Developing a Sense of Belonging Through Engagement with Like-Minded Peers: A Matter of Equity
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A sense of belonging means feeling accepted, appreciated, and understood in our relationships with individuals and groups of people. However, students who have abilities and qualities that are exceptionally advanced and qualitatively different from their same age peers may experience a sense of alienation. Gifted students are seeking intellectual, social, and emotional connectedness. This study explores the perspectives of gifted students, their parents, and teachers in relation to developing belonging through opportunities to engage with like-minded peers. The gifted students in this study were seeking relationships with others who thought in similar ways to themselves, as intellectual peers and friends both in and outside school. The study concludes that, for the gifted students in this study, their engagement with like-minded peers afforded opportunities for belonging and connectedness. Having a sense of school belonging removes a potential barrier to achievement for gifted learners, and this, it is argued, is a matter of equity.
KeywordsBelonging Equity Gifted Like-minded peers
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (United Nations General Assembly 1989) recognises all children’s rights to be active participants in matters affecting their lives, and this right extends to their learning. Being an active participant in one’s learning implies positive outcomes, relationships, and engagement, factors predicated upon a sense of belonging. Belonging is a complex concept, described as having overlapping dimensions (Sumsion and Wong 2011), requiring identity shifts and transformations (Hughes 2010). Belonging has also been described as physical, in that the environment can provide safe places for engaging with others or working alone (Radich 2012). Thus, belonging is about familiarity, comfort, security, and emotional attachment (Antonsich 2010), acquired through continuity and memory (Robinson and Notara 2015). Connectedness refers to the quality and number of connections one has with people and places (Robinson and Notara 2015). The subjective interpretations of the quality of one’s relationships are more important to one’s sense of belonging, than the more objective number or nature of relationships (Walton and Cohen 2011).
‘Belonging in school’ brings together the concepts of belonging and connectedness, with school children feeling “personally accepted, respected, included, and valued by others” (Goodenow 1993, p. 80). The interactions between physical and relational factors in school help children feel safe and secure (Robinson and Notara 2015). There is also evidence of interactions between school belonging and students’ academic and psychological well-being (Tillery et al. 2013). These interactions help us understand why school belonging has become an outcome of some school improvement initiatives (e.g., New Zealand Education Review Office 2013) and inclusion debates (Greenstein 2014).
Inclusion has at least two components, belongingness and uniqueness. To be included indicates that one’s needs are satisfied within a group that connects with the individual (rather than the other way around) (Jansen et al. 2014). The uniqueness of individuals in a classroom or learning community is potentially both the catalyst and barrier for inclusion (Jansen et al. 2014). In other words, inclusion, whether granted or claimed, refers to connectedness with others through social bonds and relationships mediated by individual uniqueness (de Waal-Andrews and van Beest 2012). Thus, being included “partly depends on the match between ourselves and other group members” and “is more easily secured when other group members are more similar to us” (Jansen et al. 2014, p. 370).
However, when group members are categorised based on similarities, this categorisation can invoke questions about who belongs, to what and on whose terms (Sumsion and Wong 2011), potentially creating marginalisation, exclusion, and parameters for belonging (Scorgie 2015). Importantly, as Sumsion and Wong (2011) explain, even when an individual may have fluid, multiple senses of belonging, externally constructed and imposed categories can act to limit their belonging, and this is particularly so in school settings. Some of the inclusive education literature and research tends to focus on this notion that categorisation leads to exclusion and, more specifically, that the categorisation of giftedness leads to segregation, marginalisation, and social injustice (e.g., Sapon-Shevin 1996). In short, gifted education can be seen as a challenge to equity.
Equity in education is defined as fair and inclusive, supporting students to reach their potential and removing any barriers to their learning (Schleicher 2014). Equity stipulates individual rights and fair access to opportunities, with freedom from bias and favouritism. Equity can be seen as an equaliser, but this social justice notion often fails to discriminate between equality of access, services, and outcomes (Sapon-Shevin 1996). It is important that inequities are recognised, but, perhaps more importantly, that new structures support more equitable practices, policies, and structures (Jacobs et al. 2014) which can lead to different student outcomes. “Ultimately, the purpose of equalizing opportunity is not to achieve the same outcome for all but to allow individuals to cultivate their potential and find their niche” (Dai 2013, p. 98).
This article challenges the notion that giftedness is exclusionary, by positioning gifted provisions as expressions of equity. As Borland (1989) argued, all children deserve to have their individual needs met, including gifted students, and “equity in education fundamentally concerns the opportunity to learn and to be intellectually challenged” (Dai 2013, p. 98). Furthermore, we argue that in order for gifted learners to develop a sense of belonging, it is important they engage with others of similar, yet individually unique, abilities, and qualities through a range of gifted provisions.
Engagement with like-minded peers has long been purported to be a benefit of gifted education programmes, but there has been limited research investigating the construct of like-mindedness. Levine and Cox (2005) discuss the idea of like-minded students as being those who share perspectives and viewpoints. An alternative view relates more to notions of group identity and connectedness whereby individuals deemed like-minded are those who are well connected to one another and share common interests (Mondani et al. 2014). For the purposes of our research, like-minded has been defined as students who share similar learning characteristics and dispositions; and those who learn, think, and feel in comparable ways. However, our definition, like the ones found in the literature, is but a starting point. This article shares the results of a study with four gifted students, their parents, and teachers, probing their perspectives of like-mindedness and exploring the implications for further research and practice.
Belonging as Identity Congruence
Social identity congruence is personal identity with peers (or identities made available by the group).
Operational identity congruence refers to identifying with the group’s processes, practices, and technologies.
Knowledge-related identity congruence refers to “ideas, concepts, and knowledges that are under construction” (Hughes 2010, p. 48).
Hughes acknowledges that different learners will have different opportunities and preparedness to negotiate their identity congruence, and some learners may not be able to make shifts or transformations to their identity and, consequently, withdraw from the group. It has also been argued that willingness to negotiate identity is variable (Rao et al. 2014). There can be some resistance to imposed categories of belonging and subsequent positioning (Sumsion and Wong 2011). These are interesting differences to consider in light of Hughes’ conclusion that of the different forms of identity congruence, it is knowledge-related identity that is most fundamental to engagement and learning. Importantly, there are many overlapping dimensions of belonging: emotional, social, cultural, spatial, temporal, physical, spiritual, moral/ethical, political, and legal (Sumsion and Wong 2011). One’s uniqueness is an important lens with which to negotiate identity congruency.
Negotiating Identity Congruencies as a Gifted Learner
Through the literature, the voices of gifted students express common threads of “longing to belong” (Blackett 2006, p. 15), the desire to feel accepted and understood for who they are (Adams-Byers et al. 2004; Wood 2010), and having peers who share common experiences of growing up gifted (Eckstein 2009) and who are responsive to personal and emotional needs (Chin and Harrington 2009). This desire to belong is not uncommon or unusual for any child or young person to express, but for gifted students there is a unique set of differences.
Common clusters of characteristics are associated with giftedness in relation to learning, creative thinking, motivation, social leadership, and self-determination (McAlpine and Reid 1996; New Zealand Ministry of Education 2000, 2012). While these behaviours are often cited in regards to intellectual prowess, many can be applied across different types of giftedness, revealing themselves in different ways. For example, gifted students often learn at a rapid pace, easily grasping underlying concepts and making connections between big ideas. While these characteristics are mostly beneficial to learners, they can also present a set of challenges in terms of social identities, particularly in the absence of like-minded peers. Personal identification with peers draws on self-representations, as part of social identity congruence (Hughes 2010).
Gifted students present some characteristics that are simply out-of-sync and out-of-line with their same-age and different-ability peers. These abilities include special qualities and behaviours, which may not be reflected in curricular achievement or might even create conflict. For example, Riley (2015) discussed how gifted learners’ modes of thinking, as outlined by Lovecky (1994), can present social challenges. Riley explains that “being able to think metaphorically; reason logically, yet in the abstract; solve multiple problems in tandem; think paradoxically; and make logical connections, leads to different ways of communicating, feeling and experiencing the world around us” (2015, para 9).
Often social norms and expectations of age peers do not align with the interests, motivations, and ways of learning which gifted students experience. There can be pressures to conform which relate to subject specific acceptability, gender, age, and cultural norms (Handel et al. 2013; Lovett 2011; Jung et al. 2011). Gross (1989) described a ‘Forced Choice Dilemma’, where students feel they must choose between social acceptance and academic goals. To participate in activities which are not accepted as the norm, or to participate or achieve in a way that is not considered socially acceptable, may result in peer group exclusion, teasing, and bullying (Adams-Byers et al. 2004; Handel et al. 2013; Peterson and Ray 2006). This pressure can result in subject avoidance and reduced freedom to follow interests and strengths.
Spending time with like-minded peers provides a frame of reference which can help gifted and talented learners to feel accepted, understood and valued, impacting positively on self-concept of acceptance (Adams-Byers et al. 2004; Vogl and Preckel 2014). Failure to engage with peers who accept one’s differences can result in multiple identities being developed for different educational contexts (Gross 1998). It is important to remain mindful that the quality of relationships is not always equal (Jung et al. 2011), and it is one’s interpretations of the quality of relationships that strongly affects well-being (Walton and Cohen 2011).
While variance in the number and types of connections students seek is recognised (Berlin 2009; Kindermann 2007; Olszewski-Kubilius et al. 2014), it must be acknowledged that it can be very difficult for gifted and talented learners to have sufficient opportunities to connect with suitable peers (Wood 2010). This can be particularly so for those who have higher degrees of giftedness (New Zealand Ministry of Education 2012), with multi-exceptionalities (King 2005), of minority cultures (Jung et al. 2011) or with interests which do not align with the social norms and expectations of other students (Chin and Harrington 2009; Handel et al. 2013; Lovett 2011; New Zealand Ministry of Education 2012). These gifted learners have been described as “low opportunity, underrepresented students” (Grantham 2012, p. 219).
Thus, grouping gifted students may contribute, in part, to operational identity congruence—or how a group operates (Hughes 2010). Spending time with like-minded peers affords such occasions wherein students develop socio-affective skills through interactions within the context of sharing interests and being challenged. Burney (2008) notes that social modelling is afforded by peers. Development of social skills can give a sense of personal strength to students, thus helping to develop their self-concept (Wood and Zundans-Fraser 2013).
cultivate new learning and growth (Sanderson and Greenberger 2010);
ask questions, share ideas, and achieve without fear of peer rejection or ridicule (Adams-Byers et al. 2004);
engage in high level discourse (Netz 2014);
work at a pace commensurate to their abilities (Burney 2008); and
feel challenged and inspired by peers (Sanderson and Greenberger 2010).
Knowledge-related congruence can be negotiated as gifted students identify with ideas, concepts and knowledge under construction—and it is this identity congruence that is fundamental for engagement and learning (Hughes 2010).
Engaging with Like-Minds
What does the term ‘like-minded peers’ mean?
What opportunities allow for engagement with like-minded peers?
How does engagement with like-minded peers impact academic, social and emotional development?
This small-scale qualitative case study was situated in a state intermediate school (years 7–8), which housed a Gifted Kids classroom, in a suburb of Auckland, New Zealand. Gifted Kids was a withdrawal 1-day class for gifted students (which in 2015 was replaced by MindPlus). The Gifted Kids programme was chosen by the research team for its clearly articulated definition and criteria for giftedness, which is important in undertaking research in New Zealand where each school is tasked with creating, adapting or adopting its own definition and identification based on the needs of the local community (New Zealand Ministry of Education 2012). This purposeful sample helped the researchers understand the research questions (Creswell 2014).
The lead researcher was a member of the Board of Directors for the Gifted Kids programme at the time the research commenced, so another researcher was engaged in the collection of interview data and responsible for anonymising all data before analysis. Prior to commencing the interviews, the study was reviewed and approved by the Massey University Human Ethics Committee. The researchers adhered to the ethical principles of informed and voluntary consent, respect for privacy and confidentiality, avoidance of conflict of role/interest and minimisation of risk to participants.
The Gifted Kids Programme
At the time of this study, the Gifted Kids entry selection process was multi-dimensional, involving subjective and objective data collection, with both group and individual assessment components and gathering information from a range of sources. Based on outstanding academic and/or creative performance or potential ability, students were initially referred to the programme by their teachers and/or family. Nominated students were invited to participate in a 3-h session coordinated by three specialist educators, experienced in the identification of gifted children. Students, in groups of up to 16, participated and interacted in a range of activities designed to identify characteristics of giftedness. Data from school, home, and the workshop was gathered, triangulated, and compared to benchmarks for programme entry. Importantly, the entry process sought to identify students who would benefit from the specially-designed curriculum (rather than in search of a gifted label). Bringing like-minds together was fundamental to the Gifted Kids curriculum and enabled the delivery of the programme goals (Bate et al. 2012).
The Case Study
This case study was designed to enable the study of like-mindedness bound by the parameters of a cohort of four students in a year 8 Gifted Kids classroom during the final year of their engagement with the programme. The students, James, Rex, Matt, and Sally; their specialist teacher, Maggie; regular classroom teachers; and one of each of their parents were involved in the study and each given psuedonyms. James was 13 years old and in his fourth year at Gifted Kids. James was the oldest of three children, living with both parents. He was passionate about history and economics, interests that had been sparked by his previous regular classroom teacher. As James explained, his interest in economics arose out of a complex question: “even though we invented the system, we still have no idea how it works.” Rex was also 13 years old with a keen interest in “anthropology which is the formation of two favourite things which is biology and history.” With only one sibling who was 7 years younger, Rex was being raised by both his parents who had immigrated to New Zealand from China before his birth. Rex was in his second year of the specialist programme. Matt was 12 years old, with a younger sister and living with both parents. Matt was in his third year in the programme, having transferred from another provider’s 1-day-a-week programme when the family relocated. Matt described himself as “a curious individual who likes getting out there and giving things a go.” Sally, the younger of two girls in her family, was 12 years old at the time of the interviews, just a fortnight short of her 13th birthday. She had been in the one-day-a-week programme for 2 years and was described by her specialist teacher, as the “middle of the top group” amongst the gifted students, with excellent writing skills, reflective of her intellect. Sally lived with her mum and dad.
Data Collection and Analysis
Using a semi-structured interview approach, all participants were asked to explain what ‘like-minded peers’ meant to them, to describe the gifted student’s opportunities for engagement with like-minded peers and to discuss the impact of like-minded peers on social, emotional and academic development. This approach to data collection enabled the researchers to gather information that could not be directly observed, but is limited in its reliance on articulate and perceptive participants (Creswell 2014). Interviews were held after school in the Gifted Kids classroom and children’s homes, environments natural to all participants. Each individual 20–30 min interview was transcribed and read and re-read, to enable familiarisation with the data. Using independent, inductive thematic analysis, the researchers identified common themes and patterns between and across the interview data from the students, their teachers, and parents. Bringing these independent views together, through debate and discussion, brought to the fore the themes most common and relevant to the research questions, and enabled a checking and re-checking of the independent analyses. This inductive approach (Creswell 2014) enabled a rich description, primarily using the voices of the gifted students, triangulated with their parents’ and teachers’ perspectives.
Findings and Discussion
Like-mindedness in gifted students is characterised by thinking processes.
Gifted students have multiple like-minded peer groups.
Like-minded gifted peers develop friendships.
Each of these themes will be discussed with evidence from interviews and in relation to the literature in this section of the article.
Like-Mindedness is Characterised by Thinking Processes
All participants were asked to describe what the term ‘like-minded’ meant to them. Each of the students referred to having (1) similar thinking processes, which differ from what they considered the norm, and (2) similar outcomes of thinking, or thinking with similar results. The students’ interpretations of like-mindedness were supported, and sometimes elaborated upon, by the parents’ and teachers’ views. James discussed “people who think the same as me” and Sally elaborated upon this idea of similar thinking by referring to “people …who have got more or less the same style or way of thinking.” Matt shared that for him a like-minded peer was someone who was “…similar and thinks on the same kind of path as you.”
Rex talked about like-mindedness as “someone who thinks not exactly the same, but in a similar process” and he felt there were very few peers at school who he could get along with; as he expressed, “there is not a lot of people who think in the way that I do.” According to his gifted teacher, Rex was seeking intellectual engagement and had lots of pent up need for like-minded peers when he joined the gifted programme.
Kelly, a teacher with five gifted students in her mainstream classroom, including Sally, also explained like-mindedness as “their way of thinking” which she felt was different from other learners but similar amongst the gifted. Matt’s mum, Kate, also believed that gifted students think in a “similar fashion” which she described as “quirky” and not fitting “the mainstream processing methodology.” This difference in thinking was reiterated by all parents, but Sally’s mother added another important dimension to like-mindedness, peer acceptance. She explained that like-minded peers share “a similar way of looking at the world… but also an acceptance of people and their viewpoints.” By this, she meant that like-minded peers accept one another’s ways of thinking and perceiving. Sally held a similar belief that someone who is like-minded is understanding and non-judgmental.
James and Rex’s mainstream teacher considered like-minded students as being on the “same level” and in the “same social group.” He explained that the boys’ like-mindedness enabled them to get along with each other, relating both intellectually and socially. As he stated, “They get on with each other, they understand what they are talking about, the topics that they talk about, in and out of class.” This teacher’s view highlights that like-mindedness is about belonging.
The perspectives of the participants in this study support the important connections between how and what one thinks in relation to their peers, particularly in contexts for learning. This reciprocal interaction between like-minded learners results in opportunities for strengthening the connections between self-concept, motivation and achievement, which in turn, enhances well-being and increases achievement (Wolf and Chessor 2011). Importantly, feeling valued and accepted by others means feeling a sense of belonging (Jose and Pryor 2010), an experience that may not be afforded to some gifted learners Gifted students want to belong, feel accepted and understood, and they seek opportunities to belong through multiple pathways.
Multiple Like-Minded Peer Groups
… for the Saturday school, there is more like co-operation and getting by, for the regular like outside of school, there is like more playing and that stuff like social interaction like that, and then here at school cause I see them every day stuff, it is more of both.
The students in this study each had many different opportunities to connect and re-connect with different like-minded peers in different settings and for different motivations. This affirms variance in the number and types of connections students seek as cited in theory and research (Berlin 2009; Kindermann 2007; Olszewski-Kubilius et al. 2014), but, it must be acknowledged that it can be very difficult for some gifted and talented learners to have sufficient opportunities to connect with suitable peers to meet these needs (Wood 2010). As highlighted by the New Zealand Ministry of Education (2012), students who are highly gifted, have multiple exceptionalities, or from different cultures, especially Māori and Pasifika, are at risk of not being identified and included in gifted groupings. Also, students who have interests which do not align with the social norms and expectations of other students, can also struggle to identify with a like-minded peer group (Chin and Harrington 2009; Handel et al. 2013; Lovett 2011; New Zealand Ministry of Education 2012). Opportunities to bring like-minded learners together at school is afforded through the use of flexible grouping, described as a means by which “… gifted and talented students are not always in the same group with the same peers, but all learners are given opportunities to learn with like-minded peers” (Riley et al. 2015, p. 31).
Like-Minded Peers Develop into Friendships
Maggie, the gifted teacher, distinguished between like-minded intellectual peers and like-minded social peers, but the students in the study did not always make this distinction. Rather, they considered their intellectual peers as social peers. Their closest friends were most commonly identified as gifted and these friendships carried on across both the regular classroom and one-day-a-week programmes. Importantly, the students in this study valued these like-minded friendships, with each of them rating the importance of friends as a seven or above on a scale of ten.
Each of the students had one or two very close friends, other than Matt who had developed a much wider friendship circle with three to four like-minded peers in the gifted programme and eight to ten “more fun” but “not smart” friends in his regular classroom. Sally had experienced changes in her friendship circle because of family relocation, but at the time of the study had two very good friends, both in the gifted programme and whom her mother referred to as “The Three Musketeers”.
The students were able to articulate what they sought in their relationships, reflecting like-mindedness as if looking in a mirror. The students sought friends who were intelligent, and when asked to describe the qualities of these friends, they often referred to characteristics associated with giftedness. Matt explained that he enjoyed friends who are “fun but not silly.” Sally also wanted to have fun, but indicated some concerns about being picked on by others not in her friendship circle. As she explained, “Well sometimes, like with my friends, we kind of tease each other for fun, but it is not mean-spirited”.
Rex felt that like-mindedness in friendships was not necessarily foundational for him as much as it was aspirational, “I wouldn’t say like me, I would say someone who is, not someone like me, someone who I would like to be.” In other words, Rex was not looking for friends who were copycat images of himself, but rather those who had traits and qualities he sought to develop within himself. Rex and Matt both sought kindness in their friendships. The boys also looked for friends who were conversationalists. James explained that if a peer was an intelligent talker, focused on interests different from his own, he would “try and understand” those interests. Matt enjoyed “big conversations” that, as James explained, were wide-ranging discussions of everything from history to pop culture. Sally sought friends who would listen to and understand her, while James described himself as a listener.
The students in this study sought friendships with like-minded peers with whom they could relate intellectually, and, thus, socially. The students were very aware of their own skills, abilities, and qualities, as well as those they sought to develop. This awareness of self, coupled with self-concept and socio-affective skills, provides fertile ground for the development of key competencies as outlined in the New Zealand Curriculum (New Zealand Ministry of Education 2007). Through like-minded friendships, gifted students have opportunities for managing self, relating to others, and participating and contributing. These are important outcomes for learners, as outlined by the New Zealand Education Review Office (2013), and align with the inclusion principle which advocates for all students to have a sense of belonging and connection to school, to whānau, to friends, and to the community.
Before any conclusions regarding like-mindedness and belonging in gifted students can be drawn, it is important to recognise the limitations of this study. Firstly, this was a small scale study, with only four students, their parents, and teachers, all of whom volunteered to participate, were an active part of a gifted programme, and may have been biased in their views of like-mindedness. This raises a second limitation, in that the sample of gifted students were participants in a specialist programme with a curriculum which emphasised their personal development and understanding of their abilities, as well as their thinking skills. Nonetheless, the study provides a depth of understanding of like-minded peers from gifted learners’ perspectives. The findings can assist practitioners in facilitating opportunities for developing their sense of belonging, and guide researchers in asking more and different questions about gifted learners’ engagement with like-minded peers and its importance to their sense of belonging.
Engagement with like-minded peers has been shown, by the participants in this study, to have a bearing on their identity congruence, which, in turn, influences their sense of belonging. The emphasis on seeking and engaging peers with similar processes of thinking reflects the development of knowledge-related identity, alongside seeking multiple peer groups, familial relationships and friendships as part of social identity development (Hughes 2010). This is a powerful combination for gifted learners, as it reflects a sharing of common knowledge-related values and identities which creates strong connections with other people (Shnabel et al. 2013). The students in this study, through their many different peer groupings, were afforded several catalysts for like-minded interactions, and these may have contributed, in part, to their operational identity congruence. Linking thinking to like-mindedness may have been influenced by their involvement in a specialist programme, part of their operational identity in that group.
We conclude that, for the gifted students in this study, their engagement with like-minded peers afforded opportunities for belonging and connectedness. These concepts are fundamental to belonging in school (Goodenow 1993) and the development of feelings of social inclusion. The unique way in which gifted students think, may, however, create barriers to their inclusion, especially if they are misunderstood or misperceived by their peers who think differently. For an equitable education experience, those barriers must be removed for gifted learners, in part, by flexible grouping across a continuum of provisions.
We acknowledge that grouping of gifted learners creates tensions and challenges to some educators’ perceptions of these concepts, and we are not advocating for hard and fast tracking or streaming of students based solely on narrowly focused achievement measures. But, fairness means that no obstacle—including ability—should be in the way of achievement. For gifted learners to experience their right of belonging in school, it is critical they engage with others of similar, yet uniquely different, abilities and qualities. Having a sense of school belonging removes a potential barrier to achievement for gifted learners.
The authors would like to acknowledge Janna Wardman, Deborah Walker, and Carola Sampson for their involvement in this research. We would also like to thank the Gifted Kids Board of Directors, teachers, parents, and most importantly, students, for their engagement in this research.
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