Want to get behaviour right? Focus on belonging

Pupils' sense of belonging can have a big impact on behaviour - and there is a way to measure it, says Jarlath O’Brien

Jarlath O'Brien

Behaviour: Fostering a sense of belonging among pupils can have a big impact on behaviour, says Jarlath O'Brien

Creating a strong sense of belonging for our students makes a significant contribution to good behaviour in schools. It’s important for both class teachers and school leaders looking to develop a culture across the whole organisation.

I’ve written before about a particularly nasty episode where a sense of belonging was missing, but I’ve seen its positive effects time and again. The most treasured memory of my teaching life is my time as a form tutor with a particular group. I loved our team spirit and I worked hard on developing our identity as a group. 

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Similarly, sports teams, house competitions, community activities, charity fundraising, performing arts productions and more all help children, and, crucially, sometimes those who struggle in other aspects of school life, to feel like they are an important person in school who makes a valuable contribution.

A sense of belonging in school

There exists, though, a very interesting tool that teachers can use with individuals, and school leaders can use with year groups or their entire school, to go further and elicit vital information about children’s sense of belonging in the school.

Carol Goodenow’s Psychological Sense of School Membership Scale gets to the heart of what it means to feel like you belong and that you matter. The fact that it contains questions with “people like me” rather than all being about the individual is particularly useful. (See Goodenow’s paper to learn more about how these questions were devised.) 

Students answer on a Likert scale; a rating system used in questionnaires to measure attitudes, opinions or perceptions. For example, you could provide five choices ranging from not at all true (scoring 1) to completely true (scoring 5). 

Regarding the questions below: the (R) after approximately one-third of the questions indicates that they are reversed; that is to say that they are phrased deliberately in the negative sense to avoid a response set from students (i.e., providing the same answer such as 'not at all true' to each question.) 

1. I feel like a real part of [NAME] School.

2. People here notice when I am good at something.

3. It is hard for people like me to be accepted here. (R)

4. Other students in this school take my opinions seriously.

5. Most teachers at [NAME] School are interested in me.

6. Sometimes I feel as if I don’t belong here. (R)

7. There’s at least one teacher or other adult in this school I can talk to if I have a problem.

8. People at this school are friendly to me.

9. Teachers here are not interested in people like me. (R)

10.  I am included in lots of activities at [NAME] School.

11.  I am treated with as much respect as other students.

12.  I feel very different from most other students here. (R)

13.  I can really be myself at this school.

14.  The teachers here respect me.

15.  People here know I can do good work.

16.  I wish I were in a different school. (R)

17.  I feel proud of belonging to [NAME] School.

18.  Other students here like me the way I am.

Goodenow’s research found that “the quality of psychological membership in school was found to be substantially correlated with self-reported school motivation, and to a lesser degree with grades and with teacher-rated effort”. 

Goodenow reinforces the importance of a sense of school membership for children who find it difficult to behave well in school, noting that “especially for young people who feel unsupported or 'disinvited' by school, adults or academically striving fellow students, the appeal of peer groups with anti-academic norms may be strong and may result in gradual disidentification with the school and disinvestment from academic or achievement goals”.

I will use this tool at some point this academic year and will use the findings to inform our work on improving our sense of belonging across the whole school and with individuals. I can’t wait to see what comes out of it, but I’ll admit that I am nervous about the results, which is why it is doubly important for me to do it.

Jarlath O'Brien works in a mainstream secondary school in Oxfordshire. His latest book, Leading Better Behaviour – a guide for school leaders, will be published by SAGE in 2020

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