4. 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.

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