Belonging vs. Fitting In: How the Social Contract Helps Students

by Valentina Gonzalez

Along with basic needs such as food and shelter, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs shows that humans also have the need to belong and feel accepted. 

Think back on a time when you went somewhere new. Perhaps you traveled abroad or went to a professional networking event. Maybe you are thinking of your first day of class in college. 

You might remember looking around at all the people, yet feeling a sense of loneliness. I remember the first trip my husband and I took to Mexico. When we heard another couple speaking English with a southern accent, we were immediately drawn to them. When they said they were from Texas too, we felt an instant connection. Or just a few months ago, looking at a group of peers at a conference and seeing a name that was Serbian like my mother’s. The lady and I made eye contact, and I went over to her. The moment I pronounced her name correctly she lit up. She said no one ever reads her name correctly. Even though we knew nothing else about one another and had never met before, we instantly connected.

Connection: it’s something we all need. 

Prolific author and researcher Brené Brown says, “From our mirror neurons to language, we are social species. In the absence of authentic connection, we suffer. And by authentic I mean the kind of connection that doesn’t require hustling for acceptance and changing who we are to fit in” (p. 25). 

Students in our classrooms long for connection, too. They want to connect with us and with their peers. The feeling of isolation or disconnection can raise the affective filter and increase the levels of the stress hormone cortisol. When the affective filter is raised and cortisol is released, no learning, problem solving, or creative function will occur (Hammond, 2015). 

As kids grow into adolescence, belonging takes an interesting turn. This is the age where many kids want to “fit in.” They crave being like everyone else. They don’t want to be different. They don’t want attention drawn to their individuality. Instead, they’d rather “be cool” and fit in. Hustling for acceptance by peers is common in adolescence. When you are an English learner, an immigrant, a refugee, or a SIFE student, fitting in can seem particularly difficult. The pressures of adolescence are harsh. But perhaps knowing the difference between belonging and “fitting in” can help us all. 

Fitting in is adapting to be like everyone else, while belonging is being who you are and feeling accepted. 

As leaders of the classroom environment, we have the power to change the narrative of “fitting in.” We can create spaces that foster belonging instead. No matter whether it’s the first day of class or the middle of the school year, one of the best ways to show students that everyone belongs is to create a Social Contract (based on Capturing Kids’ Hearts by The Flippen Group). Social Contracts are classroom agreements used in lieu of traditional classroom rules. While traditional classroom rules are premade by the teacher, the Social Contract consists of classroom norms that are co-created and agreed upon by everyone. The Social Contract helps students feel heard, seen, and valued as members of the learning community. Social Contracts foster community among students and hold everyone accountable. 

These are the steps to implement a Social Contract in your classroom. Keep in mind that the process for creating the contract is more valuable than the document itself. Because we provide students the time and space to share their voices, they feel valued, respected, and heard as important members of the classroom community.

  1. Begin with the assumption that all students want to learn.
  1. Offer these questions, one at a time, making sure that students understand and can respond. Provide sentence stems for students who need them. 
  • How do you want to be treated by your peers?
  • How do you think your peers want to be treated by you?
  • How do you want to be treated by the teacher?
  • How do you think the teacher wants to be treated by you?
  1. Guide students in talking through each of the questions in groups of three. It is important to provide students with enough time and space to have honest dialogue with partners. Finally, ask students to write a response for each question. 
  1. Facilitate a class discussion about the norms they are developing for the classroom. As students contribute a norm, record it on chart paper if everyone agrees.  
  1. Once all norms are recorded and agreed upon, have every student sign the Social Contract (and you sign it, too), and place it prominently and permanently on the wall. Keep in mind that the contract will be violated. It is a representation of what the class wants to be; therefore, it is not what they currently are. 
  1. Revisit the contract frequently and as needed throughout the year. 

Rest assured that creating a Social Contract will not immediately correct all behavior problems, nor will it ensure that students won’t break the contract. The Social Contract acts as a list of what the class hopes to be and not necessarily what they are. Keep in mind that, in order for students to see the Social Contract as a positive experience, it must not be used as a tool for doling out punishment. 

When we work with 20-plus students in a classroom, managing behavior is important. If kids aren’t behaving, they likely aren’t learning and very well could be hindering the learning of other students in the classroom. However, I’m reminded of what I once heard the great educator and author Cornelius Minor say about behavior that changed my perspective on negative behaviors: “Every behavior is a form of communication.” Realizing that all behaviors are communication helps us understand that even negative behavior is telling us something. Our job is to uncover the message. 

A few years ago a new student arrived mid-semester from Brazil. He only spoke Portuguese at the time, and his body language was conveying to us that he was extremely angry. We didn’t know what was causing his anger, but we could make some assumptions. Was he afraid because he didn’t know English? Was he mad because he didn’t want to leave his home country? It took us building relationships with this student to find out what was causing his anger. He was not a “bad” student or an ornery child. He had every right to feel the way he was feeling. This student was very sad to leave his home country, his grandmother who had taken care of him since his mother had passed away, his friends, and his dog. He was scared because he didn’t know English yet and had very good grades in Brazil. This was a student who just needed the support of his teachers and classmates to feel that he belonged here and that we wouldn’t let him down. Simon Sinek said it best:

“Our need to belong is not rational, but it is a constant that exists across all people in all cultures. It is a feeling we get when those around us share our values and beliefs. When we feel like we belong we feel connected and we feel safe. As humans we crave the feeling and we seek it out.” (p.53)

The Social Contract can be the first step in creating a safe environment where all students feel they belong. This type of environment is important in school because, when students feel safe to take risks and safe to make mistakes, the brain is freed for learning academic content and for language development. Brené Brown reminds us that “…we should never underestimate the benefit to a child of having a place to belong — even one — where they can take off their armor. It can and often does change the trajectory of their life” (p.13). If a student’s brain has to work hard at putting a guard up because he’s worried about belonging, fearful of being ridiculed, or angry at peers, then there isn’t a lot of room for learning to occur. 

(To see how Social Contracts greatly impacted refugee and SIFE students in Houston, Texas, please check out the book Boosting Achievement by Carol Salva and Anna Matis.)

The COVID-19 Impact

Many of us are currently experiencing the challenges of teaching through the time of Covid-19. And the circumstances pose new challenges for us as we aim to create environments that continue to promote inclusion, connection, and belonging. School closures have physically divided teachers from students and students from students, leaving us individually learning in our homes. Whether we return to traditional classrooms in the fall or not, it will be important that we begin the year keeping our students’ social-emotional states of mind at heart first and foremost. The experiences each of them have had while living through remote learning will impact how they return to class. And if we honor and validate their voices through shared ownership of the Social Contract, we can create a safe place for students to learn. 

The environment that we create for students in our classrooms can either work to stifle language development and academic success or it can help the two flourish. 


Note: This section contains affiliate links.

Brown Brené. (2019). Dare to lead: brave work, tough conversations, whole hearts. Place of publication not identified: Random House Large Print Publishing.

Capturing Kids’ Hearts. (2019, October 17). Retrieved from

Hammond, Z. (2015). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Matis, A. and Carol Salva (2017). Boosting achievement: reaching students with interrupted or minimal education. Irving, TX: Seidlitz Education.

Mcleod, S. (2018, May 21). Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Retrieved from

Sinek, S. (2009). Start with why: how great leaders inspire everyone to take action. London: Portfolio Penguin.

2 thoughts on “Belonging vs. Fitting In: How the Social Contract Helps Students

  1. I’ve always felt that developing a strong relationship is one of the key fundamentals to building a healthy and strong learning enviroment. Once you’ve developed that relationship and trust learning can begin.


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