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The Science of School Belonging

How schools are key to helping kids feel like they belong.

Key points

  • School belonging is a student’s sense of feeling accepted and respected in school.
  • The positive impact of school belonging can last decades, impacting future mental health and even employment.
  • There are universal patterns for helping students to belong to school.

While it is well known that a sense of belonging is important, less is understood about the roles schools play in offering opportunities to belong and how critically important school belonging is for children.

Creating a sense of community among students and building a sense of belonging to their school may prove to be the most effective responses toward rising rates of mental illness, disengagement, social isolation, and loneliness.

This being said, what is school belonging, really? What are the benefits? How can schools build school belonging? Here, we'll discuss some key ideas.

What is School Belonging?

In 1993, Carol Goodenow and Kathleen Grady defined school belonging as "the extent to which children feel individually welcomed, respected, included, and supported by others within the school social environment." This definition has become one of the most widely used ways to describe school belonging in the literature to date.

Kuanish Reymbaev/Unsplash
School belonging is about students feeling accepted and valued
Source: Kuanish Reymbaev/Unsplash

What Are the Benefits of School Belonging?

Researchers have shown that students' feelings of school belonging can have a profound impact on well-being, identity development, and mental health. And these impacts can last well into adulthood.

What Are the Ways to Improve School Belonging?

Some of the most effective ways to improve school belonging are to build connections between students and staff and encourage prosocial, positive, peer-to-peer relationships as well as healthy relationships with parents (Allen et al., 2018).

1. Build strong, trusting connections with school staff.

The real key to a student’s sense of belonging is the student-teacher relationship (Allen, Slaten et al., 2021). These relationships need time and effort. We also know from our research that students want to be known by their teachers. They want to feel accepted in the classroom. They want to feel valued. They want teachers to notice if they are away or having a bad day.

Leaders in educational settings should at least be encouraged to help students find at least one person they can build a trusting connection with that is characterised by mutual respect and acceptance.

2. Foster prosocial peer-to-peer friendships.

Peer groups have a significant impact on a student’s school experience, and a student's sense of belonging may also be influenced by their peers (Allen & Kern, 2017). While many students feel comfortable interacting with peers, others may wish for adult-facilitated interactions with peers.

From research, we know that some students do want adults to help them facilitate interactions with peers. Maybe they find it awkward, maybe they don’t want to impose, but often they don’t mind if an adult (with hopefully a good dose of social skills) break the ice for them—especially after a break from school following lockdowns or school holidays.

3. Include parents in discussions.

Parents are important for school belonging as well (Allen & Kern, 2019). Schools should make it clear to parents how vital it is for their children to feel a sense of belonging to their school community—and all schools should evaluate if their parent body feels welcomed by the schools.

Specifically, schools can consider:

  • Is their communication to parents effective and inclusive? Are all parents being reached? Do the current communication platforms cause barriers or challenges for some parents? With many schools adopting electronic means to connect with parents, it is important to remember that not all parents have access to smart devices, computers, or email addresses. Some parents or caregivers are not comfortable or literate with electronic technologies.
  • Are all parents invited to participate in the school in a meaningful way?
  • Are parents encouraged to take an interest in their child’s experience of school?
  • Are there easy ways for parents to articulate worries or concerns to classroom teachers?
  • Is communication about students to parents proactive and positive (i.e., not just when things go wrong)?

Effective communication is key.

School-Based Structures and Strategies

For schools to achieve a sense of belonging for students, they should also consider activities and approaches that strengthen students’ competencies, opportunities, motivations, and perceptions. This is where social and emotional skills become important, as well as school-sanctioned activities and adult-led peer interactions. (See Allen, Kern et al., 2021, "Your Sense of Belonging in Modern Times" and "The Sense That You Belong Somewhere" for more ideas and strategies.)

What Else?

It is important to remember there is no one fix for building school belonging in all students. Students are individuals and what impacts their sense of belonging at any one time can vary day-to-day. Greg Walton at Stanford University suggests that it is crucial for students to understand that feelings of not belonging from time to time are completely normal. He also emphasises that students need to know that such feelings can be overcome and are temporary. When students understand this fact, they are less likely to question their sense of belonging when they face inevitable daily challenges at school.

In our research, we saw that students were really aware of current issues. They wanted an inclusive environment that caters for diverse needs. As adults, we can take for granted just how sensible and intelligent ideas from students can be. And while they might lack the educational qualifications, they are still equipped to offer sensible ideas about educational decisions.

As students return to school, teachers can open up conversations about belonging and ask students directly what could help them.

Final Thoughts

Although belonging is a fundamental human need, one in three students worldwide do not experience a feeling of belonging to their school. As a result, a student’s school experience is impacted, and most adults only need to reflect on their own school experiences to see what ill effects can occur

Schools require leaders who can effectively convey the importance of belonging to a school community and implement strategies that encourage students to feel like they belong. Consideration should be given to a school belonging policy (Allen, Gray et al., 2021). In addition to other school-based standards of behaviour, students should be expected to demonstrate behaviours that build a feeling of belonging to others. The importance of teaching these behaviours from the beginning—as early as possible—cannot be overstated.


If you are a school leader who prioritises belonging, Monash offers a school-based belonging evaluation. Get in touch with to find out more.


Allen, K. A., Kern, M., Rozek, C. S., McInerney, D., & Slavich, G. M. (2021). Belonging: A review of conceptual issues, an integrative framework, and directions for future research. Australian Journal of Psychology, 73(1), 87-102. Download:

Allen, K. A., Gray, D. L., Arslan, G., Riley, K., Vella-Brodrick, D., & Waters, L. (2021). Chapter 19: School belonging policy. In K. A. Allen, A. E. Reupert, & L. G. Oades (Eds.), Building better schools with evidence-based policy: Adaptable policy guidelines for teachers and school leaders (1st ed.,). Routledge. Download here. Full book here.

Allen, K. A., Kern, M. L., Vella-Brodrick, D., Waters, L., & Hattie, J. (2018). What schools need to know about belonging: A meta-analysis. Educational Psychology Review, 30(1), 1-34. Download:

Allen, K. A. Slaten, C., Arslan, G., Roffey, S., Craig, H., & Vella-Brodrick, D. (2021). School belonging: The importance of student-teacher relationships. In P. Kern & M. Streger (Eds.), The Palgrave handbook of positive education. Palgrave & Macmillan. Download:

Allen, K. A., & Kern, M. L. (2017). School belonging in adolescents: Theory, research, and practice. Springer Social Sciences. ISBN 978-981-10-5996-4

Allen, K. A., & Kern, P. (2019). Boosting school belonging in adolescents: Interventions for teachers and mental health professionals. Routledge.…

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