Why schools should foster a sense of belonging

Being part of a crowd brings academic as well as social benefits. But a quarter of students feel they ‘don’t belong’ at school, and pressures in the online world can compound the problem. Rebecca Mace decided to do something about it – with promising results
28th June 2019, 12:03am
Why Schools Should Promote Belonging
Rebecca Mace


Why schools should foster a sense of belonging


We tend to think of the digital world as a mindless distraction in schools, and one that can move pupils away from a sense of belonging - to both their school and their peer group. However, that's an overly simplistic reading of the situation.

As Ethan Zuckerman, director of civic media at MIT Media Lab, said in a recent BBC Radio 4 documentary (bit.ly/BBCdocu): "The reason you were on the internet was probably because you didn't have a lot of use for the people you were physically closest to. It gets us out of localities that not all of us are happy in."

I had this in mind when I decided to explore belonging in my school, with the aim of encouraging our students to engage more readily with those around them, rather than those online. To truly have an impact, I had to understand why this feeling of belonging was being found by only some students online, and then work out what to do about it.

Recent international research indicates that as many as one in four children feel as if they "don't belong" at their school (bit.ly/Pisa_wellbeing). But it has repeatedly been shown that children who feel they belong are happier, more relaxed, and have fewer behavioural problems and better internal self-moderation.

There are academic benefits, too. Studies show that a sense of belonging in school significantly affects students' expectations of success, valuation of school work, engagement with tasks, self-reported effort and academic efficacy.

Gaining a sense of belonging with their peers is a primary objective for many adolescents and for some (if not all) it is sometimes more important than academic goals. But it has been found that a strong sense of belonging can actually act as a predictor of academic performance (bit.ly/belonging_study). It does appear that gaining social standing can positively influence adolescents' academic achievement, even if that was not their primary goal.

Others have found that students who report higher levels of belonging to their school community are less likely to engage in risky behaviours, such as smoking and drinking, as well as being less likely to suffer from poor mental health and depression.

So clearly this is something we need to focus on in schools.

The problem is that some of what we are doing now in education can work against a sense of belonging. With the narratives of grit and growth mindset becoming prevalent in schools over recent years, education is increasingly focused on autonomy, and students are encouraged to understand themselves as self-sufficient.

Promote a positive culture

Although personal responsibility is an important ideal to foster within young people, it is vital to get the balance right. These positive ideas can easily slip over from a narrative of "I can't do this … yet" into frustration at a lack of progress because they believe themselves to have ultimate control over their own destinies. Not only is this a huge responsibility for a young person to shoulder but it is also simply not true to life. Situations and events beyond one's control play an important part in forming one's future, and it is important that young people are reminded of this and prepared for it.

Therefore, rather than focusing on autonomy, schools can benefit from fostering a sense of belonging and the subsequent positive culture within the classroom.

We began with staff training, in which the research on belonging was explained and questions were encouraged. We formulated a plan: our focus would be on pragmatic, classroom-based intervention, focusing around group work and peer marking. The aim was to encourage students to work with a wider range of people, develop positive working relationships and create a culture in which critical conversation was facilitated, but managed in a way that was not divisive.

We did not want this to be an add-on or used at inappropriate times. But we did ask that when these learning tools were appropriate, these aspects were part of the planning. As such, the rollout was simple enough to do, because teachers had a good understanding of the dynamics of their classes and could build in diversification where needed.

The impact was interesting. Through a combination of surveys, observations and interviews, we found that the more our students were placed in situations where they were encouraged to invest in the peers around them, the less they needed tertiary social interaction with those in the digital ether (in the daytime at least).

Another major positive outcome was that students were taken out of situations in which they only encountered people like them (often an issue in an algorithmic social media environment). This had the knock-on impact of empowering students to "friend" and interact online with those they may not have known before and who had different interests.

When students are interacting only in small cliques or friendship groups offline, they are often exposed only to things they like and things they agree with online, too. However, when they began interacting with peers who were interested, for example, in different football teams, the New York City Ballet, photography, feminism or the environment, then their online and offline lives became richer and more varied.

For a relatively minor tweak in the way we taught, this was a hugely positive outcome.

We will continue to monitor the impact but the initial findings do suggest that this is something that may help other schools, too.

Rebecca Mace is head of digital character development at Cheltenham College

This article originally appeared in the 28 June 2019 issue under the headline "All together now: why schools should foster a sense of belonging"

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