Do we truly know the difference between presence and belonging? Is it simply enough to be present and in attendance? It is not. Humans need a sense of belonging.
I think back on my years and I can reflect on the tremendous shift in educating students with special needs in our public schools. As a young child I witnessed the exclusion of children based on their cognitive or physical abilities. By today’s standards, we would not consider that ok. Years later in graduate school, I studied the national push for inclusive education, a reaction to years of excluding individuals and making it known that certain students didn’t belong in school because of ability.
This idea of inclusion of students with disabilities has been important but mere presence, however, does not mean that children truly have a sense of belonging. The key marker for an inclusive school is evident in relationships. All people are both needed and wanted. A relationship, in this sense, is something that is difficult to define absent the understanding of specific attributes, a sense of belonging being the most critical. In the example of individuals with special needs, there is a mutual understanding between everyone in the community that all belong. Being wanted is realized and hearts are forever changed.
Well-known researchers use imagery of “going to the balcony,” getting an objective view of what is actually happening on the dance floor. When we are on the dance floor it is hard to see what else is going on because we are so focused on ourselves, our dance partner, and not wanting to bump into others. But, if you had gone up to the balcony and looked down on the dance floor, you might have seen a very different picture. You would have noticed all sorts of patterns . . . you might have noticed that when slow music played, only some people danced; when the tempo increased, others stepped onto the floor; and some people never seemed to dance at all. . . the dancers all clustered at one end of the floor, as far away from the band as possible. . . . You might have reported that participation was sporadic, the band played too loud, and you only danced to fast music . . .The only way you can gain both a clearer view of reality and some perspective on the bigger picture is by distancing yourself from the fray (Heifetz & Linsky, 2002).
We need people to go to the balcony right now and build the strongest possible sense of belonging for our school and our community. Like the marginalization of individuals with disabilities in our past, who can you see from the balcony as being disenfranchised today? Who have we dismissed or alienated or stigmatized or excluded or failed to recognize . . . or somehow how indicated they do not belong?
Being excluded for who we are at our very core doesn’t feel good to anyone. A basic principle for what it means to be human is that we have a strong desire to belong. That is not just being a body in school but truly known and valued as a human being. At Pal-Mac, we have a community obligation ensure a sense of belonging for every child at all times. Together we can make a difference for Pal-Mac.
Bob Ike, Pal-Mac Superintendent