Anarchy rules if pupils don’t have a sense of belonging

9th March 2018 at 00:00
This behaviour expert reflects on the sadness he felt when a group of school leavers used their last day to wreak havoc and express their unhappiness with his school

It is around this time of the year when Year 11s get a real sense that the end of their time in school is in sight, and the last day itself tends to be a joyous occasion for all concerned.

But it is not always a happy time. Sixteen years ago, I was a Year 11 form tutor. Out of a year group of 210, we had a small, but influential, number of students who used that last day to make their displeasure with our school known and those last hours became something to endure rather than enjoy.

We had damage to property, water balloons, disrespect for staff and a few cars were spat on, among other things.

Sadly, the final assembly was marred by disruption. I had a lot of love for that school and I was sad that these students didn’t respect the school or the people in it, and that they didn’t seem to have any affection for it.

This memory came to mind as I’ve been reading research on the impact that a sense of belonging can have on children’s achievement, behaviour, persistence and satisfaction at school.

Pupils 'need a sense of belonging'

I, and many others in our school, had a strong sense of belonging but those children did not. It is possible to be a member of an organisation – especially one that you didn’t choose to join – yet not feel part of it. You can feel like you are an outsider, that you are second-class or that you have been rejected, and this can contribute to your behaviour towards the organisation.

Studies consistently indicate that students who experience a sense of belonging in educational environments are more motivated and engaged in school and classroom activities.

Research suggests that students who feel that they belong to learning environments report higher levels of enjoyment, enthusiasm, happiness and interest, and more confidence in engaging in learning, whereas those who feel isolated report anxiety, boredom, frustration, and sadness.

You can build that sense of belonging in many ways. I loved teaching physics, but my favourite job was as a form tutor. I loved building the togetherness in a form group and seeing children’s pride and team spirit. House systems, representing the school at sport (something that is sometimes denied students because of their behaviour) or being part of a production all contribute to that warm glow of belonging.

Ultimately, school is somewhere that our children need to feel safe, to feel unconditionally accepted for who they are and to feel successful, and to know that they matter. If they don’t get that sense of belonging with us, children and young people will find that sense of belonging somewhere else.


Jarlath O’Brien works for a multi-academy trust of special schools in London. His latest book, Better Behaviour: a guide for teachers, will be published by SAGE in June

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