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Fostering School Belonging

Recently, I was privileged to attend a Positive Education Schools Association seminar on school belonging presented by Associate Professor Peggy Kern from the Centre for Positive Psychology, University of Melbourne. Peggy's presentation outlined the research on belonging as well as provided practical tips and resources to assist with creating a school environment that encourages a sense of belonging.

Firstly, Goodenow & Grady (1993) define school belonging as "the extent to which students feel personally accepted, respected, included, and supported by others in the school environment".

Peggy went on to provide examples of what it might sound like when students feel true belonging in their school:

"I feel proud to belong to my school"
"Teachers at my school are interested in me"
"I can really be myself at my school"

There are many benefits to school belonging which can be summed up in three categories:

Academic Outcomes:

  • Educational motivation

  • classroom engagement

  • improved school attendance

  • academic performance

Well-being Outcomes:

  • Life satisfaction & happiness

  • better friendships

  • improved relationships with teachers

  • higher rates of help-seeking behaviour

Behavioural Outcomes:

  • Reduction of absenteeism

  • reduced school drop-out rates

  • fewer incidents of violence, bullying and vandalism

  • lower rates of substance abuse

To work most effectively, school belonging should be a whole-school initiative that involves all members of the school.

Peggy also discussed the importance of kindness and gratitude and how practicing both can lead to feeling a sense of connection among peers. Practicing kindness can lead to greater empathy in an individual as it encourages them to think of others. The Positive Psychology movement can tend toward an inward focus (me) but it is important to learn how improving one's own well-being can have a positive impact on others (we). Peggy described this as changing from a perspective of "me"to "we".

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) has a great focus on both personal well-being and social well-being. It does this through cultivating Self-awareness and Social Awareness as well as Relationship Skills. Second Step teaches empathy and perspective-taking among other practices to develop student's Self-awareness, Social Awareness and Relationship Skills.

CASEL's Core SEL Competencies and Second Step alignment

As mentioned earlier, practicing gratitude plays a role in feelings of connection and belonging. The Greater Good Science Center recently released four researched-based strategies for cultivating gratitude. Below is an excerpt from the article detailing the four strategies:

  1. Count your blessings - the 'Three Good Things' practice involves spending 5 to 10 minutes at the end of each day writing in detail about three things that went well that day, large or small, and also describing why you think they happened. A 2005 study led by Martin Seligman, founder of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, found that completing this exercise every day for one week led to increases in happiness that persisted for six months.

  2. Mental subtraction - sometimes, just imagining that something is gone is enough to make you appreciate what you’ve got. One way to do that is to engage in the Mental Subtraction of Positive Events practice, which involves considering the many ways in which important, positive events in your life—such as a job opportunity or educational achievement—could have never taken place, and then reflecting on what your life would be like without them.

  3. Savor - ever notice that the first bite of cake is usually the best? We have a tendency to adapt to pleasurable things — a phenomenon called “hedonic adaptation” — and appreciate them less and less over time. We can interrupt this process by trying the 'Give it Up' practice, which requires temporarily giving up pleasurable activities and then coming back to them later, this time with greater anticipation and excitement.

  4. Say “thank you” - Gratitude can be especially powerful when it’s expressed to others. Small gestures of appreciation, such as thank you notes, can make a difference. The 2005 study led by Martin Seligman tested the effects of writing and delivering a gratitude letter, finding that, of the five different practices that the researchers tested, this practice had the greatest positive impact on happiness one month later.

As the summer holidays approach, it is a time to reflect on the year that has been, and note ways in which we can improve for the year ahead. I encourage everyone to think of ways to improve belonging in your classrooms and schools, whether that be integrating gratitude practices and encouraging kindness among peers or implementing an SEL program like Second Step, that comprehensively teaches the five core competencies of SEL.


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