School belonging and how we can foster it

School belonging is understood to be about feeling personally accepted, respected and included within a school environment. Its effects can last a lifetime.

“Belonging is considered to be a fundamental human need, hardwired into our DNA, critical for survival and wellbeing. It’s likely that we are wired to belong because, historically, our ancestors needed to be part of a community to survive. This need for connection and acceptance translates into how we function in modern environments, like schools.” Kelly-Ann Allen

Kelly-Ann Allen is an Associate Professor & Educational Psychologist in the School of Educational Psychology and Counselling at Monash University. She currently works on The Australian Temperament Project, a long-running collaboration between multiple universities that has followed a cohort of Australian children since the early 1980s. “My work aims to unravel how we understand belonging in different contexts. I’m dedicated to identifying strategies that can enhance it, particularly in educational contexts.”

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Kelly-Ann Allen, image supplied

School Belonging

There are many external sources of belonging – family, sports, religion – but given the importance of belonging to our sense of wellbeing, it should be of no surprise that since we spend around fourteen years of our lives at school, school belonging has a lasting impact on our mental health.

But what is it, and how can we measure it?

“School belonging is measured in various ways and there is no right or wrong approach,” explains Dr Allen. “Because belonging is contextual, I think it is important to have different approaches depending on what you would like to find out. Some of my studies have interviewed students directly. I like to use a strength-based approach and ask them what is helping them build a sense of belonging and what they think could be improved.”

“One gorgeous three-year-old in a study with the Australian Education Research Organisation defined school belonging as feeling like a little heart in a big heart. My nine-year-old daughter Florence also has a great definition as well: “Belonging is when you feel like you are meant to be there”. Dr Kelly-Ann Allen

Dr Allen explains that the key elements of belonging revolve around perceptions, competencies, motivations, and opportunities, in other words, how individuals see themselves as part of the community, their abilities and opportunities to get involved and whether they are driven to seek out belonging.

Stanford social psychologist Geoffrey Cohen has written the proverbial book on belonging, Belonging: The Science of Creating Connection and Bridging Divides. He writes that a lack of belonging can lead to a number of poor outcomes, including loneliness, poor grades and behavioural and disciplinary issues. On the flip side, the sense that one belongs can lead to growth in all areas including health and academic and social achievement.

How can schools help students?

“For students, it can be easy to think about how they don’t belong, and sometimes, there is a role for adults to help them to flip this thinking to see the ways they do belong,” explains Dr Allen. “Helping students understand that sometimes their sense of belonging will fluctuate is important [as is] helping students to develop skills around reliance and coping.

Educators need to understand that the desire to belong can differ between students as well as within each student over time. It’s normal for children to feel out of place, especially during adolescence. At other times, children can feel the need to belong very strongly, and schools can help by providing ample opportunities.

Belonging is not just limited to feeling connectedness with peers, but Dr Allen points out that school belonging is also formed through the chance to participate in class, join groups, spend time with teachers and find extracurricular clubs and activities tailored to a range of interests. Parents should also be leveraged as a resource in fostering a sense of belonging and bridging the gap between home and school.

Cohen also strongly agrees with this and talks about “channels of belonging”—the variety of options that schools can offer that allow teenagers to develop positive relationships with adults, something that is often lacking in secondary schools.

Dr Allen explains further: “A study we worked on last year identified four key elements related to teaching practices for fostering school belonging: emotional support, support for learning, social connection, and respect for inclusion and diversity. These components underscore the importance of creating an environment where students feel understood, supported in their educational journey, connected with peers, and valued for their unique backgrounds and perspectives.”

Interestingly, the students in this study indicated that they needed help with “facilitating social connections”.

Another finding of the study was that despite the wealth of opportunities provided by schools, many students worldwide feel they have limited belonging to their schools. Why the disconnect? Dr Allen asks. Is it cultural differences or individual differences?

“This is something that schools need to be exploring to ensure that their students are not facing systemic barriers; that they feel safe – physically and psychologically. Schools need to recognise and meet the diverse needs of their students and ensure every student feels seen, heard, and valued.”

“When schools nurture this sense of belonging, they’re not just enhancing the school experience; they’re tapping into our inherent need to be part of something bigger. This deep-rooted need could explain why school belonging has such a profound impact on mental health beyond school. It is also possible that patterns of belonging, how we include others, engage, and interact, are behaviours and thoughts that can be ingrained in us during our school years and persist throughout our lives.” Dr Allen

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Shannon Meyerkort

Shannon Meyerkort is a freelance writer and the author of "Brilliant Minds: 30 Dyslexic Heroes Who Changed our World", now available in all good bookstores.

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