Schools Boosting belonging at school lasts a lifetime

Belonging is a fundamental human need, yet one in four students around the world say that they do not feel a sense of belonging at school. The impact of this can be significant – not just on a student’s academic achievements but also on their overall wellbeing as adolescents and, later, as adults. 

A sense of belonging at school can support students through a particularly vulnerable time, when they are forming an understanding of their identity and developing social skills. It can also shape their future interactions, relationships and achievements, plus their ability to function and adjust on a psychosocial level, well into adulthood.

Professor Ian Shochet from Queensland University of Technology (QUT), whose work looks at promoting resilience and preventing depression in young people, once claimed to have little interest in researching school belonging. In fact, it was a variable he wanted to disregard altogether.

However, as he examined its consistent buffering effect on depression and anxiety, it led him to conclude that the matter of belonging was just too important to ignore. 

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

Research shows that feeling like you belong at school is linked to higher levels of emotional and physical wellbeing, along with better academic performance and achievement. It is positively associated with optimism, self-efficacy, self-esteem, self-concept and sociability – and can promote resilience, reducing the likelihood of mental health problems and suicidal thoughts and behaviour. 

Fostering a sense of belonging at school may help provide a critical solution to a complex social problem.

Students who feel they do not belong are more likely to skip days at school, behave in ways that affect their academic outcomes, leave school early, and be at greater risk of school-based violence. They are also more likely to experience anxiety, depression and to have suicidal thoughts.

A low sense of attachment to school can increase the ‘academic achievement gap’, particularly for the most vulnerable, such as Indigenous students and those from low socio-economic backgrounds.

In a recent longitudinal study involving 14,000 participants, Riley Steiner and colleagues from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US found that school belonging in adolescence had a protective effect in adulthood.

Those who felt connected to their school 13 years earlier – including a belief that their teachers had cared about them – were more likely to experience lower levels of emotional distress, less physical violence (both as perpetrator and victim), reduced drug misuse, and lower rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Overall, the research shows that school belonging is a protective factor for health and wellbeing, with lasting effects well into adulthood. Given suicide is now the leading cause of death for Australians between the ages of 15 and 44, this is especially significant.

Through our own analysis of 45 studies, involving more than 67,000 students, we identified key factors that correlate with a sense of belonging. The most important factor was the teacher. While peers and parents, as well as various psychological and environmental factors all contribute, teachers play a leading role in helping students feel connected to school.

Most schools value and prioritise a sense of belonging within their community and want their students to feel connected. However, there have been few opportunities for schools to access focused interventions and strategies to help maintain and increase student belonging. While there is no single strategy, schools should tackle belonging using a whole-of-school approach that incorporates a range of measures that help to build collaborative and inclusive communities.

Dr Kelly-Ann Allen and Associate Professor Peggy Kern are the authors of Boosting School Belonging – a resource for teachers featuring activities that aim to build students’ social and emotional skills. 

We have one copy to give away. To enter, email [email protected] by 17 April with ‘School Belonging’ in the subject line.

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