Belonging can also prevent negative behaviours such as fighting, bullying, vandalism, crime and substance abuse.
Sadly, according to the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report on what school life means for students in OECD countries, Australia has been graded an F for student belonging.
Unfortunately for Aussie kids, a sense of belonging has been declining since 2003.
Australian students reported being bullied more frequently, felt more afraid of failing, were more likely to have skipped school and felt lonely at school, compared to students of a similar age in other OECD countries.
About 19 per cent of students in Australia agreed or strongly agreed that they feel lonely at school. This is compared to the OECD average of 16 per cent. More than 30 per cent of Australian schoolchildren said they didn’t belong at school.
The results are damning for a nation that prides itself on fostering a classroom culture based on equality, acceptance and unequivocal support for all students irrespective of social, economic or racial pedigree.
In our book Boosting School Belonging, we have developed a number of strategies to encourage student belonging in the classroom.
When a student has a strong dislike of another person, particularly a teacher, it creates relationship
roadblocks. So why not give students an outlet to refocus their thoughts on positive characteristics of teachers and fellow classmates?
Giving students opportunities to identify and share “good vibes” about others encourages them to keep searching for the best qualities in their teacher.
We all loved the hot potato game as children, and this concept can be used as a fun way of getting students to bring up fun memories shared with their parents. Students sit in a circle and pass the beanbag (hot potato) to each other in time with music until it stops. Students are encouraged to share memories with the class — it could be a fun holiday or experience shared together — to which the rest of the class claps to celebrate.
Doesn’t it feel great to be recognised for something you have done, whether it be an act of kindness or piece of work you’d spent hours completing? Showing gratitude feels great for both the giver and receiver. Organise students into groups of between four and six and have them write a short letter of appreciation to another member of the group.
Unless we as a community act now, there may be growing equitable gaps between those who belong and those who are excluded, placing the future educational success and long-term health and wellbeing of many Australian students in serious jeopardy.
Dr Kelly-Ann Allen is a senior lecturer in educational psychology at Monash University. Peggy Kern is an associate professor at the University of Melbourne Graduate School of Education.