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How to Create Belonging in Group Learning Experiences

  • POSTED ON JUNE 13, 2024
Three diverse individuals sitting on grass and smiling, symbolizing the sense of belonging and inclusivity in group learning experiences

Creating Belonging in Group Learning Experiences  

When I first thought about the importance of belonging in group learning experiences, I focused on adult learning. But when I sat down to write, I was flooded with memories of all the different types of learning I have experienced. I was struck by a memory of kindergarten, where I felt a sense of belonging and joy that still brings a smile.  

I got curious. What was it about kindergarten that triggered this memory? The answer jumped up: we played. There was a ton of learning about everything from letters and numbers to how baby chicks are born.  

I remember all that learning being fun, inclusive, and delivered with a wonderful sense of me being nurtured for my unique strengths and interests.  

I had a deep sense of belonging.  

However, as I navigated through my later learning experiences, that changed. Radically.  

Fitting In vs. True Belonging 

Fast-forward a few years. Learning experiences became a lot different. I have a learning disorder called dysgraphia that was not identified at the time. This disorder makes handwriting and spelling challenging to say the least. To compensate for this lack of ability, I got creative.   

I went above and beyond with assignments and projects. I created plays and gave presentations instead of writing essays. I fashioned papier-mâché dioramas to fulfill assignments. 

Though I was praised for using my creativity, and usually received a good grade, I was also shamed and made to feel like an outsider when my creativity went over the top.   

I didn’t fit in. I imagine there were many others in my class who felt that way due to their ethnic background, the color of their skin, their economic situation or their family structure.   

Brené Brown, the renowned researcher on topics like vulnerability and belonging, distinguishes between fitting in and true belonging. Fitting in involves changing ourselves to be accepted, she says, while belonging requires us to embrace our authenticity without fear of judgment.  

True belonging means being part of something larger while staying true to ourselves. As Brown beautifully puts it, “True belonging never asks us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are. 

Importance of Belonging in Group Learning Experiences 

Creating a sense of belonging in group learning experiences is more than just ensuring everyone feels welcome; it's about fostering an experience where each person can be their authentic selves, share vulnerably, and engage deeply with the material and each other.  

You can see the importance of belonging and how essential it is to cultivate it in learning settings. 

Belonging in a learning experience is particularly special because it goes beyond mere participation. It's about feeling engaged, valued, and supported in your journey of growth and discovery.  

When individuals feel like they belong, they are more likely to actively participate, contribute ideas, and collaborate with others. This, in turn, enhances the overall learning experience for everyone involved. 

As my formal education experience shows, a sense of not belonging can stem from various factors: making individuals feel wrong and judged or setting unrealistic criteria for acceptance.  

From Isolation to Inclusion 

Past personal experience often shapes our perceptions of belonging.  

Most of us carry baggage from our childhood or early adulthood that has left us extra sensitive to feeling left out or so afraid of not fitting in that we unconsciously put up our guard and shy away from bringing our authentic self to a group learning experience.  

I know this is what happened to me, and it took me time and many positive experiences to be able to fully enjoy learning in a group.  

Like many of you reading this post, I felt a new possibility for myself when I stepped into a Co-Active Training Institute classroom. I didn’t know just what made it so special, but I knew I wanted more.  

The coach training itself was topnotch, which I had expected due to its reputation. What intrigued me, and had me coming back for more, was the feeling of belonging.  

Reflecting on my experiences with organizations like CTI and leading my own groups, I've learned the significance of using intentional practices to cultivate belonging.  

CTI's emphasis on embracing individual dreams and vulnerabilities while fostering a culture of openness and acceptance resonated deeply with me. In my own groups, I work to honor these principles by intentionally welcoming each member's uniqueness and by creating alliances based on mutual respect and support. 

This kind of welcoming is needed on an ongoing basis. It’s not a “one and done” deal. In my various leadership roles for CTI, and in leading my own groups, I find this to be a key ingredient in fostering an ongoing sense of the belonging that enhances a learning experience.  

A designed alliance requires checking in with the individuals to stay current with what would make the experience better, what is working well and how the group can come to agreement for the sake of the individual.  

It takes work, and it can be messy. It’s worth it, though.  

The Power of Engagement 

Another key to fostering belonging is active engagement. When individuals are encouraged to participate, share, and collaborate authentically, they feel valued and connected to the learning community. 

By establishing clear guidelines for respectful communication and actively listening to each other, you create a safe space where everyones voice is heard and honored. Again, it may get messy and take time to find what works for the group, but it is always worthwhile.  

Other behaviors are also super helpful in creating a learning experience where participants feel they belong. The leaders themselves need to be vulnerable, lead by example, and set clear expectations.  

Top Six Tips for Creating Belonging in Group Learning Experiences 

  1. Embrace Diversity: Celebrate the unique backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives of all participants. 

  2. Foster Vulnerability: Create a safe space where individuals feel comfortable sharing their thoughts, feelings, and challenges without fear of judgment.

  3. Design the Alliance: Ask the group what they need for them to feel they belong and what will enhance their learning experience.

  4. Encourage Engagement: Actively involve participants in discussions, activities, and collaborative projects to foster a sense of ownership and investment in the learning process. 

  5. Set Clear Expectations: Establish guidelines for respectful communication and behavior to ensure everyone feels valued and respected.

  6. Lead by Example: Demonstrate vulnerability and authenticity as a leader, showing that it's okay to be imperfect and that growth comes from embracing our vulnerabilities. 

Impact of Belonging 

A sense of belonging is well worth creating in a learning experience. I encourage you to invest your time, money and heart in the ones you lead, as well as the ones in which you participate.  

I have found that when you experience belonging in a learning experience, you open to a wealth of new information and stretch into new territory. Not only is the learning expanded but you are expanded as well.  

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Written By

Kat Knecht

Kat Knecht is an internationally known business coach who has helped thousands of coaches achieve their dream of professional success through her Business Academy and as a leader for the Co-Active Training Institute. Kat believes wholeheartedly in the human potential and has made her impact on others through her work as a coach, trainer, author, interfaith minister and inspiring speaker. She brings an expertise gained from 20 years of success as a professional coach, which she shares in her new book Evolve Your Coaching Business. Kat lives in Ojai, CA, with her husband Curtis and kitty Coconut.

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