Belonging isn’t just a buzzword, it’s the key to our kids’ education

Kelly-Ann Allen looks at the special place schools have in the process of belonging.

Every March, in every corner of Australia, schools, workplaces and communities gather in various ways to celebrate Harmony Week*, and whether it’s through shared food, music, songs or stories, this is a time for us to embrace inclusiveness, respect and importantly, a sense of belonging for everyone.

According to the OECD’s latest report Trends In Education, belonging will be a major factor shaping classrooms of the future, and after two years of our kids enduring isolation through Covid, this is very welcome news.

Many Australian students have faced significant disruption during the Covid pandemic. And when they weren’t being disrupted, they faced uncertainty over whether, or when, they would be disrupted. The lockdowns and school closures threatened an important predictor of school belonging: actually being at school.

So it could be expected that the OECD would acknowledge that belonging is an important ingredient in successful educational outcomes. Most adults would probably agree that belonging has been on all our minds during periods of lockdowns and subsequent disruptions to social relationships.

But now that we have traction from one of the world’s leading authorities, we mustn’t let belonging become just another buzzword. Sure, it looks great in slogans and on posters, but a sense of belonging is so much more.

In fact, belonging is widely acknowledged as a fundamental human need, and schools are the epicentre of belonging for many students.

Schools have a special role to play in student 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 gone on to become one of the most widely-used ways to describe school belonging in the literature.

Decades of research shows that students’ feelings of school belonging can have a profound impact on their wellbeing, identity development, mental health, and a range of other outcomes related to a successful school experience. And these impacts can last well into adulthood.

That’s right – the very benefits drawn from feeling a sense of belonging in school can later influence future mental health, education levels and employment success. There’s a national benefit for safeguarding student belonging.

But it’s of great concern that, despite these well-established benefits, every data collection point of OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment since 2003 has shown that more and more students feel they don’t belong.

And with COVID-19, we also know protective measures such as physical distancing and lockdowns have added to our children’s fractured sense of school belonging.

Researchers have noted a lack of interventions in this space; despite rising rates of students who don’t belong, there’s been little recourse from policymakers and decision-makers in government.

Now that belonging has been identified as an important trend, we need to act. We need to draw from the research and the skills and the capacities of the many people working in this space to build, maintain and protect belonging – and not only for students, but all school community members.

Three children photographed from behind, with their arms around each other’s back

What can we do to build student belonging?

Schools require leaders who can effectively convey the importance of belonging, and nurture the implementation of strategies that encourage students to feel like they belong in their schools.

All schools should consider creating policies for belonging to compensate for the current challenges and uncertainties we’re facing. Policies must articulate a clear message to both students and the community: Feelings of belonging are prioritised in this school.

Peer groups have a significant impact on a student’s experience of school. While many students feel comfortable interacting with peers, many want adults to facilitate these interactions.

Additionally, many students require opportunities to interact with peers as well as the opportunities to learn and grow their social and emotional competencies to facilitate meaningful relationships with others.

With a nation so invested in education, why aren’t we responding?

Schools need to be safe, comfortable places for all students. Legislation, policy, community attitudes and social norms all have an important role to play in making this happen, but recent media coverage and commentary only shows we have a long way to go ensure the safety of young people is a genuine and top priority.

The most effective way to improve school belonging for students is to build connections with the staff, but like all relationships, this is a two-way street, and we need to also ensure teachers and school staff feel a sense of belonging to school – and to do that, teacher and school staff wellbeing must be at the front of our minds.

We need to respond

Ultimately, the school environment plays a critical role in our children’s sense of belonging; leaders and policymakers must view the OECD report as an active invitation to meaningfully create ways to prioritise it.

It’s been nearly 20 years since the OECD first identified a downward trend among Australian students for school belonging. With a nation so invested in education, why aren’t we responding?

*Harmony Week is celebrated during the week (Monday to Sunday) that ​includes 21 March, 2023 which is the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

Kelly-Ann Allen, Senior Lecturer, School of Educational Psychology and Counselling, Faculty of Education

This article was first published on Monash Lens. Read the original article