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Student Sense of Belonging
July 2020


What does the research say about systems and structures that schools can use to support students with their sense of belonging in the school space?

Ask A REL Response

Thank you for your request to our Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Reference Desk. Ask A REL is a collaborative reference desk service provided by the 10 RELs that, by design, functions much in the same way as a technical reference library. Ask A REL provides references, referrals, and brief responses in the form of citations in response to questions about available education research.

Following an established REL Northwest research protocol, we conducted a search for evidence- based research. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, Google Scholar, and general Internet search engines. For more details, please see the methods section at the end of this document.

The research team has not evaluated the quality of the references and resources provided in this response; we offer them only for your reference. The search included the most commonly used research databases and search engines to produce the references presented here. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The research references are not necessarily comprehensive and other relevant research references may exist. In addition to evidence-based, peer-reviewed research references, we have also included other resources that you may find useful. We provide only publicly available resources, unless there is a lack of such resources or an article is considered seminal in the topic area.


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, 1–34. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Belonging is an essential aspect of psychological functioning. Schools offer unique opportunities to improve belonging for school-aged children. Research on school belonging, however, has been fragmented and diluted by inconsistency in the use of terminology. To resolve some of these inconsistencies, the current study uses meta-analysis of individual and social level factors that influence school belonging. These findings aim to provide guidance on the factors schools should emphasise to best support students. First, a systematic review identified 10 themes that influence school belonging at the student level during adolescence in educational settings (academic motivation, emotional stability, personal characteristics, parent support, peer support, teacher support, gender, race and ethnicity, extracurricular activities and environmental/school safety). Second, the average association between each of these themes and school belonging was meta-analytically examined across 51 studies (N = 67,378). Teacher support and positive personal characteristics were the strongest predictors of school belonging. Results varied by geographic location, with effects generally stronger in rural than in urban locations. The findings may be useful in improving perceptions of school belonging for secondary students through the design of policy, pedagogy and teacher training, by encouraging school leaders and educators to build qualities within the students and change school systems and processes."

Allen, K. A., Vella-Brodrick, D., & Waters, L. (2016). Fostering school belonging in secondary schools using a socio-ecological framework. The Educational and Developmental Psychologist, 33(1), 97–121.

From the Abstract:
"The benefits of belonging and feeling connected to school for adolescent mental health and wellbeing are well documented, but how belonging is fostered is less understood. The present article puts forward a new conceptual framework of school belonging based on Bronfenbrenner's (1979) sociological model of human development, using evidence from a range of previous peer-reviewed studies to better understand the factors that occur across five levels that affect a students' sense of school belonging (i.e., the individual level, the microsystem, the mesosystem, the exosystem, and the macrosystem). The conceptual framework is used to present a range of evidence-based school belonging strategies (some with examples) that schools can use to enhance student belonging. This article makes an original contribution to the field of psychological and educational research by presenting a socio-ecological framework to explore the themes that influence school belonging within a secondary school system. It broadens the frame of reference of school belonging beyond the individual student to consider features of the broader school system and environment."

Baroutsis, A., & Mills, M. (2018). Exploring spaces of belonging through analogies of ‘family': Perspectives and experiences of disengaged young people at an alternative school. In C. Halse (Ed.). Interrogating belonging for young people in schools (pp. 225–246). London: UK: Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"However, they viewed their current, ‘alternative' places of schooling as spaces of belonging, framed through analogies of ‘family' and discourses associated with a ‘home'. This chapter explores these young peoples' perspectives and experiences of belonging using Soja's concept of spatial justice. The research was conducted over six months with students and staff involved in a documentary film-making project at an alternative school in Queensland. The analysis identified three key spaces of belonging: relational, material, and pedagogical. The relational spaces provided care, supportive relationships, and acceptance that young people associated with a family and that enhanced their capacity to succeed in the pedagogical space. The material space often resembled the environment and structures found in homes and complemented the pedagogical space by providing a safe environment for learning. Finally, the pedagogical space was characterised by structures that enabled students to be supported and guided through meaningful learning experiences they often chose themselves. We propose that such inclusive spaces of belonging are necessary to engage marginalised young people in their education and schooling."

Bouchard, K. L., & Berg, D. H. (2017). Students' school belonging: Juxtaposing the perspectives of teachers and students in the late elementary school years (Grades 4-8). School Community Journal, 27(1), 107–136.

From the Abstract:
"Student belonging to school has been consistently correlated with many significant outcomes, yet there is little research that depicts how this sense is developed. This study explores the factors through which late elementary/middle school students (Grades 4-8) develop a sense of belonging to their school. Individual interviews with teachers and students indicated that students foster a sense of belonging through reciprocal caring relationships with teachers, through peer friendships, and through participation in extracurricular and school-based activities. These themes are discussed, and the responses from teachers and students are juxtaposed to highlight points of convergence and divergence, revealing opportunities for teacher professional development to support teachers' understandings of student school belonging."

Gray, D.L., Hope, E.C., & Matthews, J.S.2018). Black and belonging at school: A case for interpersonal, instructional, and institutional opportunity structures, Educational Psychologist, 53(2), 97-113. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"This article is guided by two goals: (a) to consider how race-based perspectives can serve as theoretical tools for investigating Black adolescents' opportunities to belong at school, and (b) to describe cultural and political aspects of schooling that can support a sense of belongingness among Black adolescents. We discuss support for the belonging of Black adolescents in terms of interpersonal, instructional, and institutional opportunity structures. We provide a set of guiding questions for scholars seeking to advance educational psychology research at the intersection of race, belonging, and motivation. We end by describing specific research directions for an inclusive examination of school belonging, along with strategies to accomplish this goal."

Niemi, P. M., & Hotulainen, R. (2015). Enhancing students' sense of belonging through school celebrations: A study in Finnish lower-secondary schools. International Journal of Research Studies in Education. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"The notion of school belonging refers to the sense of membership and relatedness individual students feel with the other students and with the teachers at their school. Educational and psychological studies carried out in various contexts have shown that students' sense of school belonging is associated with several academic and non-academic outcomes, such as students' motivation to learn, level of academic achievement, and general future orientation. However, one of the major gaps in school belonging studies is the lack of connections between theoretical studies and actual school practice. There is an international need to gain a better understanding of the factors affecting students' sense of belonging in schools. To deepen our knowledge of how schools can better promote students' sense of school belonging at the whole-school level, this study focuses on school celebrations. The study consists of a statistical survey questionnaire conducted at three Finnish lower-secondary schools during the 2013–2014 academic year. To analyze the data and test the methodological hypotheses, we used a structural equation model (SEM). The findings of this study show that students' socio-emotional and educational experiences of school celebrations are positively related to their sense of school belonging. The study also shows the notable role of peer relationships in shaping students' social and emotional experiences of these events. The findings highlight the need for educational researchers, curriculum makers, and practitioners to pay more attention to the social, emotional, and educational content that school celebrations provide for students."

Pendergast, D., Allen, J., McGregor, G., & Ronksley-Pavia, M. (2018). Engaging marginalized "at-risk" middle-level students: A focus on the importance of a sense of belonging at school. Education Sciences, 8(138), 1–19.

From the Abstract:
"The philosophy of middle level education is to intentionally create a learning environment that supports every young adolescent. The literature around engagement points to the need for students to experience (among other requirements) a sense of belonging at school (SOBAS). When the need for belonging is not achieved there may be significant consequences, including an impact on intellectual performance, and hence, learning potential may not be achieved. For students with marginalized identities, an intensification of factors that create challenges places them at-risk of disengaging and their sense of belonging at school is more likely to be compromised. Nurturing SOBAS is positively associated with the retention of students who are at-risk of dropping out of, thereby being an aspirational goal of education. Methods: The findings of a systematic literature review related to young adolescents and the importance of SOBAS forms a focused literature base. We highlight findings from a study that explored the effectiveness of engagement strategies for marginalized students in one educational jurisdiction in Australia. Data in the form of a series of interviews and focus groups conducted with 25 students, 25 of their teachers, and 39 school leaders provides a rich data set for thematic content analysis. Inductive analysis and in vivo coding led to a framework that summarized each of the sub-group data sets to convey emergent themes. Results: Five themes related to SOBAS emerged from the data: (a) Relationships in School; (b) School Climate; (c) Pedagogical Practices; (d) Specific Programs and Activities; and (e) Other Issues, mainly variables such as family, mental health, trauma and poverty that impacted on a student's SOBAS. Conclusion: The systematic literature review and the findings of the empirical study presented in this paper highlight aspects of SOBAS that can be formalized into a series of strategies to increase retention of marginalized students."


Keywords and Search Strings: The following keywords, subject headings, and search strings were used to search reference databases and other sources: School, Physical environment, Physical design, School building, Sense of belonging, School connectedness, School space, Student belonging, Students

Databases and Resources: We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and EBSCO databases (Academic Search Premier, Education Research Complete, and Professional Development Collection).

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

Date of publications: This search and review included references and resources published in the last 10 years.

Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority was given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations, as well as academic databases, including ERIC, EBSCO databases, and Google Scholar.

Methodology: The following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references:

  • Study types: randomized control trials, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, and policy briefs, generally in this order
  • Target population and samples: representativeness of the target population, sample size, and whether participants volunteered or were randomly selected
  • Study duration
  • Limitations and generalizability of the findings and conclusions

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by stakeholders in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Northwest. It was prepared under Contract ED-IES-17-C-0009 by REL Northwest, administered by Education Northwest. The content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.