developing students' sense of belonging

How can you improve students’ motivation, involvement, academic success and happiness at school? According to several studies, the answer can be found in three words: sense of belonging. In this article, we propose various ways to develop and sustain students’ sense of belonging. 


What is a sense of belonging? 

A sense of belonging is when you feel that you are an accepted and appreciated member of a group or community. It is also the ability to create strong connections with the people around you.  According to a study by the Université de Montréal, the following factors demonstrate that students feel a sense of belonging to their school community:   

  • Students have positive feelings about the school environment, for example, they are happy and proud to come to school;   
  • Students have positive social relationships with members of the school team, i.e., they feel valued, encouraged, accepted, supported and respected; 
  • Students are personally actively involved in both classroom and extracurricular activities 
  • Students feel that they fit in well with others, that they are similar and appreciated by other students;  
  • Students adopt the school’s norms and values.  

Basically, if students like school, they talk about what happens there enthusiastically, take part in school tasks and in at least one extracurricular activity, and do their homework, then they have developed a sense of belonging! 


Why is a sense of belonging so important? 

Feeling included, understood, appreciated and respected is the basis for developing self-confidence as well as confidence in others and in social structures. It is also, to a large extent, what motivates students! 

In children and adolescents, the ability to create social connections (and thus develop a sense of belonging) is crucial to their happiness, academic success, as well as to the development of their future social and professional lives. Research has demonstrated that dropping out of school is part of a long process of disengagement from school.   

Even though dropping out of school is influenced by multiple factors (family, social factors, etc.), a study revealed that 40% of boys and 41% of girls who dropped out of school cited reasons mainly to do with school itself. 


Factors that help to develop a sense of belonging 

Several things can help students to like their school and feel a sense of belonging to a school community, especially when:  

  • students feel safe at school and members of the school team set clear limits and guidelines. It is important that the school rules include a code of conduct (including zero tolerance for bullying) that that there is a climate of respect for all. This contributes to students feeling at ease and enjoying their living and learning environments; 
  • students are offered the opportunity to participate in a variety of challenging, team-based classroom and extracurricular activities; 
  • students’ initiatives and talents are valued;  
  • members of the school team are kind, enthusiastic and interested in what is happening in students’ lives and who they are: for example, relating lessons to things that interest students is rewarding for them;  
  • discussions and debate is encouraged and everyone’s point of view is considered;   
  • expectations are high and students know that their teachers believe in their ability to succeed;   
  • the focus is on the process, effort and improvement;  
  • discipline is proactive and not punitive;  
  • students feel supported and encouraged by members of the school team.   

Class or extracurricular activities 

Since students need to feel a certain synergy with fellow class members and other students in order to feel a sense of belonging, the school team should develop activities that foster the development of common interests and teamwork.   

Class unity activities, team learning projects, extracurricular activities and special projects are recommended, especially if these activities encourage students’ independence and give them a role and responsibilities.   

Here are a few examples of activities that enhance students’ sense of belonging: 

  • Class unity: With students, choose a group and/or classroom name; create a logo, image or poster that represents them and is prominently placed in the classroom;  decorate the classroom to their liking; choose a prop as an emblem; choose a rallying cry for gatherings; give exclusive privileges and rewards to the class; adopt hamsters and leave the cage in the class so students can take care of them together, etc.  
  • Learning projects: Create unifying team projects that interest students and allow them to get involved, collaborate, complete specific tasks and overcome challenges. This could include collaborating to create a  magazine, comic book, website, board game, or an environmental project such as creating a butterfly garden or making green cleaning products, etc. 
  • Extracurricular activities: There are probably already various extracurricular activities offered to your students during lunch hour or after school. Talking about them in class sometimes can help promote them and offer some of the shyer students an opportunity to try something new. Inviting a student who already participates in an activity to talk about it with the class can also be an incentive! Students can simply be invited to come and watch an activity then decide if they want to join in.  


The Vireo hydroponic garden project 

Having a garden at school allows students to access an inclusive, collaborative learning project that utilizes everyone’s strengths. Through gardening tasks, students work as a team towards a common goal.  They are personally actively involved, and feel part of a group. Students thereby feel positively about their school environment, and are proud to embrace the school’s values.  

Whether you are a teacher, special education instructor, principal or another member of the school team, learn more about the Vireo project. Subsidies are available to acquire the class hydroponic garden, while support is available to get the project started.