Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Measuring School Belonging

Understanding and interpreting your results.

Key points

  • More schools are measuring belonging. Understanding the findings involves a number of considerations
  • Belonging is dynamic, individually experienced, and multifaceted.
  • Schools should implement changes based on findings to enhance their school belonging.

When assessing school belonging in your educational setting, interpreting the results can be challenging and complex. This complexity is to be expected and arises due to the unique individual needs, varying social and emotional competencies, and diverse perceptions and needs of belonging among students. Additionally, external sources of belonging and the dynamic nature of the belonging itself can further complicate the interpretation of results. Here are some guidelines for you to keep in mind when you or your team sit down with your cohort's belonging data:

Consider Individual Needs: Remember that every student is unique, with different social and emotional needs and competencies. Some students may have the associated competencies that help them to engage in opportunities to belong, while for others these competencies are still emerging. Taking a developmental perspective is important here. However, it's important to be cautious in interpreting results based on the 'skills to belong', as it may lead schools to overlook the needs of students who lack these skills or the lack of opportunities to belong they may be receiving in addition to other systemic issues.

Another important consideration is the “need to belong”. Some students place a high value on belonging to the school community, while others may not. Cultural differences might be at play, but also this may simply boil down to individual differences. Understanding this diversity can help interpret the findings more accurately.

Examine External Sources of Belonging: Belonging is considered a universally important need, but not all students will fulfill this need at school. Some students may fulfill their need to belong outside of the school, such as through family, friends, sports teams, religious groups, or other social activities. These other sources of belonging can impact a student's perceived need to belong at school.

Evaluate Belonging in Different Contexts: It's critical to assess students' belonging experiences not just in formal educational settings, but also in informal spaces and learning contexts. This will provide a more comprehensive picture of their experiences.

Understanding School Belonging: How do students understand school belonging? Do they know what it means? Consider the possibility that students may view school belonging as more social than academic. They might value the friendships and social interactions that occur in school more than the educational aspects. This understanding can influence the interpretation of the results. Again, childhood and adolescent development is important, especially in how the questions were framed. Does there need to be a priming or explanatory activity before the measure is administered next time? Are students exposed to understanding belonging in other ways – for instance, does the school actively prioritise belonging? Some students may also derive a sense of belonging from the prestige of their school or their affiliation with it. For example, students might feel proud and included because they attend a high-performing school or a school with a strong athletic program.

Define School Belonging: Before commencing the measurement process, it's important to define what you mean by 'school belonging'. Having a clear definition will set a benchmark for understanding and interpreting the results.

Evaluate the Type of Belonging: Different students may find belonging in different ways. Some may feel a sense of belonging through relationships with peers or teachers (relational belonging), while others might feel it through their affiliation with the school as a whole (broader belonging).

Disaggregate the Data: To better understand who feels a sense of belonging and under what conditions, consider disaggregating the data based on factors like race, gender, or socioeconomic status. This can provide a more nuanced view of students' experiences.

What Other Factors Could Be at Play: Consider factors that might be contributing to feelings of inclusion or exclusion. These could be related to race, gender, socioeconomic status, or other factors. These influences can greatly impact a student's feeling of belonging. It is important to note here that we should never assume that one population of students is more disadvantaged than another in terms of belonging – every cohort is going to be different.

Belonging is Dynamic: School belonging isn't static; it can change over time due to various factors such as changing friendship groups, academic pressures, or personal developments. A student who feels disconnected one semester might feel a strong sense of belonging the next. Thus, evaluations should be repeated at regular intervals to track these changes.

Remember That Measures Are a Snapshot in Time: Any evaluation or measure of school belonging is just a snapshot in a student's life at a particular time. It's important not to make long-term conclusions based on a single measure. Instead, use these measures as tools to identify trends, challenges, and opportunities for improvement. Instead, try to identify patterns in the data over time. Are there certain times of the year when students feel a stronger sense of belonging? Are there events or factors that influence these feelings?

Understand That "Not Belonging" Is Normal: Not all students will feel a strong sense of belonging all the time, and that's okay. It's a normal part of human experience to feel disconnected or out of place at times. This doesn't mean the school is failing; instead, it's an opportunity to understand the reasons behind these feelings and work on strategies to enhance belonging.

Involve Students in the Process: Consider involving students in the process of interpreting the findings. Their perspectives can provide valuable insights and can also help them feel more connected to the school community.

Implement Changes Based on Findings: Use the insights gained from the evaluation to make positive changes in the school environment. This could involve creating more inclusive policies, fostering a more positive school culture, or implementing programs designed to enhance school belonging. If students can see that their feedback makes a difference they may be more willing to respond again in the future.

Consider Other Measures: Consider asking students how they define belonging, what their level of belonging need is or what factors they feel contribute to or hinder belonging. Accompanying measures can help you interpret your findings.

School Belonging Is Multi-Dimensional: School belonging is a multi-dimensional concept that can vary greatly from student to student. By taking a comprehensive and nuanced approach to interpreting these findings, school leaders and teachers can gain a better understanding of how to foster a greater sense of belonging among their students.


I acknowledge the invaluable feedback received that guided the refinement of this post from Dr DeLeon Gray, Founder and CEO at Black and Belonging; Associate Professor and University Faculty Scholar at NC State University.

More from Kelly-Ann Allen Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today