Boosting School Belonging

Practical strategies to help adolescents feel like they belong at school.

Posted Nov 07, 2019

By Kelly-Ann Allen and Margaret (Peggy) Kern

My (Kelly's) husband once listed our old bathing box on Airbnb. At his first booking, wanting to excel in his role as a host, he offered to pick up his guests from the train station.

He knew that the woman who booked was named “Molly.” But when he arrived at Frankston train station to collect her and her companion, he could only see a group of people standing on the other side of the road. He called out, “Molly?” A man rushed over to his window and said, “I don’t have any Molly, but I have hash, dope, and ice…” (For those that don’t know—we do now—Molly is what some people call MDMA or Ecstasy.)

The moral of that story is that definitions matter—and when it comes to school belonging, there's no exception. "School belonging" is a multi-faceted construct that relates to a student’s feelings towards their school—their sense of connection and affiliation. Entwined in school belonging are relationships with peers, teachers, and parents, as well other factors. School belonging, then, is dynamic in nature and influenced by the various systems within a school.

Professor Ian Shochet from the Queensland University of Technology spoke at the National Conference for the College of Educational and Developmental Psychologists in 2013. His work looks at promoting resilience and preventing depression in young people.

He has famously been quoted to say that he had originally not been interested in researching school belonging. In fact, it was a variable he wanted to disregard from his analysis all together. However, once he examined its buffering effect on depression and anxiety, it led him to conclude that it was just too significant to ignore.

Two recent pieces of recent research validate why school belonging should be a priority for schools. The first comes from Riley Stiener and colleagues from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who investigated 14,000 participants using a large national longitudinal data set. They found that school belonging in adolescence had a protective effect in adulthood. That is, adults who felt connected to their school 13 years earlier had reduced emotional distress, physical violence (both as a perpetrator and a victim), reduced prescription drug and other drug misuse, and a reduced risk of STI diagnosis. The adults with the best outcomes felt close to people at school and felt that their teachers cared about them. (Family connectedness during adolescence was also found to be important.)

This is compelling research that shows it is abundantly clear that school belonging is a protective factor for health and wellbeing with lasting effects well into adulthood. This is especially important when suicide is now the leading cause of death for Australians between the ages of 15 and 44. In fact, most of us now know that a young Australian is more likely to die from taking their own life than to die in a motor vehicle accident.

A second study from the University of Rochester investigated whether school networks predicted rates of suicide ideation and suicide attempts. The research focused on the relationships a student might have with peer and teachers. More than 10,000 teenage respondents were asked to name seven of their friends, as well as seven adults at school they could trust and felt like they could talk to about personal things. Findings of the study demonstrated that those who were more integrated in relationships with teachers and other students were far less likely to attempt suicide, think about it, or plan it. 

Illustrated by Kat Kallady
Rainbow Model of School Belonging
Source: Illustrated by Kat Kallady

Another piece of research further demonstrated that students' social bonds—and particularly their relationships with peers, teachers, and families—are fundamental. Together with Professor Lea Waters, Dianne Vella-Brodrick, and John Hattie, we conducted a “meta-analysis” whereby we searched the literature to identify studies focused on school belonging. This resulted in 45 studies, which included over 67,000 students. We then statistically combined the results of the studies.

Through this analysis, we identified key factors that correlate with a sense of belonging. The most important factor was the teacher—teachers play a huge role in helping students feel connected or disconnected from school. But peers and parents also played a role.

Then, there were various psychological and environmental factors that contributed. As we pieced this together, we developed the rainbow model, which points to the various factors that together influence belonging—characteristics of the individual, primary social groups, the school and local community, and broader societal and environmental factors. Each of areas play a role in helping students connect or disconnect with the school.  

The question becomes, then, now that you know it matters, what do you do about it? Our intention in writing a book on school belonging—Boosting School Belonging—was to start to provide some ideas, based on the research, our own experiences, and work with teachers and students, on ways to support and develop a sense of belonging. We know about the importance of relationships—with teachers, parents, and peers. These indeed are crucial, and we provide various activities to build a sense of awareness, understanding, and skills in connecting well with others.

Kelly-Ann Allen
Five year old Florence opens with our acknowledgement to country
Source: Kelly-Ann Allen

But relationships are dynamic and they alone are not the only solution to building belonging. They are impacted by the cognitions, emotions, and behaviours of the young person, which intersect with their understanding of themselves, learning, and ways of accessing help when needed. A key finding coming from our own research was the importance of personal characteristics. Social and emotional skills are crucial for connection.

An important driver of the book was to translate research into practice for the people who would benefit the most; it was also important for us to create a resource that was user-friendly for teachers and clinicians. Some activities are more interactive; some are more reflective. As a whole, they aim to build social and emotional skills, identify strategies to cope with difficulties, develop self and other awareness, and to empower young people to take control of their own wellbeing.