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Why Belong? 

For years I had been working with foster and adoptive families whose children were struggling in school. Parents were stressed by frequent calls to pick up their children from school and were worried about losing their jobs. Children struggled to make use of educational and social opportunities, their behaviour leading to modified days, multiple suspensions and breakdown of relationships. There had to be a different way! Drawing upon my training in DDP and long-ago ropes-course and camp director experiences I wanted a classroom that could provide the emotional safety that these students needed to learn and heal. Belong is that classroom. 

The value of DDP for educators and The Belong program is described fully in Belonging; A relationship-Based Approach for Trauma-Informed Education.

What is the Belong Program

Belong is a Section 23 classroom, which means that it is an Education and Community Partnership Program for students who can’t access education in a regular classroom setting. Belong was developed specifically for students who have challenging behaviour reflecting underlying attachment and trauma difficulties. The name was chosen to give students who have very little sense of belonging in school a place to belong. It is a partnership between Algonquin & Lakeshore Catholic District School Board Limestone District School Board, and the Maltby Center in Kingston, Ontario.


Our team consists of a teacher, educational assistant and child and youth worker. We also offer long term placements to students enrolled in programs such as social work, occupational therapy, child and youth worker or psychology. Supply staff are kept consistent and the teacher ensures they understand the different approach in the classroom before they come. The team is offered clinical supervision by Sian.


Since the whole program is predicated on the building of relationships, the quality of the relationships between staff members must be high and supported on an ongoing basis. It is essential for the staff to work as a team and to have a high degree of trust and enjoyment of one-another to be able to support the students. As such, the composition of the team must be a thoughtful and essential process and ongoing support is part of our program.


A section 23 classroom allows for 8 students. Students are selected for the program when it is clear that their schooling is compromised by behaviour indicative of attachment and trauma issues. Students are not taken on a first come first served basis but are carefully selected to ensure that they will manage as a group within the classroom. We try to select students in Grades 1-3. They typically stay with us for 2 years. A focus on earlier grades is done with the hope that earlier support can foster more successful relationships throughout their school experience.


Building trust with parents is a critical component of our program. Parents are invited to the classroom to participate in activities with their child. Daily communication occurs through text and phone with the focus on communicating the student’s strengths and accomplishments. Many of our parents have experienced only negative or crisis oriented communication and speak emotionally of getting regular pictures and messages about their child doing well. Parents are invited each month to a shared breakfast and workshop that focuses on helping them understand their child’s behaviour and how to respond with PACE.


Dyadic Developmental Practice informs all relationships and curriculum. At Belong, staff use PACE to create emotional safety. Academics are not the priority initially and are not introduced until there is evidence of the child beginning to trust one or more of the staff team. Initially, emphasis is placed on storytelling, sensory motor activities and play-based activities. Learning is introduced in a way that allows children to start with success and in partnership with a staff member. Coen from the University of Virginia discovered that children can learn better for longer when in the presence of their attachment figures. Consequently, staff stay close to the students until they feel more confident of their abilities and can move to being more independent in their work. Co-regulation of the students’ emotions occurs before we expect self-regulation. All staff have equal responsibility for co-regulating student’s emotions. Learning is subcortically driven and focuses on right brain functions prior to strengthening left brain functions. Regular curriculum includes; Strengthening Relationships: Students learn first to trust the adults in the room and then helped to build peer relationships. Connection is always primary and preceeds any limits or consequences. Safety: Teachers go beyond fire drills and lock downs and talk frequently of emotional safety. Saying Sorry: Reparation is crucial for helping students to trust in relationships. Adults always assume responsibility for repairing relationships when there is a disruption. Dependence: We believe that children can’t be independent until they first learn to be dependent. We allow students to depend physically, emotionally and cognitively on the staff even though they may be capable of being independent. Play: Children who have been hurt rarely know how to play and this prevents them from building neural networks that allow them to relax, have fun, learn to take manageable risks and be open and engaged in relationships. It is as critical to teach the students how to up-regulate positive emotions as it is to down-regulate more negative emotions. Teaching: More formal teaching occurs when the child is ready. In addition to math, language, science, students are taught about the brain. They learn how their brain functions when they are stressed, scared or feeling safe. When ready, they learn how to calm their amygdala first by relying on adults and then more independently.