How to create a sense of belonging as students return to the classroom in 2022

How to create a sense of belonging as students return to the classroom in 2022

The last two years of COVID-19 restrictions – where children had a mix of school and home-based learning – has impacted their sense of belonging. But in the face of ongoing uncertainty, what do students suggest to help them feel a part of school?

Monash’s Educational and Developmental Psychologist Kelly-Ann Allen offers insights from her latest research.

As school-based education continues after a disruptive two years, between 30 to 50 per cent of students do not feel a sense of belonging to school. A sense of belonging to school protects students from developing mental health problems and improves their motivation for schoolwork, and its benefits continue well into adulthood.

Based on our latest research, where we asked students what they needed to help them restore their sense of belonging to school, we can offer teachers these six steps to help bring back that connection between students and their school.

1. Be approachable and understanding

Eighty-seven per cent of students surveyed said teachers being approachable and understanding was important to improving their sense of belonging. They want teachers to notice when they are struggling and to ask how they are doing. To build closer connections, teachers should take a genuine interest in who the students are as individuals, what is happening in their lives, and check in on their general wellbeing.

2. Offer ongoing support and constructive feedback

More than a third of students we surveyed (36 per cent) felt support and feedback on their learning increased their sense of belonging to their school. It is important to check if students understand their tasks and help them work to the best of their ability. Offering constructive feedback and implementing progress checks on their work was suggested by our participants.

Primary school teacher working with children offering support and guidance
Offering constructive feedback and support to students can help improve their sense of belonging.

3. Create an environment of respect, equity, and diversity

A quarter of our participants highlighted the importance of teachers showing respect, equity, and diversity. They want the creation of a more inclusive environment among students and specifically more LGBTQIA+ inclusivity. Teachers need to listen carefully for language that might create barriers for some students and take it seriously. Encouraging students to be themselves and share their different opinions openly will also help create that safe space.

4. Provide encouragement and opportunities

The importance of providing encouragement and opportunities to strengthen school belonging was felt by 19 percent of participants. Students want to feel like they can offer something to the school, so try to encourage their talents and build on their strengths; recognise their efforts and achievements; and allow them to help their peers.

School kids in class using a digital tablet
Allowing students to help their peers can strengthen school belonging.

5. Connection with a cross-section of peers to build a sense of unity

Students are depending on teachers to help them better connect with their peers. They reported that they needed help to facilitate interactions with peers as sometimes it feels awkward – especially after holiday periods and lockdowns. Suggestions they gave to improve this connection were the promotion of more discussions in the classroom across friend groups to prevent exclusion. They are keen to see engagement with many different people in the class to create a welcoming environment and a sense of unity.

6. Encourage involvement in school events

Students sometimes need encouragement from teachers to partake in voluntary school events and extra-curricular activities. They want to socialise with their peers, those in other year levels, and their teachers, in an environment other than the classroom to create a sense of community within the entire school. Students suggested clubs for those with special interests, free dress days, excursions, end of term celebrations, and more social activities to bond with peers. Pay particular attention to ensure students are not left out of group activities.

Group Of Students Playing In School Orchestra Together
Encouraging students to take part in extra-curricular activities can help them bond with their peers.

While the six steps above can be implemented daily, more long-term strategies can be constructed to ensure students’ sense of belonging continues long into the future.

A school-wide vision and a mission statement that prioritises school belonging can be established. The school can create policies and procedures to ensure a positive, safe, nurturing, and inclusive environment. It can empower students to make choices and ensure their voices are heard.

For a free school belonging policy see the Building Better Schools resource Monash offers.

Alternatively, if you are a school leader who prioritises belonging, Monash offers a school-based belonging evaluation. Get in touch with kelly-ann.allen@monash.edu to find out more.

Acknowledgements

The research presented in this article is based on work conducted at Monash Education by a team led by Kelly-Ann Allen with Emily Berger, Lefteris Patlamazoglou, Nick Gamble, Gerald Wurf, Christine Grove, and Andrea Reupert.