Through the Data-Informed Leadership for Equity (DILE) partnership, REL Midwest is working with school districts in Iowa to help them use data and culturally responsive practices to reduce disparities in sense of belonging, disciplinary actions, and absenteeism among middle school students. The DILE partnership plans to measure student sense of belonging by administering a short survey to students at regular intervals to gauge their feelings of connection at school.
In this Q&A discussion, two experts from the American Institutes for Research® (AIR®), senior researcher Jessica Newman and principal technical assistant consultant Nick Yoder, provide their perspectives on what sense of belonging means, why it's important, and how it can be measured.
What, for you, is the crux of sense of belonging? How would you explain what that means for students in school?
The DILE partnership has refined its sense of belonging definition to refer to the extent to which students feel personally accepted, included, and supported at school. This definition encompasses students' school-based experiences, relationships with teachers and peers, and general feelings about school.1
Nick Yoder: I would say it's really meant to be how kids feel seen, feel heard, and feel connected to the school, to the classroom, and with others. Belonging is multidimensional because you can belong to many things. So when we're thinking about school and classrooms, it's really having that sense of safety—not only physical, but psychological safety—and that they feel really connected to the other people in the classroom or school setting.
Jessica Newman: I would agree with that. I think another thing that's really important to consider when we're thinking about sense of belonging is, sense of belonging to what? Is it the teachers? Is it the policies and practices? What are all those different aspects that might create the conditions where a young person feels like they belong, where they feel like they're safe? There isn't just one very well-established definition for sense of belonging.
What actions can educators take to create that safe environment and make students feel like they belong?
NY: I think a big thing is respecting and valuing a student and what they bring to the classroom. Are you getting to know the students in a way that allows you as an educator to say, "I see what you bring, and you can bring this into a task or activity or assignment in this way. I've seen you accomplish something here"? And, you can use that skill set or start with that skill set to accomplish something else.
Creating a sense of belonging means making classrooms and educational experiences meaningful to the student. We're really trying to understand and be aware of the student's social, emotional, and academic needs as well. Not only are you mindful [of these needs], but also you check in on them and follow up. There's a cycle that occurs that doesn't feel transactional, but it feels that you're really trying to engage in the holistic experience and development of the student.
That definitely connects to DILE's goal that training educators in culturally responsive practices will help them connect to students on their lives outside of school or at home, with their families and communities, and that can improve dynamics within school.
JN: Yes, and I think if I had to boil it down to one word, a big one is flexibility. This means not only letting but encouraging young people to show up as who they are and making space for that. There's no one way to solve a math problem or to show relationship skills or self-management. What your lived experience, your culture, your identity looks like—those influence how you show up, and you have to be able to make space for that. This isn't an easy, one-stop thing. It's hard work, and it takes time and trust.
NY: Particularly when you're working with students from marginalized communities, there can be a lack of trust already. There's a particular sense that it could take years, or over a year, to develop a sense of trust with youth, depending on their lived experience, to cultivate that sense of belonging. I think this is why adult practice is so important, because it takes time, patience, understanding, and persistence for adults to continue to engage with the youth and not be discouraged if the youth isn't responsive to something. I think about my own teaching experience, and that was so true, from my first year to my last year, teaching was like night and day in terms of trust with parents, kids, and families. The difference was just so drastic.
JN: Nick, I think you make another good point too, which is that this work has to be systemic. If you're in a school and all of the teachers are using similar approaches and really valuing similar things, you might not be ready to engage with me as your teacher in first grade. But, you're going to get this same caring, supportive environment in second grade, and maybe by third grade you'll be ready to engage. If trust takes time, we all have to be on the same page about how we're building that, so that young people feel safe and supported throughout their time in a school building across years.
Another thing DILE is interested in is how a stronger sense of belonging can be related to other positive outcomes for students. Is there research that you're familiar with on this topic?
NY: There's a paper on the Project for Educational Research that Scales (PERTS) survey factors where they look at sense of belonging, self-efficacy, task-relevance, and individual mindset.2 In the paper, they cite Osterman [whose research found students' sense of belonging is related to motivation and engagement in academic behaviors.]3
As DILE continues its work in Iowa, the partnership will support educator practice through training in culturally responsive practices and data use to help increase students' sense of belonging. The DILE partnership will work with district collaborators to track sense of belonging and possible changes across time through student surveys focused on their feelings about connection, respect, and understanding in relation to peers and adults at school.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
1 Goodenow, C., & Grady, K. E. (1993). The relationship of school belonging and friends' values to academic motivation among urban adolescent students. Journal of Experimental Education, 62(1), 60–71. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ482595; 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), 1–34. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1170234
2 Hanson, J. (2017). Determination and validation of the Project for Educational Research That Scales (PERTS) survey factor structure. Journal of Educational Issues, 3(1). https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1131721