Belonging & Connection: the key to happy, engaged and successful students
As students move through the different developmental stages, we see them explore their identity, the world around them as well as constantly strive for and progress towards independence. However, regardless of age and stage, each student feels an innate need to connect and belong. Students, teachers and parents alike, all have a biological need and desire to belong to a group and feel connected to the people in their environment. As human beings, when we feel a sense of belonging and connection, we are better able to regulate emotions, build relationships and engage in higher-order thinking and learning. School belonging is the ‘extent to which students feel personally accepted, respected, included, and supported by others in the school social environment’ (Goodenow, 1993b, p. 80). It is a psychological pull or attachment that gets students to attend school and their classes each day.
For more information on social connection and adolescent mental wellbeing, read this article.
Research shows us that when students feel a strong sense of belonging to their school and are well connected to their school community, there is increased learning engagement, increased academic performance and increased prosocial behaviours (Allen, Kern, Vella-Brodick, & Waters, 2016; Wagle et al., 2018). In this environment, students are able to better connect with peers and teachers in meaningful social interactions and relationships and show increased motivation for academic and extracurricular activities (Osterman, 2000; St-Amand, Girard & Smith, 2017; Wagle et al., 2018). Without belonging and connection to school, we see increased risk of school drop-out, poor academic engagement and performance, increased antisocial behaviours and mental distress (Gaete, Rojas-Barahona, Olivares & Araya, 2016; Wagle et al., 2018).
When you consider the outcomes associated with a sense of belonging - or lack of -, you can see why it is essential for schools to prioritise building connection with students, whether that is through teacher-student relationships or peer-to-peer relationships. When schools intentionally set activities and environments fostering a sense of belonging and connection, we see students thriving in their development.
How do we build belonging? How do we create connection opportunities?
When creating connection opportunities remember the 3 A’s:
Research has shown that authentic teachers are seen as approachable, passionate, attentive and knowledgeable by their students. It is not surprising then that students report higher levels of motivation and engagement in learning as well as connection to their school when they perceive their teachers to be authentic (Ibrahim & El Zaatari, 2020; Keller & Becker 2021). In addition to this, research shows us that high-risk students are more likely to connect with and be positively impacted by teachers who are perceived as authentic in their communications. Teachers can demonstrate authentic enthusiasm for teaching and learning through their words, tone of voice, body language and behaviours. Authenticity can also be shown through personal disclosures such as admitting mistakes and failures as well as through humour and personal connection with students on common interests or similarity in life experiences e.g culture, religion, hobbies, family traditions etc (Keller & Becker 2021).
If we want to connect, we need to first be aware - aware of ourselves and aware of our students. As teachers, we need to consider how we are perceived for example what our body language says, what our tone of voice suggests, and what our appearance may “say” to students (Allen et al., 2016). When we have awareness and regulate or adapt our interactions in response to this, we open the door for true connection. One way teachers can show consideration and awareness is:
- By regulating the tone or pace of speech for different students to help communication and understanding. This can be particularly powerful when teaching language is not their first language, or when learning difficulties are present, or when students present trauma or mental health issues.
- Alternatively, it could be shown through proactive rather than reactive classroom and behaviour management. In this case, the teacher’s actions show the individual student “I see you and I see what is happening”, before them needing to ask for help.
Connection to peers, teachers and school community is important through all ages and stages of development. However, research shows that adolescence is a particularly sensitive developmental period for social-emotional development (Qin & Wan, 2015). As such, the need and innate drive to belong increases as students reach adolescence. With this in mind, it is important for schools to recognise this developmental stage for secondary school students and create explicit opportunities for adolescent students to build connections. Schools can do this through:
- Giving opportunities for student-led projects and leadership
- Actively seeking student voice
- Student involvement in wider school community projects (Ibrahim & El Zaatari, 2020).
When building a sense of belonging remember the 3 D’s:
1. Develop teacher-student relationships
Sense of belonging is influenced by many factors with teacher-student relationships arguably the most influential (Ibrahim & El Zaatari, 2020; Uslu & Gizir, 2017). With the realities of increased workload and responsibility with no extra time in the school day, many teachers struggle with symptoms of burnout and overload which leaves little time and energy for building relationships. Research repeatedly suggests that when teachers are able to prioritise the development of teacher-student relationships there is improved happiness, reduced feelings of burnout and increased motivation for teaching (Prewett, Bergin & Huang, 2019). Not only do teachers benefit from this, students also report increased happiness, love of learning and school engagement (Prewett et al., 2019). Teachers can build relationships with students through:
- Simple daily tasks such as greeting students as they enter the classroom
- Active listening
- Being interested in knowing about students' lives outside of school and future plans (Ibrahim & El Zaatari, 2020).
2. Develop peer relations
Research shows that when students have strong peer relationships within their school, they have an increased sense of belonging and allegiance to their school community. Teachers can support social development and facilitate peer relationships:
- By employing teaching strategies such as class-wide projects, team building activities, cooperative learning tasks, enquiry process learning and peer reviews. During these tasks, it is important that each student has a chance to play a role in the “team” or group which in turn promotes peer acceptance and belonging
- Through extra-curricular activities, unique school culture events and student-led initiatives. In doing so, this provides opportunities for students to develop common interests with students outside of their classroom.
3. Develop your staff/workforce
In the current time, where teachers and teaching resources are often stretched beyond capacity, professional development can often be placed as a lower priority. However, research repeatedly shows the importance of continued growth and development of staff (Allen et al., 2016; Osterman,2010). When building a sense of belonging in your school community, we need to ensure there is ongoing teacher development in the areas of mental health and wellbeing, trauma informed classrooms, emotion regulation and social-emotional skills. When all school staff have a baseline of understanding across these concepts, we can reduce the chance of students “slipping through the gaps” and it facilitates a whole-school priority on building belonging and connection (Allen et al., 2016).
How will you create connection and build a sense of belonging in your school community?
- Allen, K., Kern, M. L., Vella-Brodrick, D., Hattie, J., & Waters, L. (2016). What schools need to know about fostering school belonging: A meta-analysis. Educational Psychology Review, 1–34. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-016-9389-8
- Gaete, J., Rojas‐Barahona, C. A., Olivares, E., & Araya, R. (2016). Brief report: Association between psychological sense of school membership and mental health among early adolescents. Journal of adolescence, 50(1), 1-5.
- Keller, M. M., & Becker, E. S. (2021). Teachers’ emotions and emotional authenticity: do they matter to students’ emotional responses in the classroom?. Teachers and Teaching, 27(5), 404-422.
- Ibrahim, A., & El Zaatari, W. (2020). The teacher–student relationship and adolescents’ sense of school belonging. International Journal of Adolescence and Youth, 25(1), 382-395.
- Osterman, K. F. (2000). Students’ need for belonging in the school community. Review of Educational Research, 70(3), 323–367. https://doi.org/10.3102/00346543070003323
- Osterman, K. F. (2010). Teacher practice and students’ sense of belonging. In T. Lovat, R. Toomey, & N. Clement (Eds.), International Research Handbook on Values Education and Student Wellbeing (pp. 239–260). Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-90-481-8675-4_15
- Prewett, S. L., Bergin, D. A., & Huang, F. L. (2019). Student and teacher perceptions on student-teacher relationship quality: A middle school perspective. School Psychology International, 40(1), 66-87.
- St-Amand, J., Girard, S., & Smith, J. (2017). Sense of belonging at school: Defining attributes, determinants, and sustaining strategies
- Wagle, R., Dowdy, E., Yang, C., Palikara, O., Castro, S., Nylund-Gibson, K., & Furlong, M. J. (2018). Preliminary investigation of the Psychological Sense of School Membership Scale with primary school students in a cross-cultural context. School Psychology International, 39(6), 568-586.
- Qin, Y., & Wan, X. (2015, April). Review of school belonging. Proceedings of the International Conference on Social Science and Technology Education, China, 978-94-62520-60-8. doi:10.2991/icsste-15.2015.213
- Uslu, F., & Gizir, S. (2017). School belonging of adolescents: The role of teacher–student relationships, peer relation-ships and family involvement. Educational Sciences: Theory & Practice, 17(1), 63–82.