Building a Sense of Belonging

Carrie Ann Olson, Extension Educator

December 2017

Belonging is more than tolerance, acceptance, or inclusion. Belonging means we feel connected, important, valued, part of the group. It is our group, our program, our community.” – Bengu Erguner-Tekinalp, Ph.D. (April 2016 YPS Meeting)

This year’s 4-H Fall Volunteer Training focused on building an inclusive environment and a sense of belonging.  Past volunteer training evaluations told us volunteers needed help recruiting new members and getting members excited and involved in club work and activities.   Those needs are right on target with Minnesota 4-H’s priority to welcome new youth and families into the 4-H program - and to keep them by helping them feel like they belong.  This can be hard work and involves that when new members and families come to us we are able to meet their needs – that they feel like they belong.  

Building BelongingOne of the single most important factors for young people staying in 4-H is that they feel like they have connections to youth and adults and belong. Within the Essential Element of Belonging we need an inclusive environment.  An inclusive or welcoming environment goes a step beyond a safe environment. It is one where individuals feel included as a part of the group and feel supported and encouraged. The feeling of belonging to a group is very important to a young person. This is often why youth assume certain styles of dress and behave in certain ways. There are some very simple ways to create belonging from club or group membership cards to club or group t-shirts.

One of the most pronounced developmental needs of adolescent youth is a sense of belonging or fitting in. As youth age, the influence of parents and other adults becomes less pronounced and the influence of peers increases. Status and peer influence often greatly affect how youth, especially adolescents, form their sense of “self” and react in different situations. It is important to remember that peers are not the only factors creating a sense of an inclusive or exclusive environment for youth. Adults can create an atmosphere that promotes inclusion or exclusion. 

During the training, volunteers evaluated their clubs on how often they do some of the following items known to promote a sense of belonging:

  • Youth plan, implement and evaluate the club program
  • Members celebrate and have fun together beyond club meetings
  • Introductions and get-acquainted activities are part of every meeting
  • Members feel comfortable sharing ideas at meetings
  • Members encourage each other during activities and events
  • Group is youth led, and adult guided

A toolkit has been developed that provides additional ideas on how to create a sense of belonging within the youth groups you may work with.  For more information, contact Carrie Olson at olson166@umn.edu.

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