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Home Blogs Cultivating student sense of belonging doesn’t just happen; it takes a lot of work

Cultivating student sense of belonging doesn’t just happen; it takes a lot of work

Midwest | December 08, 2022

High school students gather on the stairs between classes
Photo credit: Allison Shelley for EDUimages.

REL Midwest's Making Equitable Schools Audit (MESA) partnership is working with Akron Public Schools in Ohio to reduce exclusionary discipline referrals and improve sense of belonging for all students. To get a better understanding of the concept of sense of belonging and its connection to school discipline, we talked with Orrin Murray, who oversees REL Midwest's research partnerships. Murray is a principal researcher at the American Institutes for Research and an expert in equity, culturally responsive practices, and the use of data and learning technologies.

What factors and relationships play a role in cultivating a sense of belonging for students?

Student sense of belonging refers to the extent to which students feel personally accepted, included, and supported at school,1 and includes school-based relationships and experiences, student–teacher relationships, and students' overall feelings about school.2

Orrin Murray: A lot of work is needed to create an inclusive environment where students feel like they belong. It is not an event that can be checked off and done, but rather is sustained by being continuously mindful of belongingness.

I think the most important factor in this process is trust. Trust in others, like air, is something everyone continuously needs because we cannot thrive in this world on our own.  In schools, shared rules and classroom norms set the stage for trust. Trust is eroded when rules are inequitably enforced, and unbendable rules that are not responsive to students create untenable situations. When disagreements emerge in a classroom between a teacher and student, the extent to which students understand and buy into the chain of ensuing events can either build or erode trust in a school.

To improve students' sense of belonging, school staff must first make sure that students are within a safe, trusted space. Next, staff must consider if the space is supportive of who students are and who they are becoming. For example, do teachers and classmates refer to a student by their name or an unwanted nickname? Likewise, when a student responds to a question, does their teacher look at them? Does the student feel like they are accepted? This need not reach the level of celebration, but at a minimum, teachers should acknowledge the student's presence and contribution.

It is important to note that cultivating a sense of belonging is not just the work of an individual within a school. Rather, it is a social phenomenon, as everyone in a school must be engaged in laying down and nurturing the lines of support for one another. In that vein, it is important to recognize that adults also need support and need to figure out the ways in which they belong in the school. The extent to which teachers and all adults in a school have ownership and feel included—and that they belong—ends up being an important foundation for them to both reflect and cultivate that sense of belonging among their students.

How does discipline affect student sense of belonging in school?

OM: Most obviously, discipline typically takes students out of a space where they can access curriculum and community and, instead, replaces these opportunities and resources with discipline processes and time spent away from school. People learn all the time, and the question is, are you learning the kinds of things that will help you be more productive in your life as a citizen—or are you learning the things that are part of the justice/penal system? Further, in many instances, suspensions do not deal with the underlying circumstances of a student's behavior. Instead, a suspension just presses pause and often can lead to a reproduction of the same interaction once a student returns to the classroom.

How do teacher actions and school policies regarding student behavior reflect and perpetuate inequitable beliefs about students?

OM: On the front end, when we look at people, numerous assumptions come along with what we see. For example, if a teacher sees a group of students who look upper class and entitled, they might quickly treat the students like they are upper class and entitled. On the other hand, teachers may identify their "problem students" based on dress or ways of speaking without even bothering to understand the lived experience of these students. In these cases, the teacher is just using patterns and shortcuts for what they think might be going on that are frequently incomplete, or they make assumptions based on misunderstandings and biases. This phenomenon is heightened by disconnects between the school staff and student populations in terms of race, class, academic achievement, and other social categories.

What considerations must researchers and practitioners keep in mind when investigating and measuring discipline and student sense of belonging?

OM: One example that comes to mind is a high school with a high incidence of discipline referrals and suspensions. The principal showed me their aggregate data on discipline but could not identify where the suspensions were coming from. A potential issue arises if it turns out that one person is responsible for a significant portion of referrals. In this situation, the way to deal with this issue is very different than if discipline referrals are spread out over the entire high school. It is also important to remember that when you are looking at discipline referrals as a collection of data, the behaviors that led to the suspension have already happened. Discipline is a lagging indicator of the extent to which the environment is inclusive for students; it is not an early warning.

It is also helpful and interesting for us to find out from the students about their experiences. What led to them being disciplined? Was there a misunderstanding of intent? You need to be able to talk to the students—those who feel like they belong, those who do not feel like they belong, and the ones for whom it shifts depending on the class and day. You really need to get data from students about the ways in which the environment is either impeding or supporting their inclusion and sense of belonging.

For more information about the MESA partnership and student sense of belonging, see the following REL Midwest resources:


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.

2 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.


Iszy Hirschtritt Licht

Iszy Hirschtritt Licht

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