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.
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.
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.
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