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Youths’ educational pathways: Why belonging matters

By Joanna Tzenis

Young person decorating a mask
Supporting youths’ education and career pathways requires more than ensuring youth gain academic knowledge and skills. Belonging is foundational for young people to experience educational success. Nonformal programs, when designed with intention and with community engagement have been shown to effectively help youth place themselves on thriving future pathways by prioritizing youth belonging in their program design. Schools are important sites of belonging as well. But, there is little agreement in educational policy and practical circles on how belonging should be conceptualized, measured, and fostered. 

In this blog, I share two illustrations from a collaboration of researchers, youth workers, community leaders, school administrators and teachers. This participatory research project aims to construct research with young people, understand how they experience belonging in their community and how arts-based, experiential methodologies might help foster belonging, trust and empathy among their peers.

Social anxiety keeps young people from being their authentic selves in school 

Research suggests that when young people have anxiety, their ability to learn diminishes. Further, having empathy and awareness of others’ emotions can improve youths’ abilities to do well in school. 

Using the Social Emotional Learning toolkit, young people made masks. After interviewing a peer, they decorated the outside of a mask with what they believed represented their peer. Then, each youth decorated the inside of their own mask to express their authentic selves. In a reflective discussion after the activity, many young people said that because of "social anxiety" in high school they do not allow others to know much about themselves. One youth reflected: "The more you share [about yourself] the more it can be used against you."  Another young person said his inside self is full of "cracks" that he does not want anyone to know about.

The process of making the masks helped young people reflect on their identities and share with their peers--people they barely know--that they experience anxiety that they metaphorically mask to keep themselves emotionally safe in school. 

Fear of harassment keeps young people from pursuing their academic interests

Research in youth development demonstrates that young people can thrive into adulthood when they engage in learning environments that center on their interests, joys, and sparks. But some youth cannot so freely access these critical learning opportunities.

In writing a poem, using an adapted activity from WeConnect: A Global Youth Citizenship Guide, one young person wrote: "I will limit myself if it keeps me safe." When reflecting on this poem, this young person explained that because they were "visibly queer" people "harass me in the hallway", describing it as "very scary". This young person went on to say they do not pursue specific classes (e.g., science) because they "do not belong" there. 

Writing a poem facilitated a process of honest self-reflection and self-expression for this young person and helped co-construct an understanding of how harassment affects their abilities to pursue academic interests.

What does this mean for practice? 

These examples illustrate how using  youth-centered, participatory methods (the hallmark of youth programs) in school settings can help young people explore their identities, interests and aspirations. They also underscore the fundamental  importance of creating learning conditions that prioritize belonging -- where youth can be their authentic selves.

Our research team hopes to identify more resources, models, and tools that educators can use to increase belonging in schools and beyond. What are some practices or tools you have used to create educational spaces of belonging?

-- Joanna Tzenis, PhD, Extension specialist, education and career pathways

This project is a collaboration between the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development's Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development, and the University of Minnesota Extension's Center for Youth Development. It is supported by funding from the UMN Office for the Vice President of Research and the Laura Jane Musser Foundation. Project team members include: Co-P.I. Dr. Joan DeJaeghere, Co-P.I., Dr. Joanna Tzenis, Erma Mujic, Zhuldyz Amankulova, Ashley Purry, Michael Winikoff,  Dr. Heidi Fahning, and Sarah Odendahl.

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