Do Schools Need a Policy on School Belonging?
The answer is "yes." Here's how schools can start to create one.
Posted February 3, 2022 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
- Although belonging is a fundamental human need, 25 percent of students globally don't have a sense of belonging to their school.
- Low school belonging may negatively affect not only a student's academic progress but also their well-being and development.
- School policies may serve an important role in translating science to practice.
It has been discussed and demonstrated extensively that school belonging is an important consideration in a student’s development and success at school. We also know that growing rates of mental illness, disengagement, social isolation, and loneliness among students are causes for concern.
Globally, one in three students feels like they don’t belong in school, with the number of students who feel this way steadily increasing. We also know that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has earmarked belonging as a major educational trend for the future.
All of this adds up to the need to take urgent action.
Even though we cannot force students to feel like they belong, either as individuals or as institutions, school policies can serve to emphasize goals and priorities and offer clear guidance for staff about expected practices. School belonging policies send a clear message to the school community that belonging is important.
So, do schools need a policy on school belonging? The answer to this question is a straight-on yes.
Why Do Schools Need a Policy on School Belonging?
A policy on school belonging aims to nurture, maintain, and grow a sense of school belonging for each member of a school's community. We want to send a message to students and staff in particular that they belong at this school.
Psychologist Sue Roffey talks about inclusive and exclusive belonging, and it's important to distinguish the type of belonging we are talking about here. Schools need to articulate how they are inclusive places where all people are welcome and no particular attributes are needed to belong to the community. The goal is to create a welcoming environment where all people feel valued and accepted.
Despite belonging research being around for decades, researchers have noticed that it has yet to be completely utilized in schools. School policies could be one way for belonging researchers to develop their findings into practical outcomes and reduce the theory-to-practice gap. Moreover, school policies serve as an excellent vehicle for research translation—directly delivering implications for practice from research straight into the hands of schools.
Schools Value Belonging
When it comes to school belonging, we know most schools value belonging. We see words like "community, belonging, and togetherness" emphasised in vision and mission statements. It is now time to turn those vision and mission statements (often criticised as being rhetorical pyrotechnics) into practice (Allen et al., 2018).
Leaders need to walk the talk.
A policy on school belonging might be included in school regulations, presented as a poster in a classroom, or recorded in a student's daily diary. But above all, policies need to be known and used by the members of the school community. Too often school policies are written and then forgotten.
A Policy on School Belonging
My colleagues and I wrote a school belonging policy, alongside other ready-made school policies, that schools can adapt and make their own. Here's what that might look like:
[Name of school] is committed to providing consistent and structured opportunities for students to build positive relationships with each other, their teachers, their parents, and staff at our school. Teachers at our school know their students and seek feedback from their students about their relationship, rapport, and level of engagement. Through school-wide events, assessments and programming, we provide both time and space for teachers to build relationships with their students (Shochet et al., 2011; Waters et al., 2010).
School leadership (e.g., principals/administrators) create formal structures to consult students on school policy decisions and build their sense of agency. Their voices are represented in policy-making decisions (in the form of a diverse student advisory committee comprised of students from various socioeconomic backgrounds, linguistic backgrounds, ethnic backgrounds, performance levels, and (dis)ability statuses).
Staff at [Name of school] acknowledge that a positive student-teacher relationship is one of the most effective ways to build a student’s sense of school belonging (Allen et al., 2018a). Teachers make regular (positive) contact with parents for proactive and positive communication (Allen et al., 2020; Reschly et al., 2008).
Teachers actively emphasize the value of what students are learning for uplifting their communities, honouring their ancestral heritage, and combatting issues of social justice and social inequality in school and society. Teachers are supported by administrators in recognizing and responding to the way larger societal, systemic, and structural inequalities are impacting historically marginalized students in their schools.
[Name of school] encourages students to support each other academically as well as personally (e.g., peer mentor programs, study clubs, homework groups) (Reschly et al., 2008; Ryzin et al., 2009). [Name of school] has an induction procedure for new students and transition programs at key transition points for students (Ryzin et al., 2009). All students at [Name of school] are expected to be inclusive, respectful, and affirming toward each other (Goodenow & Grady, 1993; Reschly et al., 2008).
Parents of [Name of school] are encouraged to be involved in school life in meaningful ways (Reschly et al., 2008). [Name of school] provides multiple communication channels for parents that consider their needs and preferences (Reschly et al., 2008). The school seeks feedback from parents about their overall satisfaction with the [Name of school] and communication from teachers and school leaders more generally. (Reschly et al., 2008).
[This is an extract from a full adaptable policy on school belonging]
A school needs leaders who can successfully communicate the significance of being part of a school community to students. They should implement policies that encourage a sense of school community and togetherness as well as build student and staff belonging. In addition to other school-based standards of behaviour, students should be expected to demonstrate behaviours that foster a feeling of belonging for others. They also have a role to play in navigating their own sense of belonging through social and emotional skills and cognitive-based skills that help them consider their own thoughts around belonging, particularly if those thoughts are unhelpful.
Creating policies to improve school belonging compensates for the current challenges we face as a society—including managing COVID, social isolation, and returning to school following lockdowns. A school policy for school belonging is not a fad or phase. It is a necessary consideration for all school leaders.
If you are a school leader who prioritises belonging, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss Monash's school-based belonging evaluation.
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., pp. #–#). Routledge. Download here.
Allen, K., Kern, P., Vella-Brodrick, D., & Waters, L. (2018). Understanding the priorities of Australian secondary schools through an analysis of their mission and vision statements. Educational Administration Quarterly, 54(2), 249–274. https://doi.org/10.1177/0013161X18758655
Thank you to the authors of the school belonging policy:
Dr Kelly-Ann Allen, Monash University
Dr DeLeon L. Gray, North Carolina State University
Dr Gökmen Arslan, Mehmet Akif Ersoy University
Professor Kathryn Riley, University College London
Professor Dianne Vella-Brodrick, University of Melbourne and
Professor Lea Waters, University of Melbourne