Purpose of resource

The Making sense of belonging webpages summarise research evidence and identify relevant resources to support schools to better understand students’ sense of belonging.

When and how to use

School leaders and teachers can read, reflect on, discuss and implement themes and key learnings highlighted in the webpages as part of school-developed High Impact Professional Learning (HIPL).

The appropriate time to use this resource may differ for each school, leader and teacher.

School leaders can:

  • unpack the webpages as part of whole-school professional development and/or stage or grade team meetings – you may also wish to unpack and discuss some of the related resources identified throughout the webpages
  • encourage teachers to share key findings during professional development
  • reflect on strategies, policies or practices currently in place to support students’ sense of belonging at school
  • access Tell Them From Me data and the Advocacy, Expectations, Belonging: By School over Time Scout report to lead discussions with staff about areas to improve across the school – you may wish to refer to the Achieving School Excellence in Wellbeing and Inclusion tool
  • support staff to find connections between What works best, the School Excellence Framework and the themes contained in the webpages.

Teachers can:

  • read through the webpages and reflect on current strategies, policies and practices in place to support students’ sense of belonging
  • read and/or access the related resources identified throughout the webpages to further develop their understanding on how to support students’ sense of belonging
  • identify strategies and practices in the webpages to apply that will support students’ sense of belonging
  • reflect on impact of the applied strategies.

Contact

Email feedback about this resource to info.cese@det.nsw.edu.au using subject line ‘Re: Making sense of belonging’. You can also subscribe to the CESE newsletter and connect with us on Yammer.

Alignment to system priorities and/or needs: Our Plan for NSW Public Education – ‘every student learns, grows and belongs in an equitable and outstanding education system.’

Alignment to School Excellence Framework: Learning domain – wellbeing

Alignment with existing frameworks: NSW Wellbeing Framework for Schools – Connect: ‘Our students will be actively connected to their learning, have positive and respectful relationships and experience a sense of belonging to their school and community’

What works best – wellbeing

Reviewed by: Inclusion and Wellbeing directorate

Created/last updated: Last updated 2 July 2024. Originally published 10 October 2022

To be reviewed: CESE publications are prepared through a rigorous process. Resources are reviewed periodically as part of an ongoing evaluation plan.

Making sense of belonging

A suite of resources to support schools to better understand students’ sense of belonging

What is sense of belonging?

School belonging is a complex area that is thought about by researchers in different ways. To gain an understanding of belonging, it is useful to explore each of these theoretical positions and their application to school contexts.

There are 3 broad ways to view belonging and its importance for students:
  • A philosophical understanding of belonging highlights that belongingness is not singular or static, but rather is a dynamic construct that relates to how common histories, experiences and places are conceived and sustained. This tradition highlights the importance of considering the many identities and senses of belonging that children and young people form within and beyond the classroom and their school.
  • From a psychological understanding, belongingness is a psychological state that can be viewed as an essential human need and thus a fundamental goal of student wellbeing at school.
  • From a sociological understanding, sense of belonging can be seen as context specific, where social identity is characterised through a connection to place and informs a sense of community. Each school and classroom must be considered as a unique context where the social exchanges of teaching and learning involve a balance between personal and social identities.

School belonging is characterised by various interconnected concepts, methods and theoretical positions. This broad ideology generates multiple avenues for understanding students’ sense of belonging within NSW schools.

In addition, Indigenous sense of belonging encompasses the recognition of their culture, autonomy, and connection to country. For Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander students, connection to country and culture play an important role in various aspects of their wellbeing, including health, spirituality and identity. Autonomy, self-determination and strong cultural identity can also contribute to nurturing sense of belonging for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander students (Yap & Yu 2016).

Why is sense of belonging important?

Research shows a students’ sense of belonging at school is linked to their academic achievement and wellbeing. Students who have a high sense of belonging in school generally put in more effort and are more motivated at school, have lower absenteeism and thus higher academic outcomes. Students who feel accepted and included at school tend to be happier, have greater interest in school activities, and are more confident. Alternatively, when students do not feel they belong at school they tend to reject school values, withdraw from school activities, and become alienated or disaffected.

Sense of belonging is also paramount in early childhood contexts, where children’s relationships with others play an important role in shaping their identities and influencing their sense of place in the world. Further information on supporting children’s sense of belonging in early childhood contexts can be found in the Early Years Learning Framework.

Measuring students’ perceptions of belonging in NSW public schools

In NSW public schools, sense of belonging is measured through the Tell Them From Me (1) student surveys. The sense of belonging measure concerns students’ feelings of being accepted and valued by their peers and by others at school. It reflects the extent to which students feel personally accepted, respected, included, and supported in the school social environment (2).

In the surveys, students are asked whether they feel included and accepted at school and if they make friends easily. The data is scaled on a 10-point scale, and students with a score greater than or equal to 6 (that is, slightly higher than neutral) are considered to have a ‘positive sense of belonging’. The results are reported as ‘the percentage of students with a positive sense of belonging’.

Sense of belonging and Our Plan for NSW Public Education

The Plan for NSW Public Education sets out the department’s direction and priorities for 2024-2027 to provide an outstanding education for every learner. The commitment that ‘every student learns, grows and belongs in an equitable and outstanding education system’ will be implemented through the Plan’s focus areas, actions, goals and success measures.

The primary and secondary student surveys support our focus area to strengthen student wellbeing and development with the goal that every student is known, valued and cared for. A measure of success for the department to track progress towards this goal is the proportion of students reporting a sense of belonging, gauged in the student surveys. The sense of belonging measure of success is reviewed at the state level to monitor progress towards providing equitable and outstanding public education.

Sense of belonging and the School Excellence Framework

The School Excellence Framework (SEF) Improvement Model supports schools to determine focus areas for ongoing improvement. The model identifies whole-school and classroom elements as improvement enablers which support effective teaching and wellbeing practices, leading to student growth and performance. Research shows improving a student's sense of belonging can have positive impacts on various focus areas in the SEF. The figure below highlights the positive correlation between students’ sense of belonging and various elements in the model.

The figure highlights the positive correlation between students sense of belonging and various elements in the SEF model. The figure highlights the positive correlation between students sense of belonging and various elements in the SEF model.

The Framework supports all NSW public schools in their pursuit of equity and excellence by providing a description of the 14 key elements of high-quality practice across the three domains of learning, teaching, and leading. The commitment to equity and excellence means that every student can learn, grow and belong. The Framework recognises the importance of students’ wellbeing and belonging through multiple references throughout its element and theme descriptions.

Learning domain

  • Learning culture: school culture is strongly focused on learning and transitions, wellbeing, fostering educational aspirations and ongoing performance improvement throughout the school community.
  • Wellbeing: there is a strategic and planned approach to develop whole school wellbeing processes that support the wellbeing of all students so they can connect, succeed, thrive and learn.

Teaching domain

  • Data skills and use: student data is regularly used school-wide to identify student achievements, progress and wellbeing needs, in order to reflect on teaching effectiveness and inform future school directions.

Leading domain

  • Educational leadership: the community engagement theme highlights the importance of a collaborative culture to build a cohesive educational community and enhanced sense of belonging.
  • School resources: the facilities theme highlights the importance of a creative and sustainable approach to the use of the physical environment, ensuring that it optimises learning and wellbeing.

Sense of belonging and schools’ improvement measures

From 2024, schools are encouraged to have a purposeful focus on a small number of improvement measures within their Strategic Improvement Plan (SIP). These improvement measures are aligned to the focus areas of reading, numeracy, attendance and pathways (for schools with secondary students). Schools are encouraged to set aspirational, yet achievable measures that are appropriate for each school’s context and that speak to the needs of the school and its students. There is strong evidence that a student’s positive sense of belonging has a positive relationship with each of the focus areas.

Focus area Connection to sense of belonging

Attendance

CESE’s Understanding Attendance (2022) review identifies sense of belonging as a key factor that influences attendance. Key findings from student survey longitudinal data found improvements in sense of belonging for low-SES students in the Year 7 cohort predict an increase in attendance of over 2 days Also, for Aboriginal students in year 7, sense of belonging, pride in school and feeling their culture is understood by their teachers, predict increases in attendance. Together, improvements in these 3 factors could result in about 5 additional days in school for Aboriginal students in this cohort.

Reading and numeracy

Research suggests that students with a positive sense of belonging are more likely to achieve higher academic outcomes. Additionally, students who have a high sense of belonging in school generally put in more effort and are more motivated at school. CESE’s How high expectations and engagement in primary school drive student learning (2019) paper found a student in Year 5 with positive friendships in school is at least 2 months ahead in their NAPLAN reading scores by Year 7 than a student without.

Pathways

Research shows students with strong teacher-student relationships are more likely to complete Year 12. CESE’s Supporting school completion (2019) paper found a student in Year 10 with positive teacher-student relationships has a 3 percentage points higher predicted school completion rate than a student without. Furthermore, CESE’s Supporting Aboriginal students to attain the HSC (2021) paper found Aboriginal students in Year 10 who report that their teachers are interested in their school assignments and that their family encourages them to do well have greater odds of attaining the HSC compared with Aboriginal students who do not report the same support.

1 Tell Them From Me is provided by, and intellectual property of The Learning Bar.

2 Goodenow C (1993) The psychological sense of school membership among adolescents: Scale development and educational correlates, Psychology in the Schools, 30:79-90, doi: 10.1002/1520-6807(199301)30:1<79::AID-PITS2310300113>3.0.CO;2-X.

3 Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation (2020), Supporting students' sense of belonging – Every student is known, valued and cared for in our schools, NSW Department of Education

4 Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation (2022), Understanding attendance, NSW Department of Education

A suite of resources to support schools to better understand students’ sense of belonging

What is happening to belonging in NSW public schools?

In NSW, schools can examine the extent to which their students experience a positive sense of belonging at school through data collected in the student survey. This survey asks students whether they feel included and accepted at school and if they make friends easily.

Key messages

Data from NSW schools shows that sense of belonging at school has been declining in both primary and secondary schools since 2017. In primary schools, the decline was particularly pronounced in 2020 and 2021 and now continues at around 1 percentage point per year. Secondary schools saw a slight reversal of the trend between 2019 to 2020 however 2020 to 2023 saw a decline of nearly 8 percentage points (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Sense of belonging in NSW, 2016 to 2023, Tell Them From Me data

How do we support student wellbeing?

The department has a suite of resources on how to improve students’ sense of belonging at school.

Wellbeing in schools webpage provides policy, advice and resources to support your students.

What works best: Wellbeing professional learning. This course involves connecting educational theory and research with your own context.

The pattern of declining student belonging is not unique to NSW. Similar declines have been observed nationally and internationally among states in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (Figure 2a and 2b).

Figure 2a: Sense of belonging in Australian states and internationally over time, Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) data

  

Figure 2b: Sense of belonging in Australia and the international average over time, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) data

Sense of belonging has declined across all student years, with the largest drops from 2019 to 2021 in primary schools and since 2021 in secondary schools. This is particularly concerning as it is the same cohort of students transitioning from primary to high school over these years.

Figure 3: Change in sense of belonging by year level, 2019 to 2023, Tell Them From Me data

How do we support students’ sense of belonging?

The department’s School community webpage provides links to multiple resources to support students’ wellbeing. Resources include information on wellbeing programs, wellbeing support services, the wellbeing framework and resources to help tailor the health and wellbeing approaches at school.

Supporting students’ sense of belonging. This research explains why students’ sense of belonging is important and provides practical suggestions for schools to support and care for their students.

Student background

Sense of belonging in NSW has declined across all equity groups. However, declines have been largest among girls and students from low socioeconomic status (SES) and Aboriginal backgrounds (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Change in sense of belonging by student background, 2019 to 2023, Tell Them From Me data

How do we promote equity for all student groups?

The Achieving School Excellence in Wellbeing and Inclusion tool supports schools’ understanding that wellbeing and inclusion initiatives and programs can be used as evidence of excellence across the School Excellence Framework.

Maximising learning and wellbeing outcomes for Aboriginal students.

Excellence for all Aboriginal students.

Closing the gap case studies illustrate how five NSW primary schools have achieved high learning growth for their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

Tell Them From Me: Gender and engagement.

Excellence for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

The socioeconomic background equity loading can be used to meet the additional learning needs of students who may be experiencing educational disadvantage as a result of their socioeconomic background.

Students transitioning to high school

Concerns over belonging may be exacerbated by transition to a new school. Going to a new school disrupts friendships and raises academic stakes, in an often larger and more impersonal school environment (3).

In NSW, the decline in sense of belonging across the transition to secondary school has accelerated slightly since 2019 and more so since 2021 (Figure 5). This acceleration may be due to the disruptions to schooling experienced since 2019 – floods, bushfires and the impact of COVID-19.

Figure 5: Sense of belonging in 3 longitudinal cohorts across the transition to secondary school, Tell Them From Me data

How do we assist students during periods of change?

The department’s Transition to school webpage provides resources for parents and carers, ECEC services and schools, to support children transitioning to school.

The department’s Enhancing the transition to high school for students webpage provides resources and strategies to make students transition to high school more successful.

The role of student engagement in the transition from primary to secondary school report. This publication examines the relationship between a students’ sense of belonging and other measures of student engagement over the primary to secondary school transition.

The impact of bushfires on student wellbeing and student learning report. This paper supports the Bushfire Relief Strategy which outlines the department’s approach to assisting schools to recover from natural disasters across the short, medium and long term.

Trauma-informed practice in schools is an explainer that summarises evidence on trauma-informed practice within an educational context and provides strategies schools can use to support students.

The decline in sense of belonging at school is mirrored in wider mental health trends. Psychological distress has increased markedly since 2012, more so among female than male young people (Figure 6). A 2023 report reveals the 2019 to 2020 downward trend has continued with NSW and Australian decreasing between 2020 and 2023. Psychological distress records how frequently in the past 4 weeks respondents have felt nervous, hopeless, restless or fidgety, so depressed that nothing could cheer them up, that everything was an effort, and worthless. It is a robust predictor of mental health problems in young people (15 to 19 years old).

Figure 6: Psychological distress in young people in NSW and Australia, 2012 to 2020 (4)

 

Previous analysis of data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC) also shows an association between aspects of a student’s wider mental health and their sense of belonging at school. Students with low levels of anxiety or strong relationships with their parents tend to report higher levels of belonging at school (Figure 7).1

1 Longitudinal modelling conducted in partnership with University of Queensland – Institute for Social Science Research

Figure 7: Student, family and community factors positively associated with students' sense of belonging, LSAC data

How do we promote students’ mental health?

Everyday resilience – what works best in practice guide. This guide is for school leaders and teachers on how to support students’ everyday resilience. It provides strategies on how it can be supported by implementing What works best classroom practices.

Supporting our Students Mental Health professional learning provides foundational knowledge and practical skills needed to effectively support students. It covers mental health theory, practical skills and discover where, and when, to refer students for other available supports.

Department of Education: Mental Health and Wellbeing webinars – A series of mental health and wellbeing webinars to support educators to promote positive social and emotional wellbeing and safe environments for students.

Mental health programs and partnerships – The department works with mental health organisations here in Australia and internationally. Programs are available for K to 12.

Whether or not the driving force behind declining sense of belonging is located inside or outside the school gate, school characteristics can help protect against the decline in belonging or even work to raise it. Analysis of data over time shows that schools that support students' social engagement and positive teacher-student relations, and that provide a positive environment for both students and staff, also have more positive changes in sense of belonging.

Students’ social engagement

Schools that foster peer relationships, minimise bullying and provide access to activities outside the classroom where students can connect with others with common interests may protect against a decline in sense of belonging.

Previous CESE data analysis shows that schools with lower levels of bullying, and higher levels of positive peer relationships and participation in sports and clubs, tended to have lower levels of decline in belonging or even large increases (Figure 8). Schools with large increases distinguish themselves particularly through less bullying and more participation in sports.

Figure 8 : Bullying, peer relationships and participation in clubs and sports by change in sense of belonging, Tell Them From Me, 2021

How do we foster students’ social engagement?

Bullying of Students – Prevention and Response. This policy sets out the department’s position on student bullying and the requirements for preventing and responding to student bullying, including online bullying. Implementation document: Anti-bullying plan.

The School Sport Unit program provides carefully planned, adaptable and enjoyable representative and participation based physical activity experiences for all students in NSW public schools as well as quality teacher professional learning and policy support for teachers and principals.

Quality teaching practices

Schools that create caring, fair and respectful learning environments, and that affirm students’ ability to succeed at school by combining high expectations with the support needed to meet them, may protect against a decline in sense of belonging at school. Schools with high-quality teacher-student relationships may also protect against a decline in sense of belonging.

Previous CESE data analysis shows that schools with more positive teacher-student relations, advocacy at school, teacher expectations for success and classroom management also record more positive changes in sense of belonging (Figure 9).

Figure 9: Students' perception of teaching factors by change in sense of belonging, Tell Them From Me, 2021

How do we support quality teaching?

‘What works best’ outlines eight quality teaching practices that support school improvement. All ‘What works best’ resources.

Supporting high academic expectations explains why high expectations are important and provides practical suggestions for schools to support their students.

Supporting advocacy at school explains why student advocacy at school is important and provides practical suggestions for schools to support their students.

Classroom practice provides classroom management strategies to support teachers.

Staff wellbeing

There is little direct research on the link between staff wellbeing and student wellbeing. However, some researchers suggest that teachers who feel good about themselves and in their job are better able to build good relationships with students and provide consistent expectations in the classroom (5, 6).

Previous CESE data analysis shows that in NSW schools, staff wellbeing is positively associated with changes in sense of belonging (Figure 10). In primary schools, staff support and satisfaction and low levels of work stress in particular are distinguishing factors.

Figure 10: Staff wellbeing according to People Matter Employee Survey 2019 by change in sense of belonging

School infrastructure

There is limited research on the link between the built school environment and student sense of belonging at school. However, some findings suggest that the physical environment sets the stage for positive perceptions of school (3, 5, 7). The availability of recreational spaces and opportunities to play and socialise support students’ connection to their peers. A clean and pleasant environment also sets expectations for safety and for positive, respectful relationships.

Previous CESE data analysis shows that in NSW schools, the physical school environment is positively associated with changes in sense of belonging (Figure 11). The state of toilets, playgrounds and covered areas is particularly important.

Principals and school leaders should thoroughly understand their own context before adopting any strategies to uplift students’ sense of belonging, ensuring alignment with their school's specific environmental circumstances and needs.

Figure 11: Student perception of school infrastructure by change in sense of belonging, Tell Them From Me, 2021

3 Healy K and Stroman C (2021) Structures for belonging: A synthesis of research on belonging-supportive learning environments, Student Experience Research Network, accessed 09 July 2021.

4 Brennan N, Beames JR, Kos A, Reily N, Connell C, Hall S, Yip D, Hudson J, O’Dea B, Di Nicola K and Christie R (2021) Psychological distress in young people in Australia - Fifth Biennial Youth Mental Health Report: 2012-2020 [PDF, 3.7MB], Mission Australia, accessed 27 July 2021.

5 Allen K and Kern M (2017) School belonging in adolescents: Theory, research and practice, Springer, Singapore.

6 Viac C and Fraser P (2020) 'Teachers’ well-being: A framework for data collection and analysis', OECD Education Working Papers, 213, OECD Publishing, Paris, doi: 10.1787/c36fc9d3-en.

7 CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) (2009) School connectedness: Strategies for increasing protective factors among youth [PDF, 1MB], accessed 16 July 2021.

A suite of resources to support schools to better understand students’ sense of belonging

What is happening to belonging at my school?

In NSW public schools, sense of belonging is measured via the Tell Them From Me student survey. The department provides access to a number of resources for schools to better understand their sense of belonging data.

Where can I find information?

Information for NSW public schools on Tell Them From Me registration, survey windows, survey options and links to school improvement is available on the department’s Tell Them From Me page.

The department's Tell Them From Me team is available to provide support for schools individually, in targeted groups, or across school networks. Professional Learning opportunities have a strong alignment with The Plan for NSW Public Education and the process of actioning student survey data in relation to the What Works Best and School Excellence frameworks. For further details on the different professional learning opportunities available, please visit the Tell Them From Me training page.

How can I access my school’s data?

Scout

Results of several key student survey measures, including sense of belonging, are available to school leaders on the What Works Best Scout report. These are updated after the end of the first survey window each year. More information on these reports can be found on the Scout apps and reports page.

  1. Open Scout (accessible through the Staff Portal).
  2. Search for What Works Best in the search field.
  3. Select Wellbeing on the left side windowpane:
    • Sense of belonging shows in the top chart as the fourth measure.
    • The second chart shows the measure ‘school is a place where I feel like I belong’.
  4. Use the filters on the left of the charts to view charts by calendar year, scholastic year, gender and Aboriginality.

Note: These Scout reports can only be accessed by school leaders.

Image: Example chart from the What works best Scout report.

A suite of resources to support schools to better understand students’ sense of belonging

What can I do about my students' sense of belonging?

Research by the Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation (CESE) has identified whole-school and classroom practices which can drive a positive sense of belonging. It is important to consider your own school’s context and sense of belonging data when considering which strategies might support belonging for your students. Student connectedness and feelings of belonging are linked to student wellbeing, therefore schools may be able to develop and expand wellbeing practices to target student belonging.

Strategies which assist students to feel connected to their school can be implemented in the following capacities:

  • whole-school approaches
  • classroom approaches
  • targeted approaches.

Whole-school approaches

Schools can implement a whole-school approach to foster sense of belonging across the entire student body.

Setting high expectations for student behaviour and effective classroom management have been shown to improve students’ sense of belonging. School policies which establish expected student behaviour, rules, discipline and equity contribute to the school’s culture and sense of community. Consistent school messaging across the playground, classroom, library, excursions and so on helps students to understand appropriate behaviour in different situations and that rules are enforced consistently and fairly.

NSW public schools have a behaviour code for students, which sets out standards for respectful behaviour. Schools can implement and emphasise these standards across the school to set consistent expectation among students:

  • Treat one another with dignity.
  • Speak and behave courteously.
  • Cooperate with others.
  • Develop positive and respectful relationships and think about the effect on relationships before acting.
  • Value the interests, ability and culture of others.
  • Dress appropriately by complying with the school uniform or dress code.
  • Take care with property.

Further information can be found on the department's Behaviour Code for Students and Positive Behaviour for Learning (PBL) Module 5: Defining expected behaviour.

Bullying is linked to long-term negative effects on students’ sense of wellbeing, mental health and academic outcomes. A positive school environment which emphasises anti-bullying policies is fundamental to student wellbeing and reinforcing inclusiveness.

There are 4 key strategies to adopting school-wide anti-bullying policies:

  • establishing and communicating clear school-wide anti-bullying policies
  • preventing bullying in key environments including the classroom and playground
  • promoting a positive culture of proactively addressing bullying
  • partnering with parents and carers.

Further information on each of these strategies can be found in CESE's Anti-bullying interventions literature review.

Classroom approaches

Classroom teachers are in a key position to help students feel like they belong at school. Teachers have the opportunity to observe, respond to and model appropriate behaviour to promote belonging in the classroom.

Positive teacher-student relations refers to the extent to which students experience both fair and supportive interactions with their teachers. Supportive interactions can include interest in students’ development, respectful and unbiased treatment, and understanding students’ perspectives. Positive relationships help students feel accepted and cared for in the school community.

Teachers can adopt the following classroom practices to develop positive teacher-student relations:

  • participating in activities with students
  • leading by example and modelling appropriate behaviour
  • personalising interactions with students by showing they care, are fair and help students work out personal issues.

Further information on these classroom practices can be found in CESE's Supporting students’ sense of belonging synthesis paper and Blue Haven Public School case study.

A student’s sense of belonging is influenced by their relationships with fellow students. Positive peer relationships lead to added social and emotional support from their friends and acceptance from the student community.

Teachers can encourage positive peer-to-peer relations by:

  • using classroom activities to explore empathy and social responsibility
  • using group projects to foster collaboration and working effectively with others
  • implementing cross-stage buddy groups to facilitate friendships and collaboration between like-minded or varied students.

Further information can be found on the social wellbeing strategies webpage as part of the wellbeing framework for schools and in CESE's Supporting students’ sense of belonging synthesis paper.

Targeted approaches

Some groups of students may be at risk of experiencing lower levels of belonging and can benefit from targeted programs to boost their connectedness to school.

Students at risk include those:

  • from different cultural or language backgrounds
  • with disabilities
  • who identify as LGBTQIA+
  • from low-socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds.

Belonging initiatives can also be targeted to address differences in reported sense of belonging between cohort groups, for example between boys and girls, or between students in different grades at school. It is important to consider your school’s specific context when implementing targeted practices. The different student groups referred to in this section may or may not be experiencing lower levels of belonging at your school.

Inclusive education, language and environmental practices are vital to building a connected and inclusive school where all students can feel like they belong. An inclusive school culture includes:

  • providing inclusive education where all students can access and fully participate in learning, alongside their similar-aged peers, supported by reasonable adjustments and teaching strategies tailored to meet their individual needs
  • using inclusive language in text and oral communication to connect with all students and avoid accidently excluding some groups
  • providing an inclusive environment where the school’s diversity is reflected in the school surroundings, for example through school posters and cultural activities.

Representation of marginalised groups in the school environment models appropriate behaviour to students, demonstrates that diversity is valued and each group is recognised by the school community.

Further information on building an inclusive learning environment can be found on the department’s diversity and inclusion webpage and culture and diversity webpage. The department also has an Inclusive, Engaging and Respectful Schools package which provides policies, framework and procedures aimed to strengthen engagement and participation of all students, including those with disability, complex and challenging behaviours and additional needs.

Strategies to improve sense of belonging

A Sense of belonging research series has been developed to provide schools with examples of strategies that facilitate a strong sense of belonging. These strategies have been implemented across diverse contexts in New South Wales schools. The 8 schools presented in the research series each have their own approaches to improving wellbeing for their specific school setting and maintaining a positive sense of belonging at the student, school and community level. Common strategies used across the different schools include formal student mentoring programs, celebrating student diversity and forming close relationships with families. The research series also draws on photographs and lesson resources from the schools that could be adapted to your context.

The Sense of belonging research series can be accessed here.

A suite of resources to support schools to better understand students’ sense of belonging

References

Allen K and Kern M (2017) School belonging in adolescents: Theory, research and practice, Springer, Singapore

Brennan N, Beames JR, Kos A, Reily N, Connell C, Hall S, Yip D, Hudson J, O’Dea B, Di Nicola K and Christie R (2021) Psychological distress in young people in Australia - Fifth Biennial Youth Mental Health Report: 2012-2020 [PDF, 3.7MB], Mission Australia, accessed 27 July 2021

CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) (2009) School connectedness: Strategies for increasing protective factors among youth [PDF, 1MB], accessed 16 July 2021

Goodenow C (1993) The psychological sense of school membership among adolescents: Scale development and educational correlates, Psychology in the Schools, 30:79-90, doi: 10.1002/1520-6807(199301)30:1<79::AID-PITS2310300113>3.0.CO;2-X

Healy K and Stroman C (2021) Structures for belonging: A synthesis of research on belonging-supportive learning environments, Student Experience Research Network, accessed 09 July 2021

Viac C and Fraser P (2020) 'Teachers’ well-being: A framework for data collection and analysis', OECD Education Working Papers, 213, OECD Publishing, Paris, doi: 10.1787/c36fc9d3-en

Willms JD (2003) Student engagement at school: A sense of belonging and participation: Results from PISA 2000, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, accessed 16 August 2021

Yap M and Yu E (2016) Operationalising the capability approach: developing culturally relevant indicators of indigenous wellbeing – an Australian example, Oxford Development Studies, 44: 315-33, doi: 10.1080/13600818.2016.1178223

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