Instilling a Sense of Belonging

Oh, how I love picture books! They are not just for little kids, but they are filled with so many life lessons for big kids, too! The start of a new school year is a time of excitement and anticipation (for children and teachers alike!) But it may also be a time for fear and hesitation for some (children and teachers alike!) Instilling a sense of belonging from Day One is critical to the rest of the school year!
Everyone wants to feel like they belong; that they are not an outsider, especially within a group of peers. Morning meeting and read aloud are two perfect opportunities to raise awareness and foster conversations about misconceptions and what it means to belong.  Do you know Big Al? Andrew Clements is one of my favorite middle grade authors! My fourth graders love his Jake Drake series, as well as all of his realistic fiction novels. So I was very excited to discover his picture book, Big Al!

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Poor Big Al just wants to make friends. But because Big Al is large and scary-looking, the little fish are afraid to get to know him; just like our students who may judge others who look or act differently than what they are comfortable with. The illustrations are darling and your kids will giggle and gasp as you read. Big Al tries everything he can think of: from disguising himself with seaweed to burrowing under the ocean floor to try and look smaller. But something always goes wrong, and lonely Big Al wonders if he'll ever have a single friend. However, when a fishing net captures the other fish, Big Al gets the chance to prove what a wonderful friend he can be! This book will have your kids cheering!

I love this quote by Brene Brown, "True belonging doesn't require that we change who we are; it requires that we be who we are." Big Al tries too hard to make the other fish like him (with hilarious results) and it is not until he is himself, that the others appreciate his unique qualities. 
Belonging is closely tied to empathy. Brene Brown asserts, "Empathy is communicating that incredibly healing message of 'You're not alone.' " We want to instill this sense of "You're not alone" to our kids. Ask your students to rate themselves on a continuum: How good am I at helping others to feel like they belong? and How strong is my own sense of belonging? These questions elicit deep discussions! I also like to do physical line-ups, where children stand under number cards: 1-5. As we discuss what it means to help others belong, with examples, kids can move to another number, as their understanding develops. (1 being difficult with 5 being easy). 
My students love to give voice to their opinions, sometimes in the form of blogging on Kidblog or making short videos on Flipgrid. We are a K-8 leadership school, so our kids expect to take on a leadership role, sharing information and teaching younger students. Having an audience with whom to share their thoughts and examples makes for authentic learning! 

Another activity my students love is making Word Clouds! is a free online word cloud generator and tag cloud creator. Students type in thoughts, quotes, words about a topic. The more often a word is used, the more prominent it becomes in the cloud.  There are so many fun ways to use this!
And of course, one book leads to another, leads to another! Here are a few more books to continue with the theme of belonging: (click on each image to read the synopsis)
For more specific activities and discussion questions around the theme of belonging, click on the links below:

What books do you read or activities that you do with your class to ensure each student feels they belong? Click on our podcast image below for more ideas!


  1. I love this post! Especially the activity where kids stand under the number that rates how they are doing with a particular concept. I call it voting with your feet! LOL. Your book suggestions are wonderful! A favorite and a few more that I want to try! Love Big Al! Cant wait to meet him in my next on my lap readaloud with grandkids!

  2. Voting with your feet; love it!! Your grandkids will love Big Al! :)

  3. Kathie, I love this book, it's so cute and I know your kiddos will enjoy it so much. You're blog ideas, flipgrid and wordcloud are awesome.

    1. Thanks, Deann! I actually am excited to go back to school and try all of these ideas out! :)

  4. I have to go buy this book. Andrew Clements is a favorite author in my classroom, so just knowing that this book is by him will make my students gravitate toward it. I love the quotation you share before reading. As I was reading your post, I was thinking about the book The Royal Raven by Hans Wilhelm. I think I have a great text-to-text connection idea now!

    1. Ooooh and I don't know that book! Adding The Royal Raven to my list! Don't you wish we were at the same school so we could run books back & forth between our classrooms?!