Belonging to a school community increases student wellbeing

Dr Kelly-Ann Allen is an Honorary Fellow of the Centre for Positive Psychology at the University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Graduate School of Education. She has undertaken an extensive study outlining what schools need to know about fostering school belonging. Dr Allen speaks with Brendan Bailey from the Berry Street Education Model about her work.

BSEM: Tell us about how belonging to a school community can benefit students.

Dr Kelly-Ann Allen: Belonging to a school community 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 with increasing rates of mental illness, yet we know that social connections play an essential role in the prevention of mental health issues and in the fostering of wellbeing.

My early work as a school psychologist helped me understand that students are deeply embedded within the complex systems of school life and that school belonging is central to a whole-school approach toward wellbeing.

BSEM: You have been interested in school belonging for over a decade. What have been some of your most interesting findings?

Dr Kelly-Ann Allen: If you were to Google “school belonging” you’re likely to be met with images of smiling young people in groups, arm-in-arm. Yet peer support is only one perspective of school belonging. Teachers’ support of students is actually more important in determining how connected students feel to their school community.

The other finding I did not anticipate was the number of variables that have a significant and positive relationship with school belonging. In many ways, this emphasises how unique the experience of school belonging is for students. This notion is reiterated in more recent research I’ve done with colleagues. Using data collected by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) from fifteen-year-old students from 72 countries (n = 519,334), we found just how important those individual social and emotional characteristics were for school belonging.

Likewise, a sense of safety and good mental health have been recurrent themes in my research. Both are important for school belonging and both factors have direct implications for school practices.

Possibly the most compelling findings come from researchers like Greg Walton who demonstrate the benefits of school belonging for physical health (such as fewer visits to the doctor), mental health and academic performance. This body of work continues to grow and provide captivating evidence for the importance of school belonging for students, staff and parents within school communities.

BSEM: What strategies do you suggest for increasing school belonging? Both on an individual teacher and a whole-school level.

Dr Kelly-Ann Allen: Much like the experience of school belonging, strategies for school belonging are individual to the student and individual to the school. While there are interventions and strategies that increase school belonging, increasing the awareness of school belonging often needs to be attended to first.

We should start by ensuring that students and staff understand the importance of a sense of belonging to school – how entrenched it is in our biology, the physical health benefits and the academic outcomes.

Belonging should be prioritised, embedded, measured and valued. Belonging should not be dismissed as something that simply occurs naturally. It can occur within the pre-existing structures of schools but it should not be taken for granted.

And as a society, we need to find a way to better value our teachers. How can teachers foster a sense of connection to school for their students if they don’t feel connected themselves?

We cannot overlook the rising rates of mental illness among young people. It has never been more important for teachers to be aware of emerging concerns and the appropriate channels and pathways for students to access help. If we are to increase school belonging, we must also address the co-occurring issues that limit it.

Lastly, we often discuss strategies at the teacher- and school-leader-level, but there is also much that can be done by the students themselves. Students’ perceptions and attributions are central to their experiences of school belonging. School staff can address this by empowering students to take charge of their own school belonging, letting them know that their thoughts can directly impact their behaviour and feelings towards school, and directing students towards appropriate interventions as required.

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