The Importance of Belonging at School

As 2021 drew to a close, the focus for children, parents, carers, and educators alike was getting schooling back on track by re-establishing familiar routines, rebuilding social connections, strengthening a sense of belonging, and promoting positive wellbeing.

Here are three reflections from three educational experts from the Melbourne Graduate School of Education who were asked to review the year 2021 and make comment regarding what we’ll need to do next.

DR ANNIE GOWING - Senior Lecturer and Student Wellbeing Specialisation Leader in the Master of Education program

School closures caused by COVID-19 have affected the education and wellbeing of children and young people worldwide; however, those impacts haven’t been experienced in the same way by all, and a more nuanced analysis invites consideration of age, place, community resources, individual and family circumstances and personal histories.

The pandemic has magnified some inequalities and revealed others that may have been previously invisible. Those most affected, including young people with additional learning needs and disabilities, are likely to carry the pandemic wellbeing burden for longer than their less impacted peers.

In viewing the pandemic as a natural disaster, there will be impacts on social-emotional development for all young people. Those living in households and communities with elevated economic and social impacts and those with pre-existing mental health concerns are likely to be more seriously affected. For all, there has been an uplift in uncertainty and anxiety as the predictability, safety and stability of their world has shifted.

The ruptured connections with teachers and peers, particularly those at key transition points like preschool settings into primary school and primary school into secondary school, have translated into a loss of relatedness that will take time to rebuild.

Particular attention needs to be directed to the youngest students who have had their foundational learning in literacy and numeracy disrupted, along with their social development, particularly in forming their student identities.

The duration of these effects will vary, and the capacity of young people to be resilient in the face of these challenges will heavily depend on the capacity of their families, communities, and schools to prioritise restoring wellbeing in the short and longer-term.

Schools will need to hold on to the flexibility and adaptability they discovered over the past two years as their students will require finely calibrated and differentiated interventions to rebuild their socio-emotional and cognitive wellbeing.

The wellbeing of teachers must also be rebuilt as they have endured the same challenges as the whole population but with the additional occupational stress of teaching and supporting their students for extended periods of time in the online environment.

PROFESSOR YONG ZHAO Professor in Educational Leadership & PROFESSOR JIM WATTERSTON Enterprise Professor and Dean of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education

COVID-19 occupied our thoughts this year, but it’s far from the major issue for our children’s futures. To thrive in a world that is drastically transformed by technology and globalisation, children need to become independent, critical, entrepreneurial, creative and collaborative.

When jobs are replaced by machines or outsourced, our children will need to become job creators instead of job finders. We need to rethink the purpose of education: it isn’t to prepare children to be ready for the future because they are the creators of the future.

Our job is to help them develop the skills and perspectives to develop a better future for all human beings.

Education should be a strength-based and passion-driven process to help each child develop their strengths and find their passions. Education should also help each student learn to use their unique talents and passions to serve others and the world.

To create such education is to give children more freedom to exercise their right to self-determination and lead their own education. We need to pay a lot more attention to the growth of children than the content of the curriculum. We should provide a broad and flexible curriculum and engage students in real-life learning on a global scale.


Fundamental to getting back on track and in full flow mode as a community where we can all thrive and flourish is our need for belongingness (Maslow & Rogers). As humans, we are motivated to belong, but this will only emerge when we feel safe.

School belonging is underpinned by feelings of being accepted, respected, included, supported and valued by others within the school environment, and it has been well documented that school belonging is both a predictor of academic success and positive wellbeing, and adaptive behaviours.

It is not a surprise that a student’s sense of belonging tends to decrease during “transitions”, and Covid has created more of these moments than ever before and continues to do so whilst perpetuating a landscape of uncertainty that has multiple lenses to it.

Hence, with respect to school belonging, research suggests that the relationships students have with teachers, peers and parents are central to fostering positive connections with the school.

Perhaps camps, activities and extra-curricular opportunities have never been more important or needed. It is these opportunities where we learn more about ourselves and others, what interests we have in common, what are our strengths, how to gain confidence to be who we are, to find the right fit and not to just fit in.

Parents and teachers will need to remain alert (not alarmed), observant (not spying), adaptable and responsive (whilst maintaining clear boundaries) to ensure our young people can thrive as best they can to a range of challenges – not just COVID-19 – in a world that’s found a new way of getting through this unexpected moment in history. We can support our young people, by reminding them of their strengths [albeit] to be brave, kind, curious, forgiving, etc. and encourage perspective, patience, and perseverance when theirs may be limited or wane.

Please don’t hesitate to reach out to share information and/or seek advice as needed.

In kindness,

Director of Counselling


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