Do you remember the show Cheers? For me, like many (I assume) this show struck a chord with a young me. I loved to hear how each character was greeted with enthusiastic glee each time they entered the establishment. That fictional bar created an atmosphere that we early educators should strive for; each character, with all their quirks and flaws, basked in the warm glow of belinging. This show stayed with me well beyond its run many years ago. I yearn to be a regular somewhere; to hear my name exclaimed with joy when I arrived; to know that my presence and absence both mean something to someone.

Close your eyes and picture the last time you truly felt like you belonged somewhere. How would you define that feeling? Recently, I was at a conference and one of the presenters shared the following:

           Inclusion is being invited to the party.

                     Acceptance is being asked to dance.

                                Belonging is being allowed to dance like no one is watching.

Such simple, but powerful imagery. And, a great analogy for the classrooms we create for young children. For some time now, the world of education has talked about inclusion; that it is important that we invite everyone to the party; including those that we may have passed over because they are different or overlooked as “less than”. As educators, we have come to realize that this inclusion is not only to the benefit of those we are now inviting, but that when we fold diversity into the party, it makes it better for everyone, especially those already in the room. When we open our classrooms to all children, we are creating a learning environment that is richer for every child.

Over time, we have come to realize that inclusion is only the beginning of a just and equitable classroom. It is not enough to just invite people to the party, we must be intentional about bringing people together within that room. It is human nature to be drawn to people that look like you; this tribal mentality kept our species alive for millennial. However, just because it is our nature does not mean that we need to let it control us. If inclusion is about inviting everyone into the classroom; acceptance is about asking those guests to dance.

The act of inclusion is easy, “forcing” people to be together in the same space can be mandated and governed. And many say that the work is done when inclusion is the law. But we will never get better as a world if we stop there. We must be intentional about helping children see “other” as opportunity instead of threat. Inclusion is sometimes about pity; about giving “them” an equal chance. Acceptance is about you. Asking someone to dance is to broaden your world. Asking someone to dance is to maybe learn a new step or two. Asking someone to dance is to take a chance and grow as a human being.

As educators, it is our job to help children see the value and joy in asking someone else to dance. The contention that children are color blind; that they do not see differences is a fallacy. Of course they see differences between people (to suggest otherwise is ludicrous and a copout); just like they notice differences between cars and flavors of ice cream. While children see differences, it is adults who teach them to judge these differences and to see them as barriers between us and them. A classroom of acceptance is intentional about bringing people together, about celebrating all that makes us different while we value all that we have in common.

I used to think acceptance was a great goal for a classroom; that each child can feel like they will be invited and asked to dance. But, when I stopped to think about is, this isn’t really belonging. If you are being asked to dance, you better have an idea of how to move. If you are at a swing dance, you better know how to Shag. If hip-hop is the music of the day, hopefully someone has shown you how to Dougie. And, you don’t want to embarrass yourself by tripping over your feet during the latest line dance if you are at a country dance (sorry, can’t name a line dance – not my thing). In all these instances, to be accepted, one most often fold into the dominant culture of the space. To belong is to be valued for who you are and to not be asked to be anyone but who you are.

This idea of belonging also plays into challenging behaviors. Conforming is exhausting. Having to constantly be on watch to make sure you are doing it right or that you will not be singled out for doing it wrong eventually erodes at your sense of self. Noticing differences is not a learned trait, but shame is. And, when children feel like they don’t belong, that internalized shame and confusion can (and often will) lead to challenging behaviors in the classroom. Cultivating an environment of belonging not only honors and values each child, it will make your classroom a more joyful and peaceful place.

I have been so lucky to find some places I belong; some wonderful spaces filled with amazing people who shout my name when I enter a room. I am honored to share my life with some people who value me for who I am and allow me to dance as if no one were watching. Are children allowed to dance like no one is watching in your classroom? How do you foster this sense of belonging in your learning environment?

What do you think? Engage with me and others in the ECE community on my social media outlets. You can also find more information about my book and available training sessions, on any of the following:

Facebook: Teacher as Gardener

LinkedIn: Michelle Salcedo


My book Uncover the Roots of Challenging Behavior can be purchased at Free Spirit Publishing or Amazon Interested in hearing more? Consider bringing me in as a speaker for your next Professional Development event (you won’t regret it).

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