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Do They Belong?

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Do They Belong?

Brent Willsmore

It is fair to say that many students enjoy or at least manage well at school, but this is not the case for all, and I have always been taken aback by those students who make the bold statement ‘I hate school’. As an educator who has found meaning and value in learning, such sentiment disturbs my own sense of purpose. It upsets my sense of justice to have students be ungrateful for their educational opportunities in a world where the majority would sacrifice all to be given a fraction of the educational opportunity we have.

Why might such a statement be made? Is it just a naive juvenile response they will grow out of; is it just a cliché that rolls off the tongue they picked up in the yard, or is there good reason for such a statement? I honestly think the latter is what we should consider and ask why.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) (2018) has identified that in
Australia between 2003 -2015, Australian students’ sense of belonging has declined significantly and is lower than in other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. This is a sobering statistic, but if students do not feel they belong, they will not enjoy school (De Bortoli, 2018). PISA defines a sense of belonging as “feelings of being accepted and valued by their peers, and by others at their school” (cited in Willms, 2003, p. 11).

As Hugh MacKay (2014, p. 288) reminds us, “For most of us, life’s richest meanings spring from our personal relationships and connections. That is why the desire to belong is a throbbing urge that will not be stilled until our hearts find safe lodgings.” Are our school and classrooms places where students find real safety? Even though they may push us away, our students still desire to connect. Schools have a unique opportunity to create a place where children connect and belong positively. As students look to connect and find a place of belonging, we must not lose sight of the intrinsic longing to seek connection.

Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are hollow substitutes for belonging but often barriers to it (Brown, 2012, p. 145).

What if some of the desires for success and academic excellence are partly grounded not in the perfect combination of resources and facilities but in a student’s sense of connection and belonging in school? Improved belonging impacts academic motivation; improves mental health and relationship; creates positive identity formation; and increases students’ sense of significance in adolescence. All this assists young people to transition into adulthood (Allen et al., 2018). The South Australian Certificate of Education (SACE) (2022) has also identified human connectedness and belonging as a central pillar of learning, acknowledging that academics are more than just an accumulation of knowledge if we want to thrive.

To develop belongingness, Baumeister and Learey (1995) proposed two key features to consider: First, people need frequent personal contacts or interactions with the other person. Ideally, these interactions would be affectively positive or pleasant, but it is mainly important that the majority be free from conflict and negative affect. Second, people need to perceive that there is an “interpersonal bond or relationship marked by stability, affective concern, and continuation into the foreseeable future” (Baumeister & Leary, 1995, p. 500).

Psychological ‘Belongingness’ theories have identified the significance of the need to connect and “...the error has not been to deny the existence of such a motive so much as to underappreciate it” (Baumeister & Leary, 1995, p. 522). The evidence says belonging is in decline in Australian schools, so the challenge is to consider what happens in our classes and be prepared to discern and ask the students on our watch if they belong. Our further challenge is to see belonging not just as an added benefit to students’ success but as a foundation to many of the goals to which any school aspires.

Our classrooms ref lect many choices about what we value and hold up as significant. Our acceptance of students and their sense of belonging is tied in closely to those values. The vision and compassion of Urie Bronfenbrenner in relation to his belief that every child needs at least one adult who is irrationally crazy about him or her (Brendtro, 2006) remains true today.

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Allen, K., Kern, M. L., Vella-Brodrick, D., Hattie, J., & Waters, L. (2018). What Schools Need to Know About Fostering School Belonging: a Meta-analysis. Educational Psychology Review, 30(1), 1-34. doi:10.1007/s10648-016-9389-8

Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The Need to Belong: Desire for Interpersonal
Attachments as a Fundamental Human Motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497-529.

Brendtro, L. K. (2006). The vision of Urie Bronfenbrenner: Adults who are crazy about kids.
Reclaiming children and youth, 15 (3), 162.

Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. Penguin.

De Bortoli, L. (2018). PISA Australia in Focus, Number 1, sense of belonging at school. Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER).

Mackay, H. (2014). The art of belonging: Macmillan Publishers Aus.
SACE. (2022). Redefining our purpose and future of the SACE. Retrieved from

Willms, J. D. (2003). Student engagement at school. A sense of belonging and participation. OECD.