July 20, 2024


General For All

An Excerpt from Reconnect: Building School Culture for Meaning Purpose and Belonging

An Excerpt from Reconnect: Building School Culture for Meaning Purpose and Belonging

As many of you know I’ve got a new book out, co-written with Denarius Frazier, Hilary Lewis, and Darryl Williams.  It’s called Reconnect: Building School Culture for Meaning Purpose and Belonging and it’s a book about where we are now as schools and what to do about it.

The theme, you could argue, is belonging: what it is, why it’s so powerful, how we can harness it to ensure greater academic achievement and to instill in students a sense that school is a place that cares for them-and where they should care about others.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to try to post some excerpts.  Like this one, which talks a bit more about the details of how people are connected:

Small Moments and the Gestures of Belonging


Belonging is among the most powerful human emotions, and Daniel Coyle discusses its role in modern group formation in his book The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups. Belonging, he notes, is often built via small moments and seemingly insignificant gestures. In fact, it is mostly built that way. Cohesion and trust occur when group members send and receive small, frequently occurring signals of belonging. The accrual of these signals is almost assuredly more influential than grand statements of togetherness or dramatic gestures. “Our social brains light up when we receive a steady accumulation of almost invisible cues: we are close, we are safe, we share a future,” Coyle writes. But it’s not a one-time thing. Belonging is “a flame that needs to be continually fed by signals of connection.”


A colleague of ours described a simple example of this when we visited her school in the days after the mask mandate was lifted in her area. “I’m trying to make sure I focus on eye contact and smiling,” she said. “That we focus on rebuilding that habit as a staff, so kids
see someone smiling at them when they walk down the hall and they know: this is my place.”


Smiling and making eye contact are two of the most important belonging cues. They are also indicative of the nature of belonging cues more broadly; they tend to be subtle and even fleeting in nature so they are easily overlooked. Saying “thank you” and engaging in ritual forms of civility—holding a door, letting someone else go first, shaking hands—are other examples. Holding the door or letting someone go first as you enter provides little if any practical benefit; like most acts of courtesy, it’s really a signal: “I am looking out for you.” It reaffirms connectedness. And it affects more than just the individual to whom you show courtesy. Coyle notes that in one study, “a small thank you caused people to behave far more generously to a completely different person. This is because thank yous are not only expressions of gratitude. They’re crucial belonging cues that generate a contagious sense of safety, connection and motivation.”


When we respond to a belonging signal not just by signaling back to the person who sent it but by sending additional signals to other people, it is an example of what the political scholar Robert Keohane calls “diffuse reciprocity.” “Specific reciprocity” is the idea that if I help you, you will help me to a roughly equal degree. It is often the first step in commercial or political exchange, but it tends to engender only limited levels of trust and connection. Diffuse (or generalized) reciprocity, however, is the idea that if I help you, someone else in the group will likely help me at some future point. “Diffuse reciprocity refers to situations in which equivalence is less strictly defined and one’s partners in exchanges may be viewed as a group,” Keohane writes.Norms are important. When participating in or initiating diffuse reciprocity, I go out of my way to show I am not keeping score and don’t require equal value in every transaction. I am trying to show that I think we are part of a group, that what goes around will come around.


This is why in many cultures and settings, nothing is more insulting than insisting on paying for what was freely given. It is responding to an offer of welcome or help—diffuse reciprocity—with a signal of specific reciprocity. It suggests “transaction” rather than “connection”
and downgrades the other person’s gesture.


Perhaps the most interesting thing about signals of gratitude and belonging, however, is that the true beneficiary is the sender. It makes us happy to be generous and welcoming in part because it makes us feel like good members of the community and, perhaps, like more secure members of the community as a result. As the French philosopher la Rochefoucauld observed, “We are better pleased to see those on whom we confer benefits than those from whom we receive them.” Summarizing his research, von Hippel writes, “Life satisfaction is achieved by being embedded in your community and by supporting community members who are in need.” Note the centrality of mutuality; there’s equal emphasis on the psychological benefits of giving to the group as well as receiving from it.


Gratitude too is one of the most powerful human emotions. As Shawn Achor explains in his book The Happiness Advantage, expressing gratitude regularly has the effect of calling your (or your students’) attention to its root causes. Done regularly this results in a “cognitive afterimage”: you are more likely to see the thing you look for. If you expect to be thinking about and sharing examples of things you are grateful for, you start looking for them, scanning the world for examples of good things to appreciate. And so you notice more of them.


The psychologist Martin Seligman asked participants in a study to write down three things they were grateful for each day. They were less likely to experience depression and loneliness one, three, and six months later. “The better they got at scanning the world for good things to write down, the more good things they saw, without even trying, wherever they looked,” Achor writes of the study. The world became a better place for them, one that valued them and stood ready to embrace them because they made a habit of noticing the signals it was sending. “Few things in life are as integral to our well-being [as gratitude],” Achor writes. “Consistently grateful people are more energetic, emotionally intelligent, forgiving, and less likely to be depressed, anxious, or lonely.”


The fact that what we look for so profoundly alters our sense of the world is just one way that the eyes are, perhaps, the most critical tool for establishing belonging. Even their physiological structure shows how critical they are. Humans are the only primate with white sclera—the part of our eyes that surrounds our pupils. This is the case, William von Hippel writes in The Social Leap, because advertising our gaze allows for cooperation and coordination, and because it communicates our status within the group—all of which are far more important to a human than to a primate that is less absolutely reliant on cooperation and mutualism for survival (as all other primates are, even those that live in groups). “If I’m competing with other members of my group, I don’t want them to know what I’m thinking, which means I don’t want them to know where I am looking,” von Hippel says. “Whether I’m eyeing a potential mate or a tasty fig, I’ll keep it a secret so others don’t get there first. But if I’m cooperating with other members of my group then I will want them to know where I am directing my attention. If a tasty prey animal comes along and I spot it first I want others to notice it too so we can work together to capture it.”

Humans also compete within their groups, we’ve noted, and eye gaze, advertised to others via the whites of our eyes, also communicates stature and status within the group. Anyone who has ever given or received a flirtatious glance or participated in a locked-eye challenge can attest to this. “Our scleras . . . allow us to monitor the gazes of others with considerable precision,” Bill Bryson notes in The Body: A Guide for Occupants. “You only have to move your eyeballs slightly to get a companion to look at, let’s say, someone at a neighboring table in a restaurant.” More potently, glances between and among fellow group members tell us whether we are respected and safe or resented, marginalized, or scorned. “Affirming eye contact is one of the most profound signals of belonging a human can send. Conversely, the lack of it could suggest that our inclusion is at risk.”

How valuable is the information carried within our gazes? A “genetic sweep” is the name for a physical change that confers such immense benefit on recipients that over time only people having the change prevail. Having white sclera—in other words, being able to communicate more with a look—is an example. There is no human group in any corner of the planet where the benefits of enhanced gaze information were not evolutionarily decisive.


Consider, in light of that, this photograph, which comes from a video of one of Denarius’s lessons when he was a math teacher.


The student Vanessa has just been speaking authoritatively about what she thinks is the explanation of a given solution to a math problem, but suddenly, midway through, she realizes that her explanation is not correct. She has confused reciprocal and inverse. She’s been speaking confidently in front of 25 or 30 classmates—advising them “if you check your notes”—and now, with all eyes on her, she realizes she is dead wrong. She pauses and glances at her notes. “Um, I’d like to change my answer,” she says playfully, without a trace of self-consciousness. She laughs. Her classmates laugh. Laughter too communicates belonging (or exclusion) by the way, and here it clearly communicates: “We are with you.” The moment is almost beautiful—it’s lit by the warm glow of belonging. Students feel safe and supported in one another’s company. The level of trust is profound.

Now look at the girls in the front row. Their affirming gazes—eyes turned to Vanessa encouragingly—communicate support, safety, and belonging. In fact, it’s hard to put it into words just how much their glances are communicating—each one is a little different—but they are as critical to shaping the moment as Vanessa’s own character and persona. They foster and protect a space in which her bravery,  humor, and humility can emerge.

Moments that are the converse of this one send equally potent signals, and almost assuredly occur more often in classrooms. The lack of eye contact (or the wrong kind of it) is a signal that something is amiss even if you are told you are a member of a group, and even if someone’s words tell you that you belong. When something feels amiss in the information we receive from the gaze of our peers, we become self-conscious and anxious.

Let’s say you’re at dinner with a handful of colleagues, all sitting around a table. An eye-roll after you speak is a devastating signal. Or if, after you’ve said something, no one looks at you, you start to wonder: Was what I said awkward? Tactless? Clueless? Not-so-funny or even so-not-funny?

Without a confirming glance you are suddenly on edge. Even if you have not been speaking, an ambiguous eye-roll you notice out of the corner of your eye is a source of anxiety. Was that about you? Have you done something to put your belonging at risk? Or suppose you arrive late and saunter over to the table to find that no one looks up; your mind suddenly scrolls through an anxious calculus of what that might mean. Your peers might merely be absorbed in their phones and thus not look up to greet you but your subconscious mind may not distinguish much among potential explanations. No matter the reason for the behavior, it sends a worrying signal of non-belonging. In too many classrooms, students often speak and no one among their peers shows they heard or cared; they struggle and no one shows support. They seek to connect and there is no one signaling a similar willingness. Think here of the loneliest and most disconnected students most of all. How many of them look up to see only disinterest or blank expressions from their classmates? This is the nonverbal environment in which we ask young people to pursue their dreams.

Imagine Vanessa in a room full of averted, disinterested gazes. If she was smart—and if she was like most young people—she’d have known better than to have raised her hand in the first place.