Skip to content Skip to navigation

The psychology of belonging

Illustration of large group with some outliers
Image: Hobbit / Shutterstock

The psychology of belonging

Stanford psychologist Geoffrey Cohen shares what teachers can do to help students feel a sense of belonging – and how that feeling propels learning.

The idea of belonging – “the sense that you’re accepted and respected in a domain,” says Stanford Professor Geoffrey Cohen – may prompt memories of hurtful teenage rejection. But belonging can make a lifelong difference, especially for people in historically marginalized groups.

On this episode of School’s In, Cohen, a professor of education and psychology at Stanford, joined Stanford Graduate School of Education Dean Dan Schwartz and Senior Lecturer Denise Pope to talk about the importance of belonging and its effect on learning.

“If you feel like your belonging’s on trial, and you’re wondering if this is a place where you’re regarded favorably … it takes up working memory,” said Cohen, which is “mental energy taken away from learning, focusing, performing, growing.”

To help, Cohen’s team develops techniques to change environments, to “craft situations that foster belonging for as many people from as many walks of life as possible,” he said. In one study, he had African American college freshmen participate in an intervention indicating that most freshmen at their school worried about fitting in but eventually felt at home. Those students earned better grades and reported better health than a control group.      

He’s also had seventh-grade teachers ask students to write about their most important values. That, he said, made the students feel like their teacher cared about them and wanted to get to know them better.

Cohen is the author of the book Belonging: The Science of Creating Connection and Bridging Divides (W.W. Norton, 2022).

You can listen to School's In on SiriusXM, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher and Soundcloud.

Faculty mentioned in this article: Geoffrey Cohen

Get the Educator

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter.

Back to the Top