Last month, three of Motivate Lab’s research assistants were invited to New York City to present at the January session of the Advanced Academic and Personal Behaviors Institute (AAPBI). This monthly conference is sponsored by the New York City Department of Education and Eskolta, a nonprofit organization that focuses on school-improvement initiatives for urban public schools in the NYC area.

Lee Williams, Katherine Sublett, and Quinn Hirschi were asked to lead a breakout session detailing a social belonging intervention they have been piloting for the last two years at Albemarle High School (AHS) in Charlottesville, VA.

Social belonging is defined as the ways in which a student feels connected to his or her school’s social atmosphere. This project is aimed at assessing and improving the social belonging perceptions of rising freshman students as they make the critical transition from middle to high school. Previous research has shown correlations between social belonging and outcomes related to the achievement gap, including higher GPA’s and reduced drop-out rates. In other words, when a student feels connected to her school’s social atmosphere, she is more likely to earn better grades and graduate from high school on time.

At AAPBI, the Motivate Lab team presented targeted suggestions and specific methodologies for creating a social belonging intervention of this nature and workshopped ways teachers can integrate this project into their current curricula. Motivate Lab’s Director, Chris Hulleman, also led a session detailing various ways teachers can help students make connections between their course material and the real world. He kicked off the conference by presenting strategies for promoting student “voice” and “choice” in the classroom.

Hirschi, a social psychology doctoral student, expressed how valuable it was for the team to receive firsthand feedback from teachers. “We spend a lot of time reading about and analyzing data on the particular challenges high school students face—but we don’t interact with high school students regularly,” she explained. “It was refreshing to talk to teachers about the specific challenges they see their students struggling with on a daily basis, and a great reminder of how important it is to keep the channels of communication between researchers and practitioners open as we continue to develop our work.”

The Social Belonging project was created in 2016 by Williams, Sublett, and two other Curry School of Education students who have since graduated, after completing a group project for their Introduction to Youth and Social Innovations course. The four students then received a Jefferson Public Citizens (JPC) research grant to conduct their study at AHS. Hulleman served as the faculty advisor on the project. They went on to win first place at the 2017 JPC presentation competition and have been brought on to the Motivate Lab team to complete a second pilot phase of the intervention at AHS. Hirschi has since supplemented the project with a grant from the Power Violence Inequality Collective (PVI). This funding has allowed the team to survey additional students at Harrisonburg High School in Harrisonburg, VA, thus expanding the original scope of the intervention. This project has been featured on local Charlottesville news stations and upcoming findings will be presented at the 2018 Society for Personality and Social Psychology Convention in Atlanta, Georgia.

 “We have been so thankful for the opportunity to work with incredible individuals both in the Albemarle School System and at the AAPBI conference in New York to help us develop and continuously improve this intervention,” said Sublett. “Every student deserves to feel like a valued, unique part of a positive and safe school atmosphere, and we believe this project has the potential to make a real impact in our partner communities.” For more information on this project, visit the Social Belonging project page.

Katherine Sublett is a fourth-year undergraduate at the University of Virginia. Following graduation in May 2018, she will begin the Masters of School Counseling program through the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education.