“Right now, most of my stress is rooted in social anxiety. The isolation, exclusion, and segregation I’ve witnessed have truly altered my perception of the world.” —High school student’s response to the question, “Right now in your life, what causes you the most stress?”
(Challenge Success Student Survey, 2017)

As an education researcher who works with school leaders, I’m often asked, “What are the most effective ways to improve student well-being and academic engagement?” The answer, unfortunately, is usually, “Well, it depends” and “It’s complicated,” as what works for one school might not work for another. There is, however, a core tenet of positive school culture that transcends any individual differences between schools: student belonging. Regardless of the setting, when students feel they belong to a community, they’re more likely to thrive, according to numerous studies, including those cited by Karen F. Osterman and conducted by Cari Gillen-O’Neel and Andrew Fuligni as well as Carrie Furrer and Ellen Skinner. Surveys with students conducted in 2019 by Challenge Success (a group that summarizes data from its own school surveys, along with findings from other experts in the fields of education, psychology, and medicine) found that around one-third of students do not feel that they can be themselves at school or that they are a part of the school community, compared to 40 percent who do.

A strong sense of belonging translates to students of all ages and developmental stages improving academically, being more engaged and motivated in school, and increasing their physical and emotional health. We see this in Challenge Success data: students who feel they belong in school are more likely to be engaged—affectively, behaviorally, and cognitively—in school and less likely to experience stress and worry about academics.

These conclusions don’t apply to a select few—they cross income levels, ethnic and racial backgrounds, geography, and gender. While this need to belong is universal, students who have been historically marginalized or underrepresented in the school setting may be even less likely to feel they belong. So, what does it mean for a student to experience a sense of belonging, and how can we cultivate it for all students in schools?

Figure 1. High School Students’ Sense of Belonging in School (N=47,126)How Researchers Measure Students’ Feeling of Belonging

School “belonging” is typically measured using a set of questions designed to ascertain students’ perceptions and experience of feeling respected, valued, liked, cared about, and known in school. In the Challenge Success survey, taken by over 200,000 students in high-performing middle level and high schools in the United States, we measure school belonging using a reliable and valid scale adapted from research done by Carol Goodenow. The Psychological Sense of School Membership Scale asked students to what extent they agreed with statements such as:

  • I can really be myself at this school.
  • I feel accepted at this school.
  • Other students here like me the way that I am.

Data from our surveys with middle level and high school students from the 2018–19 school year indicate that about half of students surveyed agreed or strongly agreed to statements that, when combined, suggest that they experienced a sense of belonging in their schools. As shown in Figures 1 and 2, between 40–56 percent of high school students and between 49–67 percent of middle level students said they feel that they belong in their schools.

While it’s good news that the majority have a sense of belonging, the number of students who feel they don’t belong is far too high. Between 17–29 percent of high school students and 14–27 percent of middle level students say they do not feel that they belong (the remainder of the students responded that they neither agreed nor disagreed with the statements). Similar results from the California Healthy Kids Survey show a decline in those who reported a strong school connection from 51 percent in seventh grade to 43 percent in 11th grade.

With so many students experiencing a lack of connection to their schools, what can school staff do to help them? A growing body of research provides smarter ways to encourage belonging, and many of the strategies are surprisingly simple.Figure 2. Middle Level Students’ Sense of Belonging in School (N=13, 513)

What Schools Can Do

At Challenge Success, we use a research-based framework that we call SPACE to guide schools on solution-focused reform efforts that support greater student well-being and learning engagement. The “C” in this framework focuses on the importance of a climate of care that fosters student belonging and connection. We have learned from our work with over 500 schools that cultivating a culture of belonging is the responsibility of all stakeholders in a school community: administrators, teachers, counselors, support and maintenance staff, and students themselves play a vital role in the school environment and, therefore, in students’ sense of belonging.

Research suggests that students’ experience of belonging increases when they can reframe experiences that make them feel uniquely isolated. When students understand that the setbacks they encounter at school—not having friends, struggling in classes—are not indications that they don’t belong, but instead are temporary and widely experienced among their peers, it can reinforce that they do belong in that community. Below are specific strategies that schools can try:

  • Incorporate an advisory program into your schedule, where there is designated time in the school day for one adult to meet with a small group of 10–20 students to strengthen student-teacher and peer-to-peer connections. The adviser can see the “whole child” regularly and can use this time in various ways to connect with each student. This may include monitoring academic progress, offering academic or emotional support, and teaching wellness and social-emotional skills.
  • Routinely check in with students to see how they are doing. For example, every Monday a teacher could put a grid of options on the board such as “I’m great,” “I’m meh,” “I’m struggling,” and “I’m not doing well” and ask students to write their name on the back of a sticky note and place it in the category that best describes how they are feeling. Then, check in with students who are feeling less than great.
  • Create safe spaces at lunchtime or after school for students to build connections. For older grades, offer lunchtime clubs or areas for students to gather around a shared interest.
  • Encourage staff to share their own life experiences about when they have had difficulties fitting in and how it gradually changed over time.
  • Be clear and explicit with students that they belong, that you have high expectations of them, and that they can succeed at school. This could look like the teacher explicitly stating their standards, encouraging students that they can meet them, and providing resources as well as concrete suggestions for how the students can improve.
  • Connect activities and learning to students’ backgrounds, interests, and prior knowledge in authentic ways. For instance, encourage your staff to choose literature that reflects the students in your school culturally, racially, and socioeconomically. Weave in students’ hobbies or extracurricular activities when relating new concepts to real life or when creating word problems in mathematics.
  • Before a quiz or test, remind students that it is normal to feel stressed or anxious and help them reappraise these feelings as positive and helpful, as well as temporary and specific to this situation. You might say, “Lots of students feel stressed before a test and it typically goes away after you begin. Research has shown that this might be your body’s way of telling you that you’re ready to tackle the task ahead.”
  • If a student hasn’t demonstrated mastery on a concept, encourage revision. This can remind a student that their performance isn’t a reflection of their intellect—which can represent a threat to their feeling of belonging—and instead means they haven’t yet figured it out.
  • Encourage students to foster a culture of belonging among their peers. For example, support students to lead schoolwide public awareness campaigns to share the research on student belonging and start discussions on the importance of connecting.

Sarah Miles, MSW, PhD, is the director of research and programs for Challenge Success.