School belonging is crucial to student mental health and academic performance. That requires adequately resourced teachers, writes Will Brodie.
Sometimes it takes an expert to point out the obvious.
It’s accepted that a sense of belonging is a powerful force, but it’s taken Kelly-Ann Allen, a Senior Lecturer and Educational and Developmental Psychologist at Monash University, to emphasise that “schools are the epicentre of belonging for many students”.
She says school belonging is linked to improved “academic motivation, mental health, wellbeing, and positive youth development”.
“And we also know that low school belonging is linked to a range of outcomes at odds with a successful school experience such as violence, vandalism, drop-out rates, and truancy.”
School belonging can also impact the mental health of students long after they leave school and influence their further education and employment prospects.
School belonging is defined as “the extent to which children feel individually welcomed, respected, included, and supported by others within the school social environment”.
The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment has shown that since 2003, one in three students feel they don’t belong at their school. And pandemic isolation has contributed to an alarming rise in mental health issues for young people.
Belonging is ‘hardwired’ into our brains, and it’s more than just being part of a group, or having friends, writes Tracy Brower.
She says belonging is a “feeling of connectedness to a group or community. It’s the sense that you’re part of something”.
We need to feel unity and a common sense of character with and among members of our group.
The science backs up the observations: we crave interactions in the same region of our brains where we crave food; and we experience social exclusion in the same region of our brain where we experience physical pain. When people lack a sense of belonging, it is a stronger predictor of depression than feelings of loneliness or a lack of social support.
Early childhood teaching specialist Michael Dunlea has worked in an “inclusion classroom” since 2003. He makes building a culture of belonging his priority to counter social anxiety, which prevents students from taking necessary academic risks.
He says belonging doesn’t just mean fitting in, because “students’ individuality and uniqueness should always be valued”.
“Belonging in the classroom means ensuring that all students feel welcomed, comfortable, and part of the school family.”
But how is that achieved?
Relationships with teachers
Kelly-Ann Allen believes the most important factor contributing to a sense of school belonging for students is their relationship with their teachers.
“Students need the opportunity to feel accepted, cared for, and affirmed in their school. There is no greater way to achieve this than by utilising the school personnel that they are around the most: teachers.
“When young people feel liked and cared for by teachers, and think their teachers are likable and fair, they are more likely to report feelings of school belonging.”
Allen says that following pandemic lockdowns, students “want their teachers to know their name and genuinely know who they are as people”.
Students also reported that their sense of belonging was strengthened when their teachers were approachable and understanding, offered them encouragement, and believed in their abilities.
She noted that students are ahead of adults in their understanding of respect and equity and want their teachers to “acknowledge diversity and inclusive practices”, including using preferred pronouns.
Students also want assistance from adults to “interact or reconnect with their peers” and appreciate “school-based activities that helped them interact and build friendships”.
Students want “emotional support as well as learning support” from teachers and they want to feel they can go to their teachers when problems arise.
The catch is that teachers’ sense of school belonging predicts their students’ sense of connection.
“The teaching profession faces numerous struggles,” Allen says. “Teachers are reporting higher feelings of stress and burnout. Many are leaving the profession, and new graduates are most at risk. Teachers are also reporting that they don’t feel valued.
“We know that feelings of being valued, accepted, appreciated, and respected relate to the very heart of what belonging means for people.
“How can we expect teachers to focus their energies on positive student relationships and getting to genuinely know their students when they simply don’t have enough time during the school day to deliver the curriculum?”
Allen says teacher wellbeing needs to be “urgently evaluated” and teachers must be asked directly what would assist their own sense of belonging.
“School leaders who take an interest in staff feelings of belonging are also helping students to belong,” Allen says.
“Teachers need autonomy, competency, and relatedness in their work. They need to feel like they have a say over key decisions that impact them. What I also see from the research is that teachers want a focus on wellbeing but not mandatory time-consuming activities that add more work time.”