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Bringing Our Kids Back to School

by Steve Saville

Belonging, like wellbeing, is one of those terms that we are starting to throw around quite liberally in schools right now, it is a term we increasingly use but don’t always take the time to define what it means in our own context.

School belonging refers to a student’s feelings of being safe and accepted within their school, that they are in a place where they can stand and succeed as the unique individual that they are. School belonging can also be enhanced by an individual's sense of identification with the vision, or purpose of the school they attend.

As far as definitions for school belonging go this one from Panorama Education is as good as any:

‘the extent to which students feel that they are valued members of their school’s community.’

For me it captures the two key components of belonging/wellbeing in a school context.

Being an individual of worth within an institution of purpose.

This phrase and positioning is hugely influenced by the book ’Belonging’ written by Owen Eastwood.

In these times of increasing diversity, inclusion of individuals as individuals is a significant part of belonging. We need schools to develop a culture of belonging, not just a culture of conforming.

The second part of this concept is that of being in an ‘institution of purpose’, this captures the sense that an individual is part of something bigger than themselves. There is a shared vision, a shared purpose that identifies and unifies the school, that makes the school unique and sustains it through times of disruption and change.

It is this shared vision and purpose that enables an individual to reach out and assist others, to participate, collaborate and communicate with others and to become part of a collective. As humans we have an innate need to belong, but we need to be valued within that group and we have to know what the group stands for.


Currently school attendance (or lack of) and the resulting learning loss that can be linked to declining engagement with school is causing significant concern, not only in New Zealand, but as this comment from the Wall Street Journal in January of 2022 indicates, across the world:

“Public-school attendance across the U.S. has dropped to unusually low levels, complicating efforts to keep schools open, as districts also contend with major staff shortages.”

To be fair, a cursory look at the data on Education Counts shows that attendance at school has been dropping for at least the last decade, so the problem was already present pre- Covid. There is no doubt though that the pandemic has amplified and accelerated the issue to the point that it can no longer be ignored. Remember that even at 90% attendance a student is still missing approximately one week of school every school term, so any student that approaches 70% attendance, or less, is justifiable cause for concern.

At the same time as attendance has been slipping so (according to PISA) have the number of students who identify as having a sense of belonging at school. The data for New Zealand shows quite a dramatic shift here from having a relatively high sense of belonging in 2003 to one that sits well below the OECD average in 2018.

  • 68% of 15-year-old students feel like they belong at school (OECD average, 71%)

  • 26% of 15-year-old students feel like an outsider (or left out of things) at school (OECD, 20%),

Reasons often cited include the relatively high incidence of bullying in New Zealand schools and the effects (often linked) of social media.

All of which comes as a bit of a surprise to many of us, as we, in New Zealand, pride ourselves on practicing relational pedagogies in the classroom and providing inclusive learning environments. So if we believe that a sense of belonging is important in the education process then we have a bit of a problem here.

In New Zealand, this sense of belonging varies little between schools but varies greatly between students in each school. Students tend to have higher belonging when they are encouraged to cooperate, where there is an absence of bullying, and where they have been assisted to develop positive mindsets.


There are some relatively easy things teachers can do to encourage a sense of belonging. These are simple and obvious but the key is to normalize them and make them part of the fabric of the school day, a must do regularly not an occasional event:

(To help assist you with some of these things there are tools if you follow the hyperlinks)

  1. Get to know the students and keep the relationship going. Not just at the start of the year but often. Revisit, check, converse.

  2. Morning meeting check and connect. This is a way of achieving the point above. Make ‘Check and Connect’ a part of every day (Pulse Tool). Take the time to care, take the time to listen, take the time to include. Remember little steps can have significant benefits. The simple use of ‘E tu’ rather than stand up and ‘E noho’ rather than sit down can be a move towards creating a more inclusive environment.

  3. Establishing values. Explaining, acknowledging and celebrating common school values as well as allowing students to develop their own personal values via reflection and goal setting. These will all encourage that sense of common purpose. (Values Tool)

Slightly bigger areas to focus on as we seek to reconnect and re-engage include:

  1. Developing and celebrating the common shared vision across all members of the school community (Values Tool-free).

  2. Exploring power sharing with students (Ultimate Guide to Power Sharing)

  3. Focussing on the student's diverse cultures and prior learning (Sharing Knowledge Tool)

  4. Developing relational connectedness (Connections Tool-free)

  5. Introducing more interactive learning experiences

  6. Having a shared vision for excellence that all can buy in to. For example my definition of excellence is where an individual achieves to a point just beyond what they thought was possible. It is personalized, as well as aspirational.

Ultimately though, to create a climate of belonging, one that will encourage our students to come back to school and stay engaged when they are present, we need to listen to them, listen and listen hard and then care about what we hear.

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