Fostering Belonging – Mental Health Blogging Series

By Daniel Gonzalez (UF/IFAS Extension Palm Beach County) and Chelsea Jones (Cornell Cooperative Extension Cortland County)  

We welcome you back to our mental health blogging series, where we discuss each of the 4-H Essential Elements and how to nurture such with youth, youth volunteers, and our fellow educators. In this blog, we are focusing on belonging. Belonging is defined as the experience and feeling of being part of a group, such as a family, friends, team, community, etc.   

As the summer months are coming to a close, youth and their families are preparing to return to school-year activities. Involving youth in activities where they can experience a sense of belonging is encouraged because it has been proven to be a useful component of positive youth development. There are numerous articles as to “why” belonging is important written by our colleagues at the University of Wyoming, Michigan State University, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and others. As for the “how” to create a sense of belonging, we’re going to refer to the article, “Creating a Sense of Belonging in 4-H” written by a fellow UF/IFAS Extension Agent, Claire Davis.  

4-H programming is an example of a group where youth, adults, and educators can work together to create a sense of belonging. Claire Davis’s article outlines the implementation of practices that result in the experience of belonging. These activities include: 

  • Welcoming new members – There is power and beauty in being seen, heard, and valued. Ensuring that youth in your surroundings (inside and outside of 4-H) experience recognition may be the first time that day they feel welcomed. A fun way to do this is through an icebreaker activity – all it takes is a simple internet search to get great ideas! 
  • Creating a safe space – Is there any risk (physical, mental, or emotional) in the situation or environment? We know that harm done to youth can present itself far beyond the event in which they are involved. Thus, are there ground rules in place to maintain respect and safety? Of equal importance, is there a culture of approachability in which youth can disclose their thoughts, emotions, fears, and desires? If the answer is “yes,” we’re in good shape! 
  • Encouraging engagement – Youth have emotions, thoughts, and experiences that are often as complex as those of adults. Encourage youth to share them! If you have followed the previous tips, then the youth in your group already know they are in a situation in which they are welcomed and safe, with ground rules. Be sure to ask discussion questions, be open to differing points of view, as well as considering questions from the group. This society would not be as advanced as it is without someone being bold enough to ask questions and someone being vulnerable enough to listen.

Ultimately, everyone can recall a situation in which they felt as if they did not belong. Do we desire youth under our care to ever feel the same way because of something we were able to control?  

Through fostering belonging, youth will be able to look back and know that they were accepted, known, and included as they were. That experience also encourages them to foster belonging in others and gives them something to look for as they continue on their journey within their professional and personal lives. 


Did you find the above blog useful? Please let us know by completing this brief Qualtrics survey: This blog is a product of a larger mental health blogging series. If interested in receiving more information, please reach out to Daniel Gonzalez ( and Chelsea Jones (    


Stay tuned for our next blog in the series this coming October, discussing the essential element of Mastery! 


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Posted: August 9, 2023

Category: 4-H & Youth, Camp, Clubs & Volunteers, Professional Development, UF/IFAS, UF/IFAS Extension, UF/IFAS Research, UF/IFAS Teaching,
Tags: Educators, Mental Health, Volunteers, Youth

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