The Need for Belonging and How We Help It Flourish in Our Schools
Belonging at school is a critical component of student success, academically, socially, and emotionally. However, across the globe, students have been reporting experiencing lower rates of belonging in recent years. Upon reading this, the questions for educators are as follows: How exactly does a student’s sense of belonging impact their life in and out of school? How do I know if my students feel like they belong at school? What can we do to foster a sense of belonging in all of our students? Let’s address those questions now.
How exactly does a student’s sense of belonging impact their life in and out of school?
“School belonging is associated with a range of positive educational and developmental outcomes, including psychosocial health and wellbeing, prosocial behavior and academic achievement, and transition into adulthood. However, an increasing number of students worldwide report not feeling a sense of belonging to their school. There is growing research evidence that strong student–teacher relationships can promote school belonging...Students who lack a sense of belonging are more likely to engage in problematic behaviour, suffer from mental illness, and experience low achievement. The most at-risk students are the ones who are already vulnerable, and these effects can continue into adult life” (Allen et al., 2021).
In short, belonging is positively correlated with good outcomes and negatively correlated with bad outcomes. Yet, there is a worldwide trend that perceptions of belonging are decreasing for students. That is concerning. The 2021 paper used data from before the COVID-19 pandemic, and I imagine this trend has only intensified since that data was collected.
Additionally, this research found student belonging was linked to increased academic performance and motivation and a decreased likelihood of risky and antisocial behavior, school drop out, substance abuse, truancy, and depression. Belonging is critically important!
Improving Belonging is Especially Critical for Students Who Have Been Marginalized
On average across all 67 countries whose students completed the survey, researchers found socio-economically disadvantaged students were 7.7% less likely to report belonging. This difference was substantial in the United States and 11 other countries. First generation immigrant students were 4.6% less likely on average to report belonging. Girls were less likely to report belonging than boys. (Note: No data was reported for non-binary or gender non conforming students. I'm not sure if that was because they didn't ask for it, or they didn't report that data in the summary.) This difference of girls being less likely to report belonging than boys was particularly large in seven countries, of which the United States is one of them. Again, these are concerning trends.
How do I know if my students feel like they belong at school?
Ask them! This may look like asking the question in a 1:1 conference with a student, inviting all students to respond in writing on an exit ticket at the end of class, or giving your students a statistically validated survey that measures belonging.
If the last suggestion is of interest, Panorama Education has a great student survey (it’s available on their website for free). Within this survey, they have several scales (topics), one of which is belonging. Their belonging scale consists of 5 questions that they asked that all measure belonging. Here they are, in order:
The survey builds a more complete understanding of what belonging is through this series of questions. It also enables us to look at the results and see differences in specific aspects of belonging. For example, I’ve worked with a number of school districts whose students reported feeling connected to adults, but not feeling respected by students.
Our understanding is further enhanced by the variety of response options presented. Students respond to each question on a 5-point scale, labeled with a description using a keyword from the question. For example, the first question asks students to select from the following options: Do not understand at all; Understand a little; Understand somewhat; Understand quite a bit; Completely understand. These options help us as educators learn the degree to which belonging is experienced or not for each of the aspects of belonging. This information helpfully informs the action we take in response to the data.
What can we do to foster a sense of belonging in all of our students?
There are a lot of different things that we can do. At the school level, we can amplify student voices in a meaningful way to show students’ their experiences and ideas are valued and they are full, decision-making members of the school community. Individual students who engage in meaningful leadership activities demonstrate improved peer and adult relationships (Yonezawa & Jones, 2007); positive self-regard, feelings of competence, engagement (Deci & Ryan, 2008) and academic performance (Mitra, 2004). When students act as representatives of various student groups, that also energizes other students that may not have a formal role or aren't engaging in that leadership opportunity, but they identify with the students who are. Feldman and Khademian (2003) called this “cascading vitality.” Essentially, student leaders who have historically experienced structural, political, and/or social marginalization inspire other students with similar identities and experiences to see the possibilities for themselves to lead as well.
At the interpersonal or classroom level, we can nurture positive student-student and teacher-student relationships. My favorite community building activity is circle. I like to start each school year with a “Story of My Name” circle, in which everyone is invited to share anything they wish to share about the story of their name (e.g., how they got their name, who named them, a nickname they have, how others respond when they encounter their name, how their name makes them feel). In my high school class, we held weekly circles, either related to class content, current events, or even led by the students themselves.
Curriculum also has a large role to play in advancing belonging. We can create and facilitate learning experiences that help students learn about their identities and the identities of all of the members in their school, neighborhood, and global communities. If you’re ready to revamp a lesson, consider listening to Dr. Gholdy Muhammad describe her historically responsive literacy framework to help you plan with the 4 pursuits in mind. If you want to revamp a unit you’ve taught before, use Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s Windows, Mirrors, and Sliding Glass Doors framework to evaluate where students see their identities and experiences reflected in the curriculum and where they see identities and experiences that differ from their own. Ready to build a brand new unit that centers identity, belonging, and justice? Grab my free Backwards Planning Template.
If you want to implement an existing curriculum that’s already out there, check out Cultured Kids’ programs. If you want support in designing your own program, Cultured Kids also provides consulting services to help you develop new, innovative, and multidisciplinary programs in your educational community.
We know belonging is essential for well-being. We know that many students are struggling to feel a sense of belonging. Now, we also know how to measure our students’ sense of belonging, and we have several ideas and resources to get started with amplifying belonging in our communities. As you go off and implement the ideas swirling around in your brain right now, remember to share what you tried and how it went!