Encouraging a sense of belonging and connectedness in secondary schools
A positive sense of belonging at school has fundamental benefits for children and young people and flow-on benefits for their learning and engagement with school. This guide makes recommendations based on the best available research evidence on fostering a sense of belonging in school environments.
Sense of belonging to one’s school is referred to as school connectedness and is the extent to which students feel a part of their school and feel valued and cared for by their school community.1
The Australian Education Research Organisation (AERO) has synthesised the most relevant evidence-based practices using rigorous methods in creating this guide. We have rated these sources of information against our Standards of evidence, focusing on evidence generated in an Australian context wherever possible. Examples are supported by critical reflection questions and snapshots of practice to extend your knowledge and practice.
Some examples presented may not apply in all contexts, may be more suitable for lower secondary students than upper secondary students (and vice versa) and may look different across different content areas. Please make reasonable adjustments where necessary to ensure full access and participation for all students.
Using this guide in your classroom or school
We recommend you integrate the practices discussed in this guide into everyday classroom and whole school practices rather than treat them as standalone practices. You can support belonging in all interactions with your students using a variety of approaches presented in this guide. These approaches are designed to be both incorporated into and complement instructional practice, recognising that learning and wellbeing are mutually reinforcing.
You and your school may already implement many of the evidence-based practices presented in the guide. Integrating further practices will support the work you are already doing to ensure students are best able to learn. To make the most of recommendations, align your classroom and whole-school practices.
Using this guide as a school leader
If you are a leader in your school, you can use this guide to promote collaborative discussion and reflection within teaching teams. The practices described can serve as a point of conversation to build shared understandings of how to enhance students’ sense of belonging and build greater cohesion in the use of these practices at both the classroom and the whole school level.
You can also use the reflective questions to encourage teachers to collaboratively compare the approaches within this guide to existing classroom and whole school practices. Through reflection, teachers can identify which strategies are well-established and set common goals for strengthening or embedding practices that require further consideration.
Benefits for students
A positive sense of belonging at school has fundamental benefits for students, including feeling that:
- their teachers and peers like, value and accept them
- the curriculum is interesting and relevant
- they are capable of succeeding at school
- their cultural identity is welcome and valued
- they can ‘be themselves’ within appropriate boundaries.2
A positive relationship with the school community can shape a student’s emotional, behavioural, and cognitive engagement with schooling and influence academic outcomes.3 Students who experience positive peer relationships in school are up to 2 months ahead in their NAPLAN scores 2 years later than those who don’t experience positive peer relationships.4 Benefits for learning and engagement at school include:
- lower absenteeism
- higher levels of effort, interest and motivation
- positive homework behaviour
- being more likely to like school
- trusting and respecting their teachers
- enjoying challenging learning activities
- being concerned about and helping others.
Our systematic review of available research found strong evidence of the practices that support students’ connectedness to school. Positive relationships with teachers and peers improve students’ sense of belonging. Studies showed that school structures and policies can facilitate connectedness between students and the school. The research also indicates that school leadership’s commitment towards improving students’ belonging is vital.
Research into practices that improve the wellbeing of students is relatively new and not as well explored as other learning areas. It also includes a larger focus on qualitative and international research. Further research is required to test whole school practices and their impact on belonging and connectedness for students and how these practices translate into improved academic and learning outcomes. The evidence base would also benefit from more studies with larger sample sizes to further understand the impact of belonging on students’ learning outcomes.
Belonging and connectedness in practice
AERO evidence reliability key: ◑ = Medium confidence ◕ = High confidence ⬤ = Very high confidence
Consider which of the scenarios below most closely resembles your current practices.