This post is from a talk I gave at an ELT event in Uruguay.  The topic was inspired by the theme of this conference: The Learners’ Voice.   I did a lot of thinking about the topic to hone in on what this really means to me and and it really made me reflect on the past 18 years in the classroom and what I can honestly say that my most successful classroom experiences have been those where there were healthy relationships and a great

In this post I’m going to share with you a little about the idea of belonging and what that means in our societies, in our local communities and highlight its role in developing a healthy classroom environment which supports the learning process and can help you increase motivation, confidence, interest, and autonomy.

I’m also going to provide you with some practical ideas from my own teaching practice for integrating this concept into your lessons.

So why is this sense of belonging so important?

“People feel they belong when they feel others are genuinely interested in them and open to sharing information with them. ‘In early childhood, and throughout life, relationships are crucial to a sense of belonging”

Early Years Learning Framework of Australia

It is integral to our existence to feel a sense of belonging: in your family (whoever that includes for you), the cultural group you identify with, and your wider community. These relationships are what define us and therefore, and especially in early childhood but then all throughout our lives, they are central to forming our identity – who we are, and who we can become.  And this can and MUST happen in our school communities too.  

Educators have an incredibly important role in the lives of their young learners.  We are not just teaching language.  We are teaching children and our work contributes to their developing identities and sense of belonging within our classroom and beyond.  

I haven’t forgotten that we are ALSO language teachers and if you think all this isn’t relevant for you, I invite you to think again!  

You see for many learners, particularly those learning a foreign language for the first time, the English language classroom can be an unfamiliar place that may cause great anxiety and stress.  We’ve all seen this on the faces of new students before.  We’ve all felt this as language learners ourselves!  These feeling can easily have negative repercussions on a student’s willingness and ability to engage in what you are trying to teach them.  When I listen to teachers talk about the problems they are having with their learners, I often hear the same things over and over again.

  • Students who are afraid to speak 
  • Students who feel like they will never learn English
  • Class members who are not open to correction
  • Overly competitive children
  • Negative comments towards others
  • Impatience with others

What all these situations have in common is that they would all improve if the relationships between the students in the group were better.  As a solution to any or all of these problems, I would strongly encourage teachers to being integrating activities into their lessons which have the aim of forming the group and creating a sense of community between the learners.  

Many authors have written on the importance of rapport and relationships in the classroom but it was an article by David Vale talks that had the biggest impact on my teaching.  David quotes Krashen when he refers to the lowering of affective barriers that can impede our ability to learn and he points out the importance of learners feeling comfortable enough with each other to take risks with the language without fear of ridicule or being over corrected. 

Children tend to thrive in classrooms where they feel valued and respected as individuals as well as a sense of belonging within the group.   This leads to more co-operative work and in this kind of supportive environment, new language is processed within the group… greatly facilitating the work of the teacher!!

Reading this was enough to make me rethink a lot of things.   I began to reevaluate what my priorities should be at the start of the school year and set new objectives that focused, first and foremost, on building healthy relationships, not only between the teacher and the students, but also between the students themselves.

I could see it as being a solution to so many of the classroom management challenges I was facing at the time and I began using group formation activities straight away.  The results were so positive that they’re now an integral part of all the courses I design and teach.

There are specific characteristics that make group formation games different from the ice-breakers you might use at the start of a course or games you use in a regular class. 

Here are the guidelines that I use when selecting an appropriate activity.

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You can download some examples of these types of games Group Formation Games.

I hope that you feel motivated to get into a classroom and try out some of the ideas I have share here because I believe that relationships and group formation is one of the most important and yet most overlooked elements of young learner teaching.  If you do try something out, get in contact to let me know how it went!