5 ways to boost students' sense of school belonging

5 ways to boost students' sense of school belonging

How strongly a student feels like they “belong” at their school can shape their life, well into adulthood. So how can teachers and schools help students feel like they belong?

Monash’s Kelly-Ann Allen shares strategies that schools and teachers can use to help students develop a greater sense of belonging to their school.

Belonging is a fundamental human need, yet one in four students around the world do not feel a sense of belonging to their school, and numbers are steadily rising.

The impact of this can be huge – not just on a student’s academic achievements, but on their overall wellbeing as adolescents and later as adults.

With the rates of mental illness, disconnection, social isolation and loneliness among young people rising, fostering a sense of belonging at school may help provide a critical solution to a complex social problem.

"The work that we do in school – particularly in terms of making [students] feel more connected, feel safer, feel like the adults around them care about them and want to see them succeed – that has impacts well into adulthood.”
Kathleen Ethier, Director of Adolescent and School Health, Centre for Disease Control

The importance of school belonging

A sense of belonging at school can support students through a particularly vulnerable time when they are forming their identity, developing psychosocial skills and being influenced by their peers.

It can also shape their future interactions, relationships and achievements, and their ability to function and adjust on a psychosocial level, well into adulthood.

Research shows feeling like you belong at school is linked to higher levels of student emotional and physical wellbeing and better academic performance and achievement.

It is positively associated with optimism, self-efficacy, self-esteem, self-concept and sociability. It can reduce the likelihood of mental health problems, promote resilience when mental health difficulties arise and reduce suicidal thoughts and behaviour.

The effects of a lack of belonging

Students who feel they do not belong to their school are more likely to miss school, behave in ways that are not congruent with successful academic outcomes, leave school early, and are at greater risk of school-based violence.

They are also more likely to experience anxiety, depression, and have suicidal thoughts.

A low sense of attachment to school can also increase the “academic achievement gap”, particularly for the most vulnerable students, including Indigenous students and students from low socio-economic backgrounds.

Students lacking a sense of belonging are more likely to experience anxiety, depression, and have suicidal thoughts.

Helping students feel greater connection to their school

Most schools value and prioritise a sense of belonging within their community and want their students to feel connected to their school.

However, there have been few opportunities for schools to access focussed interventions and strategies to help maintain and increase student belonging.

There is no one strategy or intervention that fosters school belonging in students. It is unique and individual and can occur in multiple ways within a school.

Schools should tackle belonging using a whole-school approach that incorporates a range of measures that help to build collaborative and inclusive communities for learning and belonging.

Here are five strategies to get you started.

1. Encourage positive relationships with teachers and school staff

Students should be encouraged to have at least one supportive adult within their school environment – someone who they know, like and have a safe, mutually respectful and supportive relationship with. Not just academic support, but emotional support as well.

The relationships students have at school are important. Students build relationships with all school staff and sometimes have more regular contact with staff who don’t teach in the classroom.

2. Create a positive peer culture of belonging

Peer groups matter. A sense of belonging towards school (or even not belonging towards school) can be contagious.

Schools that have students with a high sense of belonging create a school culture where a sense of school belonging is the norm. They offer school-sanctioned activities and events that promote the school’s ethos and values. These usually are well attended.

Schools need supportive leaders that can clearly communicate the value in school belonging. They should have policies that promote inclusive school environments as places to belong. Expectations of behaviours that foster a sense of belonging for others should run alongside other school-based expectations of behaviour. Teaching such behaviours from the day that students start school is important.

Teaching students’ social and emotional skills can also contribute to a culture of belonging. Such skills allow students to develop and grow skills that foster a sense of belonging for self and others at school.

Schools should have policies that promote inclusive school environments as places to belong.

3. Value learning

Students with a high sense of school belonging value learning, are highly motivated academically and can see the importance and value in what they learn.

Teachers can help this process by ensuring they are emphasising the importance and purpose of the material they present to students, have reasonable and appropriate academic expectations of students within their care, and have self-efficacy, confidence and passion towards the content they are teaching.

4. Take proactive steps towards mental health

All school staff should consider professional development that provides them with the skills to be preventative and responsive to the mental health and wellbeing needs of students. Staff should have basic skills to identify problems as they arise and know appropriate referral pathways.

Here relationships are key. If school staff genuinely know students as individuals, they are more equipped to detect minor nuances that could indicate problems may be occurring, such as an absence in class, or changes in behaviour.

Proactive and preventative steps can be put in place before bigger problems emerge.

5. Don’t neglect parents

Parents have an important role in school communities. However, their perceptions of school and education, and how they value and support their child’s educational experience, have a big influence on their children’s attitudes and beliefs about school.

A parent who values education, sees education as an opportunity for successful outcomes and values and respects school culture and rules is more likely to have a child who feels a sense of school belonging, compared to a parent that grumbles about school, had a bad school experience themselves, and constantly expressed a dislike towards schools.

Schools should communicate to parents that a sense of school belonging is important.

Kelly-Ann Allen has co-written a book with Peggy Kern "Boosting school belonging: Practical strategies to help adolescents feel like they belong at school". It combines theory, research and practical, evidence-based strategies.

References

Allen, K., Kern, M. L., Vella-Brodrick, D., Hattie, J., & Waters, L. (2018). What schools need to know about fostering school belonging: A meta-analysisEducational Psychology Review, 30, 1–34.

Allen, K. A., & Bowles, T. (2013). Belonging as a Guiding Principle in the Education of Adolescents. Australian Journal of Educational and Developmental Psychology, 12, 108-119.

Allen, K. A., Kern, P. Vella-Brodrick, D., & Waters, L. (2017). School Values: A comparison of academic motivation, mental health promotion, and school belonging with student achievementEducational and Developmental Psychologist, 34(1), 31-47.

Allen, K. A., Kern, P., Vella-Brodrick, D., & Waters, L. (2018). Understanding the priorities of Australian secondary schools through an analysis of their mission and vision statementsEducational Administration Quarterly, 54(2), 249-274.

Allen, K. A., Ryan, T., Arslan, G., A., Slaten, C., Ferguson, J.K., Bozoğlan, B. & Vella-Brodrick, D. (2019). (Submitted). Examining predictors of school belonging using a socio-ecological and cross-country perspective. Sociology of Education.

Allen, K. A., Vella-Brodrick, D., & Waters, L. (2017). School belonging and the role of social and emotional competencies in fostering an adolescent’s sense of connectedness to their school. In E. Frydenberg & A. Martin (Eds.), Social and Emotional Learning in the Australasian Context (pp. 83-99). Melbourne, Australia: Springer Social Sciences.

Anderman, E. M. (2002). School effects on psychological outcomes during adolescenceJournal of Educational Psychology, 94(4), 795-809.

Gokmen, A & Allen, K. & Ryan, T. (n.d.) Exploring the Impacts of School Belonging on Youth Wellbeing and Mental Health: A Longitudinal Study. Contemporary Educational Psychology.

Henrich, C. C., Brookmeyer, K. A., & Shahar, G. (2005). Weapon violence in adolescence: Parent and school connectedness as protective factorsJournal of Adolescent Health, 37(4), 306-312.

O'Brien, K. A., & Bowles, T. V. (2013). The importance of belonging for adolescents in secondary school settings. The European Journal of Social & Behavioural Sciences, 5(2), 976-984.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (2015). Students’ sense of belonging at school and their relations with teachers. In PISA 2015 Results (Volume III) Students’ Well-Being (pp. 117–31). Paris, France: OECD.

Roffey, S., & Boyle, C. (2018). Belief, belonging and the role of schools in reducing the risk of home-grown extremism. In K-A Allen & C. Boyle (Eds.), Pathways to Belonging–Contemporary Perspectives of School Belonging. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill.

Shochet, I. M., Smyth, T. L., & Homel, R. (2007). The impact of parental attachment on adolescent perception of the school environment and school connectedness. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 28(2), 109-118.

Sparks, S.D. (2019). Helping Teenagers Feel 'Connected' to School Yields Benefits 20 Years Later. Education Week.

Van Ryzin, M. J., Gravely, A. A., & Roseth, C. J. (2009). Autonomy, belongingness, and engagement in school as contributors to adolescent psychological well-being. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 38(1), 1-12.