This week as I made my way around the district on the first day of school, I was reminded that our experiences on first days are pretty similar. Whether it was the first day of kindergarten, the first day of middle school, or the first day of high school, the pictures on Facebook looked the same….students smiling nervously, parents beaming with pride, and school staff excited for the beginning of another year. The human experience is the human experience. Starting an adventure in a new place is exciting. For our students, for our parents, and for our colleagues, finding a sense of belonging and establishing relationships in that new place is scary and hard and really important. Regardless of what’s new, we all tend to ask ourselves the same questions.
“What should I wear?”
This question feels oh so middle school, but it’s not. I had tons of kindergarteners gushing as they showed me their new outfits on the first day. And I know the high schoolers and their friends talked about what they were wearing for pictures at Orientation. Will this help me fit in? Will this help me stand-out? Am I over-dressed? Under-dressed? Believe it or not, even as adults, we ask ourselves (and our friends) these same questions. We all struggle with the simultaneous desire to fit in and to stand out.
It is easy to dismiss this as a superficial question, but we have all worried about this at some point in our lives. Belonging is a powerful human need. Friendship and relationships are cornerstones of our well-being. This is true for five year olds, eleven year olds, fourteen year olds, and adults. People need a tribe, a community.
This is one of the most powerful ways we can work to make the world a better place. There are tangible things each of us can do to help others feel accepted. Children instinctively know this. They are more likely to talk to someone they do not know, to invite others over to play with them on the playground, or to call someone a friend almost immediately. We lose some of that as we age. My hope for the first days of a new school year is that we all, students, staff, community, reach out to others and make people feel welcome.
And a beautiful side effect of focusing on helping others feel accepted is that it takes our minds off our own need to belong.
“Will I like them?”
I believe we are happier when we are surrounded by people we like, people who lift us up and make us better. In school this can look like spending your time with others who share your academic, athletic, or extra-curricular interests. We know that students who are involved in activities have higher GPAs and are more successful academically in school. I don’t have to “like” you to learn from you and to get better because of you, but it’s sure more fun if I do. Building a network of people you like is important. At work this looks like finding colleagues who are also friends.
Our world gets better when we are accepting of each other.
This is my challenge to you for the new year. Find ways to help others feel like they belong. Focus on being inclusive. Focus on reaching out to someone who is new at school or at work and asking them to join you. Focus on the well-being of others. You’ll be amazed at how much that helps your own well-being.