The sense of belonging Australian students feel at school has fallen since 2003 and recent data reported from the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) shows there is no sign of this improving.
So, why is belonging so important?
Every year, much of the educational focus and emphasis is on the NAPLAN literacy and numeracy scores, but a lack of a sense of belonging can be detrimental to a student’s overall wellbeing and may even contribute to their academic performance.
Belonging at a vulnerable time
The ACER report found many Australian students reported a lower sense of belonging compared with other students around the world, and there is good reason to be alarmed about this.
Belonging relates to higher levels of student emotional wellbeing and better academic performance and achievement. It also reduces the likelihood of mental health problems, promotes resilience when mental health difficulties are experienced and reduces suicidal thoughts and behaviour.
Mid-adolescence can be a vulnerable time particularly in respect to identity formation, peer group influences and psychosocial developments. The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) data from ACER suggests many students can feel unsupported during this critical period.
Increasing rates of mental illness over the past decade may also correspond with student perceptions of decreased attachment to their school. For Indigenous students and students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, targeting school belonging may become a critical avenue to address disparity in attendance and retention rates between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, and students from different socio-economic backgrounds.
Over 50 per cent of secondary schools in Victoria have prioritised school belonging in their vision and mission statements. The reality however, is that many young people report feeling disengaged at school, with Mission Australia reports indicating that school or study problems are among the top three issues of personal concern.
Although mental health programs are being delivered in schools, most do not focus specifically on improving school engagement and belonging.
What matters for school belonging?
A University of Melbourne meta-analysis of 51 studies, which included 67,378 students, has identified factors that impact on school belonging, including positive student-teacher relationships, supportive parents and peers, and individual characteristics such as self-efficacy and adaptability.
This information was analysed to identify factors that impact a sense of school belonging for secondary school students and found several important areas that can contribute to a school community’s closeness.
Firstly, there’s the relationship a student has with their teacher. In fact, this is the strongest factor. Students reported a greater sense of belonging when they feel teachers respect and value them. This means the students perceive them as fair, they’re available for academic and social support, they develop positive relationships with students, show students they care, are mutually respectful, and articulate a belief that students are capable.
Despite the many issues facing the teaching profession such as the undersupply of specialist teachers, feelings of under-preparedness by graduate teachers, and feeling generally undervalued, teachers are vital to fostering school belonging.
Secondly, other relationships also matter. Parents are an important source of emotional support. A parent’s perception of school and how they value and support their child’s educational experience is vital. Peers who provide social and academic support also create a mutual sense of belonging.
Thirdly, we found individual positive characteristics like optimism, self-efficacy, healthy self-esteem, coping skills, adaptability, pro-social goals and the ability to make and keep friends impacted how students felt about school.
There’s also the culture of the school, the local community and other social groups that also affect student belonging. In the PISA data, first generation and foreign-born students reported higher levels of belonging than Australian-born students.
This might point to cultural traditions, knowledge of cultural history and participating in rituals and rites of passage helping to create a sense of identity and belonging.
And finally, there’s the fact that the environments and landscapes in which young people grow up have shifted. We don’t know our neighbours as we once did, children often no longer attend their local school and we are still struggling to understand the true implications of electronic devices.
Accelerating property prices may mean both parents are required to work, arguably leaving less time to spend with children and less opportunities to spend in social groups.
The long-term implications of these broader ecological influences are unknown, but contribute to a sense of disconnection and increase the responsibility of schools to help young people feel connected and valued.
How can schools foster a great sense of belonging?
Fortunately, there are steps schools, teachers, parents and the student themselves can take to build on that sense of a school community.
As curriculum demands and class sizes increase, and teachers feel stressed, the key teacher-student relationship can become increasingly hard to maintain. School leaders must consider ways to allow time for relationships to happen and look at how their staff connect with and value the school.
Social and emotional learning programs can also help students become aware of themselves and how they fit with others, helping to create a sense of connection with schools.
Meanwhile, parents can coach their children to navigate their connection to school and shift negative perceptions around social groups, teachers and school. Parents can also model positive attitudes towards school, value their child’s education and validate their child’s academic and social competencies.
In terms of leadership, school belonging needs to be considered within the policies, practices and priorities of a school. Leadership should promote a culture of school belonging with careful consideration to process and implementation to ensure long-term effects.
It’s also important to consider how communities can foster a sense of identity and connection, within and beyond school. There are many opportunities to learn about, value, and contribute to our cultural diversity, nature, and broader social issues.
And it’s vital to keep the conversation open in terms of defining a successful student. There is often a strong focus on academic outcomes, but a students’ school life cannot be adequately represented by a standardised score.
We need to be mindful of the systemic pressure national testing may have on students, teachers, school leaders and parents and question how this is influencing priorities at community, school and classroom level.
After all, we know that encouraging school belonging does not come at the expense of academic achievement; in fact, it’s the opposite, it helps.
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