Featured Insights May 14

3 strategies to create community for diverse learners

Creating a positive school environment where all students feel valued and connected is top of mind for educators across the country. 

This need is of particular concern in light of the growing number of diverse learners on campuses. In fact, the number of students in special education in the U.S. has doubled over the past four decades. And, the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics from the 2021-2022 school year shows that almost 7.3 million students, or about 15 percent of all public school students, need special education services. 

With more students in special education, how can school leaders take actionable steps to help diverse learners feel connected at school? The Along team was recently selected by the Educating All Learner’s Alliance to host a free webinar about how to implement a school vision and mission around positive school culture centered on the needs of diverse learners.

Our expert panel—featuring Dr. Shivohn Garcia, Ph.D., Director, Equity Research and Insights for Understood.org; Tanis Griffin, Principal, Thompson Intermediate School; and Heather Nielson, Special Education Teacher, Thompson Intermediate School—explored the practical ways to build an equity-centered school culture grounded in teacher-student connections.

We encourage you to view the full webinar, but wanted to share some key takeaways that you can bring to your school leaders as you plan for the ‘24-’25 school year.

Here are three strategies to get started:

1. Ground your school culture in relationships. As Principal Griffin shared on the webinar, students need to feel connected at school in order to be ready to learn. And educators need to build time into the day to focus on building these relationships, from the start of the school year through the end of the second semester. “Kids have to feel like they belong at school. That’s why we committed to putting relationships first and made this a campus-wide vision,” she explained. “If you are there as a person and show that you care, maybe today a student is shut down, but tomorrow they are ready to learn. We will get to the content, I promise. We have to be able to help our teachers and provide the scaffolds and support to build connections with kids because it will pay off in the end.”

2. Take the time to model diversity. A challenge for making school a place where all students feel accepted and primed for learning is that diverse learners may not feel integrated into the general student body. As Dr. Garcia shared, students need to see diversity in a variety of ways, and as part of everyday conversation. “Everyone’s brain works differently. It’s important to front load the conversation that ‘what’s fair is not always equal,’ and to have that conversation over and over again,” she said. “We can’t always rely on verbal conversation; we have to diversify ways for young people to understand each other.” Along makes this easy with collections like Sparks and Strengths that encourages students to share what makes them unique.

3. Consistently put effort behind connections. Creating a culture of community can only happen when teachers in the classroom consistently work on building one-on-one relationships with their students. For special education teachers like Nielson, this means connecting with students about their interests and then leveling up to deeper conversations. “At the beginning of the school year, I ask questions in Along like, ‘What do you do for fun?’ or ‘what is your favorite kind of candy?,’” she said. “Once they realize this is fun, you can throw in tougher questions like, ‘What do you do at home?’ Then you can start understanding what’s really going on in their lives. Teachers sometimes don’t realize that kids will really open up when they trust you. It’s my job to get to know them, otherwise, how can I meet their needs every day?”

Interested in learning more about how to build community for diverse learners? Check out the full webinar recording here.

And, you can read our case study about how Nielson focuses on relationship building in her classroom. You can also download our eBook, 5 steps to transform school culture

Keep reading Next

Related Articles