Creating A Sense of Belonging For Learners And Students

15 Oct Creating A Sense of Belonging For Learners And Students

If I ask you to think about the term ‘belonging’ what is the first thing that pops into your mind? Maybe it’s your family, your school, institution, church group, work…it could be any number of things. Now how did thinking about where you belong to make you feel? What emotions did you experience? Chances are, you experienced some positive ones and there is a reason for this!

What is belonging?

“A sense of belonging refers to a feeling that members matter to one another and the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to being together” (Osterman, 2000).

At the very core, sense of belonging is a basic human need. Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, states that people are motivated to achieve certain needs and that some of these take precedence over others. Maslow believed that a sense of belonging is the next most important need after our physiological and safety needs have been met. This need for interpersonal relationships motivates and drives our behaviour.

Belonging is also linked to mattering and mattering is made up of 4 key components:

1: Attention: People feel they matter when they feel noticed, recognised and remembered

2: Dependence: Knowing that I am needed and my contribution is valued

3: Ego-extension: Feeling that others are proud of my successes or will sympathise and understand my failures

4: Importance: Knowing that I am the object of other’s concern and I am cared about

In essence, our need to feel that we belong is linked to our innate desire as social beings to be part of a group; to form meaningful relationships with others, to encounter shared experiences with others and to feel as though we have a purpose on this earth. Belonging, therefore, reassures us that we are not alone and that even in our times of loneliness and isolation our existence is validated and our experiences matter.

What are the benefits of belonging?

The literature on the benefits of belonging has been well documented. Specifically, research shows us that at the individual level, belonging leads to numerous positive health benefits, both physical and mental. For example, a sense of belonging can:

1: Lead to lower rates of mental health issues and increased levels of self-esteem, self-efficacy and life satisfaction.

2: Result in an increase in healthy behaviours including exercising, sleeping etc.

3: Increase levels of happiness whilst also acting as a buffer against stress.

4: Contribute to an individuals’ psychological development primarily because it facilitates the development of a personal, professional and social identity.

5: Result in the building of social bonds with others; a vital component to the building of healthy relationships.

Furthermore, research into a sense of belonging in educational settings has highlighted additional benefits. For example, feeling a sense of belonging to the school, university or another educational setting can result in Increased academic outcomes, improved motivation, classroom engagement and effort

1: A more positive attitude towards learning

2: Low absenteeism from school programmes and decreases in drop-out rates from school

3: Decreased levels of fighting, bullying and vandalism

4: Lowered levels of substance use and risk-taking behaviours

How can we create a sense of belonging in educational settings?

When we find ourselves in situations where we feel like outsiders, all our mental energy goes towards monitoring for threats, leaving fewer resources for other processes. For learners or students in educational settings, the energy that should be used for learning or social engagements and growth is instead used to defend or protect themselves. This means that taking on the responsibility of creating environments where students can strive and learn to full potential is imperative. Research shows that there are a number of key components that can influence the creation of a sense of belonging including:

1: Creating a consistent, high-touch environment marked by safety, security, and regular communication

2: Fostering trusting relationships between learners, teachers, staff and other individuals in programmes

3: Ensuring that all students or learners feel close to at least one supportive adult

4: Personalised interactions with each other and spending quality shared time together

5: Implementing high standards and expectations whilst providing academic support to learners

6: Instilling a growth mindset  when it comes to performance and future potential

7: Validation and recognition that individuals matter and contribute to the group’s goals

What about the future?

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and national lockdown has meant that many learners, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds who have not had access to online learning during this time, have lost out on a few months of crucial emotional development. Without access to classrooms, schools and educational programmes fostering that sense of belonging, we must prepare ourselves for the unknown reality of what the outcome of this may be for our learners and students. While the long term impact of this disruption may not be seen or documented for years to come, decades of research cannot be ignored and we need to ensure that our focus when schools re-open, is to make up for the lost time and continue creating a sense of belonging with vigour.


Allen, K. A., & Bowles, T. (2012). Belonging as a guiding principle in the education of adolescents. Australian Journal of Educational & Developmental Psychology, 12, 108-119.

Osterman, K.F. (2000). Student’s need for belonging in the school community. Review of Educational Research, 70 (3), 323-367.

Strayhorn, T.L. (2018). College students’ sense of belonging: A key to educational success for all students (2nd ed). New York, NY: Routledge.

Written by: Stacey RontirisCounselling Psychologist, Head of Programmes, Tomorrow Trust.

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