A sense of school belonging: Why it’s important and 5 golden rules for teachers - By Dr Tim Cockerill

By Dr Tim Cockerill, Senior Educational Psychologist

There are many ideas and concepts from psychology that have become a part of common language over the years because of how important they are on a daily basis. If we talked about self-esteem for example, most professionals, parents and many children would have a fairly good idea of what we were talking about. A sense of belonging however does not yet hold this kind of status and that is a real shame as the research suggests it is a hugely important predictor of a wide range of outcomes, including in achievement at school and a range of emotional wellbeing measures.

We can probably all think of places where we feel a high sense of belonging, perhaps around certain friends or family, at work, or linked to social activities or our membership to clubs. When we feel a sense of belonging, we feel valued and accepted and we know that others in the group care about us. We probably have also all had experiences of feeling the opposite – the feeling of not ‘fitting in’, feeling different and like we aren’t valued or understood. It is not surprising then that a good sense of belonging makes a major difference for how we feel and behave and this applies to children attending school too.

When thinking about school, a sense of belonging is best defined as the extent to which students feel accepted, respected, included and supported by others in the school environment. We know that a high sense of belonging is linked to better psychological wellbeing and academic performance and low belonging is a predictor of poor engagement and an array of difficulties at school. Although a sense of belonging is important for all students, it is a particularly important consideration for children with additional needs, Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND), those who may feel different or who are in a minority group. One of the reasons for this is that a positive sense of belonging comes from feeling like you are fully accepted and so for those who receive additional or personalised provision, being treated differently can lead to broader feelings of being different and not fitting in. For children with SEND, this is why it is essential to get the balance right between commonality (opportunities to be treated and included like all others) and difference (providing additional support for individual needs). Balancing these poles is essential to achieving a good sense of belonging as lack of support for individual needs and also a lack of inclusion in the wider school are both predictors of poor belonging.

What helps to develop a positive sense of school belonging: 5 Golden Rules

1. Celebrate and value diversity

Every child and young person has a contribution to make irrespective of their individual needs or challenges. Teachers who promote a positive sense of belonging make sure all of their students know this and feel valued and accepted. Children who find learning, behaviour or communication hard can feel as if they don’t fit in when they perceive that the teacher is only valuing a standard they feel they can’t achieve. Some reflection questions for teachers could be:

  • How do you communicate that a range of work and contributions are of value?
  • How much time does the teacher spend with those working at a lower level
  • Whose work is on the wall and in the corridors?
  • How much opportunity is there for group work and collaboration in class?
  • How do the children make sense of a system that categorises them in relation to whether they are at age-related expectations?
  • Is effort, persistence and individual progress given adequate value? How?

2. Communicate understanding and acceptance through positive relationships

We all feel a higher sense of belonging when we feel connected to someone and a key way of establishing this is as a teacher is communicating to a child that you understand them and fully accept who they are. It’s OK to have high expectations for all children but it’s dangerous to use this as a reason not to differentiate as the experience of repetitive failure around learning tasks is a great way of making the child feel like the teacher does not understand or care about them. Students will also often feel they ‘should’ be able to do the work and that higher-level work is the only thing acceptable and valued.

3. Ditch the zero tolerance

Zero tolerance (intolerant?) behaviour systems are the opposite of what’s needed to develop a good sense of belonging. These systems are a great way of communicating to a child that the adults don’t care or want to understand what they may be feeling or why they are behaving in a certain way. Challenging behaviour makes much more sense when it is considered and understood – perhaps the student has a good reason for being late, perhaps they are talking because they can’t read the worksheet that has been handed out or perhaps they won’t take their jumper off because it is the only thing making them feel safe and secure. Instead, DO personalise your approach to behaviour based on the child and their needs and get to know them, find out what works for them and be a source of trust and support for when they need to talk to someone. DO ask ‘why’ when a behaviour is challenging and investigate what is happening so that the response links with the underlying reasons – this usually leads to support and positive change rather than punishment which doesn’t work to address the cause.

4. Involve peers

A child’s relationship with peers is hugely important to their feelings about school and can majorly influence sense of belonging. It’s important for adult to start with the child’s views on this as sometimes adults believe a child is isolated and needs more friends, but the child might be happy with their situation. If a child is isolated or they are feeling they don’t fit in with peers, it’s important to understand that there is lots that can be done to support this, for example:

  • Find out what the barriers are to social inclusion and support these areas, e.g. if a child struggles with social communication, they may need direct teaching of how to initiate interactions through role-play and then greater levels of scaffolded support in social situation to apply these skills with peers. If the barriers are linked to anxiety or emotional factors, support these areas with a specific focus on promoting positive peer relationships.
  • Think about what interests the child has and whether these match with peers as this can be a foundation for joint collaborations, sharing ideas and cooperation.
  • Think about whether a structured intervention such as ‘circle of friends’ could be helpful.
  • Use a solution-focused approach to look at the areas of social interaction that are working better and how can these be extended and developed.

5. Think ‘whole-school’

A child’s experiences in the wider school is also essential to sense of belonging. Some questions for staff to consider could be:

  • How do senior staff encourage and apply the principles of acceptance and value for all and how is this made clear in policies and embedded throughout the school?
  • Who is selected to show visitors around the school?
  • How do you work in partnership with parents and families?
  • How are students with additional needs meaningfully involved in wider school activities and clubs?
  • How is everyone included on school trips and events that represent the school?
  • If a child is attending alternative provision off-site, how do you ensure that they maintain a strong sense of belonging to the school?

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