For young people to flourish at school, it’s important they feel connected to their school community beyond simply having their name on the roll – they need to feel like they belong.
A student’s sense of belonging relates to their feelings of being accepted and valued by their peers, teachers and the wider school community. When students feel like a valued member of their school, they’re more likely to feel positive about attending classes, feel greater engagement, and are more inclined to foster close friendships with their peers.
By creating a space where everyone feels valued, respected and free to be themselves, you can create a thriving school community where students grow into the best versions of themselves.
Belonging from the student’s perspective
In our most recent episode of the Student Voices Podcast, our Student Voice Advocate, Lexi Kelsall, spoke to Peri Gillett, a Year 11 student, about what it means to belong at her school. Peri has recently transitioned from a regular high school to a performing arts school, the Ministry Of Performing Arts, in Victoria, Australia.
For some students transitioning to a new school can be difficult, but Peri quickly established a strong sense of belonging at the Ministry Of Performing Arts. When discussing what this sense of belonging felt like, three key themes emerged: her individuality is accepted and encouraged, she’s able to establish new friendships with ease and she feels well supported by her mentors.
Embracing her individuality
Peri loves the performing arts and aspires to pursue a career in this field. At Peri’s previous school these passions weren’t as well supported, and Peri actually felt out of place for having these interests in the first place. However, at her new school this is not the case. Peri is able to be herself and is celebrated for doing what she loves.
“I felt as though my interests weren’t very looked at. I felt like it was very much just like a number sort of thing…but now it feels amazing. I can go to school everyday and really be myself”
Building new friendships
Peri’s sense of belonging at her new school is largely defined by the relationships she has with her peers. Through shared interests and experiences, Peri has been able to foster close relationships with her friends, helping make school a safe and fun place to learn.
“Everyone at my school has the same interests. We all click and understand each other and you can really be yourself.”
Feeling supported by her mentors
An inclusive culture at a school doesn’t develop without great leaders, teachers and mentors leading the way. While Peri’s curriculum creates the space for her to pursue her passions, it’s Peri’s teachers that support her to follow them. Peri’s Principal, Kenneth Radley, has put a lot of time and effort into creating a safe space where students feel comfortable expressing themselves through the performing arts. Peri says this mostly comes down to the individual attention Kenneth pays to each student
“Kenneth focuses on all of us a lot, and gives us a lot of individual attention. It makes me feel like he really cares about us.”
Why school belonging is so important to your community
Lexi also interviewed John Christie, Dean teaching and learning at Villanova College in Queensland. When discussing what school belonging looks like at Villanova College , two key themes emerged: teacher-student relationships and school identification.
When asked about student belonging, John spoke about the importance of the strong connections between teachers and students. For students to feel like they belong at school, it’s critical that teacher’s invest time in their students and the way they learn. John mentioned the need to encourage failure and letting his students know that “it’s okay if things don’t go well”. John says that in creating a space where students can see that teachers make mistakes too, a mutual vulnerability is established, helping to develop trust between students and teachers inside and outside of the classroom.
“I’d try to encourage failure and show students that teachers make mistakes too. What this tells your students is that it’s okay that things don’t go well, and shows that teachers can be imperfect…trust can develop through shared vulnerability.”
Create a sense of school identity
Helping students identify with their school is key to developing their sense of belonging. John highlighted the significance of external events, like athletics competitions, in helping to build and promote a culture of school pride. He also spoke about the power of the school uniform in creating a sense of school identity, noting that when students compete in sporting events against other schools, students choose to keep their uniform on because it helps contribute to their sense of their school identification and signals their place within the school community
John also highlighted Villanova’s community groups, including a team of students who volunteer at food centres in the city. Extending a sense of community and teamwork beyond the classroom can help to build students’ relationships with their community, helping them to feel a sense of belonging both inside and outside of school – belonging is not limited to the confines of the school grounds.
How to build school belonging in lockdown
When Peri and John were asked what advice they would give educators to help build a student’s sense of belonging in lockdown, they both recommended focusing on collaboration with students and regular student check-ins.
Lockdown is isolating, so finding ways for students to work together is really important in upholding a sense of community and connection. Whether it be group assignments, regular team building activities or simply opportunities to chat as a group, collaboration can really help build belonging in lockdown.
At Villanova College, maintaining belonging in lockdown has been largely helped by having spaces for students to meet up virtually and work together.
“We’re committed to keeping our students and teachers connected. We can have the best work programs and the most tech savvy staff, but nothing beats that ongoing interaction between students, their peers and their teachers.”
Check-in with your students – regularly
3 in 5 students find loneliness and isolation difficult to navigate. Lockdown has seen many young people’s mental health and wellbeing suffer so checking-in regularly with students is important to help understand their changing needs. Everyone is struggling in different ways, so blanket solutions are never going to address everyone’s problems equally. Checking-in with your students also helps them know that their emotions and feelings are valued and important.
For Peri, group counselling sessions and regular check-ins with her Principal have helped her feel less isolated.
“While it’s sort of easy for me to feel alone when I’m at home and let things overwhelm me, speaking with Kenneth and talking about my mental health with my peers makes the feelings I’m going through less isolating.”
To listen to our full conversations with Peri and John about school belonging, head to the ‘Student Voices Podcast’ page. For more tips on how to build a sense of belonging at your school, take a look at our infographic.