks to encouragement from her dad, who was a math teacher. Those early education experiences not only shaped her as a young student but later in life as a special education teacher in math support and a researcher. Harris-Thomas, who is a postdoctoral research fellow at Purdue University, studies Black girlhood, math and belonging. She said that interpersonal relationships are important in affirming who you are and that belonging is not only a psychological experience, but a physical one too. Harris-Thomas’s lasting question is: “How do we let students’ interest drive us?” when creating places of belonging in schools. 

Belonging matters at all ages, and especially as students enter middle and high school – times when their changing brains are acutely influenced by positive and negative emotions. Teens and tweens crave connection, and school is one of their primary sites for social interaction. According to Marketa Burnett, a developmental psychologist at University of Connecticut, cultivating belonging in an educational environment “needs to be an entire school effort.” Burnett’s work explores how educators and communities can support Black girls’ development holistically.

Curriculum, school policies, classroom design, interactions with teachers, and relationships with classmates can all add to or subtract from belonging in schools. When Black girls encounter bias in any of those domains, it can reduce their sense of belonging and hurt their academic identities. That’s why both Harris-Thomas and Burnett emphasized the need to listen to Black girls when assessing how to create belonging in a school setting. According to Harris-Thomas, this honors intersectional identities. In her survey research, Black girls in middle and high school said that seeing friends at school, teachers knowing their names, and getting opportunities to help peers and contribute to their school were all things that positively influenced their sense of belonging.

Why belonging matters and what gets in the way

According to Harris-Thomas, building interpersonal relationships in the school environment is essential to affirming students’ identities. Harris-Thomas is careful not to make generalizations about what will create belonging for all students of a certain identity. “Every Black girl is different,” she said. But there are some commonalities in the experiences that diminish belonging. “If I’m having a negative interaction with my peers, my teachers are not treating me very well, I don’t have that sense of closeness, my sense of belonging likely decreases in that space as well,” Harris-Thomas said. Because belonging is a basic human need as well as a psychological experience, when belonging is absent, it can weigh heavily on students’ cognitive load. “And wrestling with that takes cognitive resources away from [their] academics,” said Harris-Thomas. “It’s a lot to ask.”

According to Harris-Thomas, when Black girls receive negative messages based on preconceived stereotypes, particularly in the field of math, it can decrease their sense of belonging. When surveying Black girls in grades six to 12 about their school experiences, Burnett found that “they’re aware of racism, they’re aware of sexism, they’re aware of the fact that these things happen because [they are] Black girls.” The girls pointed out experiences that they’d had as early as elementary school. “They talked about stereotypes that were specific to being Black, but also stereotypes specific to being a Black girl,” said Burnett. The girls reported that they heard these stereotypes from their peers, classmates and teachers. 

What educators can do

To begin thinking about how to cultivate belonging among students, Harris-Thomas said teachers can take a hard look at the school environment and messaging. She said it’s important that teachers ask Black girls what belonging means to them. Being able to access help from a teacher or from peers can contribute to creating those safe spaces. Such support acts as “a stepping stone to feeling that sense of competence, which sometimes hinder students from feeling belonging or not,” she said.


While the reasons students may not feel like they belong may differ, establishing a sense of belonging early and often is key, said Burnett. “It’s in our discipline policies. It’s in how we enforce dress code. It’s in how we talk to students, how we think about recommending them for advanced courses,” she said.

Many of the Black girls that Harris-Thomas worked with during her research enjoyed group work and interactive work. Especially when it comes to math, Harris-Thomas pointed out that small group work gives students the opportunity to re-explain concepts or ideas to their peers. This allows students to be supportive of their peers and ultimately enhances their sense of belonging. “It just becomes a more embodied experience,” Harris-Thomas said. 

Students also welcomed the opportunity to receive help from educators in a way that is flexible. If a student lacks a sense of belonging and doesn’t feel comfortable to raise their hand in a large group, they may benefit from their teacher offering support in smaller group settings or allowing students to stay back and ask individual questions for five minutes after a lesson.

Harris-Thomas said that it’s important to give adolescents time and space to develop their identities, especially for Black girls, because “there’s a sense in which society wants to make them adults quicker.” If the perceived age of a student is inflated, an educator’s expectations can differ “and then may not be developmentally appropriate,” Harris-Thomas said. This can lead to harsher discipline for Black girls. “Allowing Black girls to be girls, to make mistakes,” and not misinterpreting their energy and joy contributes to their sense of belonging in a school environment, said Harris-Thomas. 

Harris-Thomas also encourages educators to connect with their students by sharing appropriate information about their own lives. This can create a healthy sense of connection between students and educators and helps to let the student know that their teacher is interested in their lives.

Teachers can also encourage goal-oriented thinking by asking Black girls about their future education plans and underscoring the brilliance that already exists in this student population, Burnett said. She hopes that “Black girls see themselves as beautiful and brilliant and worthy,” and that they don’t feel that there are qualifications they must meet for their intersecting identities. “A lot of times people tell [Black girls] how they’re supposed to feel or how they’re supposed to act, or what they’re supposed to want or desire for themselves,” but “we should all take a step back and just listen first,” said Burnett.

According to Burnett, culturally affirming training for educators can go a long way toward helping teachers create spaces for belonging in a school setting. Educators can begin to recognize cultural practices and traditions in the classroom, going beyond the limited scope of Black History Month in February. She also said teachers should select resources that reflect their students and “where students can see themselves in the curriculum and not just be about slavery.” If there isn’t a collective school effort to explore the diversity of Black girlhood, “we’re giving our Black girls these mixed messages, and those messages may end up being louder” than ones that amplify belonging, said Burnett. 

Connecting with families to support belonging

When Harris-Thomas taught in K-12 classrooms, she often heard colleagues declare that “parents just don’t care about their children’s success.” This mindset, she said, hinders relationships between teachers and caregivers. “Parents really do want to be involved, really do want to see their children succeed,” said Harris-Thomas. If an educator is dedicated to getting parents involved, it will allow for more creative approaches to family engagement, she continued. For example, she suggested capitalizing on school events like sports games that parents may already attend as an opportunity to engage with families. 


According to Burnett, a lot of the work towards belonging for Black girls happens at home with their caregivers, families and communities. Although not all parents can leave work to participate in daytime meetings or events, “that doesn’t mean that they’re less engaged in their child’s learning or feel less excited about the possibilities of what their child can do in the future,” Burnett said. Opening dialogue and asking families for feedback can get everyone working toward an answer to the same question: “How can we ensure that we’re really setting our children up to thrive?”

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