Belonging: How do we nurture it?

The second in a series of blogs looking at wellbeing through the rhythms of the school year. Elinor Brown explores the importance of belonging and what supports it.

“… how will we know when we are truly inclusive? That’s where belonging comes in – the output of true inclusion is a sense of belonging for everyone.” Asif Sadiq[i]

Why does a sense of belonging matter and what does it need to grow? I’ve been reflecting on this personally – it’s a few weeks into secondary for my youngest and he’s still eating lunch alone – in the wider context of inclusion and amidst the ongoing disruption to school life due to Covid. I wonder how you are all getting on this term.

The importance of belonging is not new. It has a place at the centre of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (1954) and Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary went further, comparing satisfying the need to belong, to survival needs like food and shelter (1995).[ii]

In 2020 the NEU commissioned a research-based inquiry into belonging in school. One of the challenges was that 1 in 4 young people feel they don’t belong, a number which was growing.[iii] Baumeister’s most recent paper (2021), looking at belongingness and school children, describes how a lack of belongingness, including specifically belonging in schools, is linked with high loneliness, low well-being, poor adjustment, low socioemotional health, impaired sleep, and other issues. [iv]

According to Baumeister and Leary two elements of relationships foster belongingness:

  • The nature of the interactions; regular and pleasant or at least not unpleasant.
  • The context; part of lasting, caring relationships.

Both elements are necessary and explains why, for now, my youngest’s sense of belongingness at his new school is connected with his older sibling being there too. It also explains my longing for him to build just a couple of good relationships with peers.

So how do we support a sense of belonging in our young people?

Looking at belonging, Mary Beth Hewitt asked a number of students how they knew that they belonged to a group (be it in or out of school). The following are some of the responses that she received:

  • They know my name.
  • They spell my name right.
  • They ask me what I want to be called.
  • They take time to talk to me.
  • They recognise my moods.
  • They listen to me.
  • They smile at me.
  • They take an interest in what’s important to me.
  • They ask me to help.
  • They let me help.
  • They recognise when I’m gone and welcome me when I return.
  • They share my ideas with others [e.g. John had a good idea for … ].
  • They are honest with me.
  • They include me.
  • They appreciate my contributions.
  • They don’t change what I’ve done without asking me first.
  • When they ask for my opinion, they incorporate it.
  • They welcome me back no matter what.
  • They may not like what I did, but they don’t hold it against me.
  • They trust me.
  • They can disagree without making me feel “put down.”[v]

In his 2021 research, one of Baumeister’s key points is that new social competencies should be developed to help children relate and belong in school. Dr Kelly-Ann Allen has led research into belonging in schools which corroborates this. She suggests ‘Building belonging in schools should be absorbed into ongoing practices that already occur throughout a typical school day rather than being an additional task. Starting with social and emotional competencies, and prioritising relationship and social skills, and emotional regulation can help lay solid foundations for a culture of belonging.’[vi]

More than this, it invites a systemic approach. Allen’s research demonstrates that of the predictors associated with a sense of belonging to school, the student-teacher relationship was one of the most powerful (Allen et al 2018) and, in turn, teachers’ sense of connection to school predicts their students’ sense of connection. The NEU research looked at belonging and an intentional whole-school approach involving leadership and culture.

Allen highlights the role of teacher wellbeing and the importance of this as we know, extends to all education staff, teaching assistants, lunchtime supervisors, administrative staff. Also, from my perspective as a parent feeling very distanced from school, to the wider community of parents and carers. We have all been facing unprecedented demands during the pandemic. We all need to resource ourselves. None of us can pour from an empty cup and what we model to the people around us is catching.

Something that has become increasingly clear to me, and is coming up regularly in conversation with colleagues, is that MiSP trainings and curricula offer more than mindfulness to young people and those that care for them. They offer exactly the social and emotional competencies that underpin belonging and inclusion. Trauma-sensitivity is increasingly informing how we work and our curricula for all ages nurture the five core competencies of:

  • self-awareness
  • self-management
  • social awareness
  • relationship skills
  • responsible decision making [vii]

These competencies are developed explicitly through curricula content and embedded in what we model as mindfulness teachers. There is an additional piece, in terms of how we hold the groups that we work with, supporting a sense of belonging and inclusion by creating a safe space in which people can come as they are, inviting diverse contributions, welcoming all equally and cultivating mutual respect, honouring differences and our common humanity. Teaching the curricula across whole school communities and embedding the practices and qualities in collective culture is possible and powerful and it is our privilege at MiSP to support this.

My own journey to mindfulness began during a challenging time for my family, a mix of serious ill health, moving from one end of the UK to the other and financial stress. It taught me how important it was to resource and regulate myself, for my sake and for my children. Then, as a parent volunteer longing to make a difference to the children’s experience of school, I trained with MiSP to teach Paws b. It was only after I’d started to teach the children that I (again) realised the importance of the wellbeing of the adults around them and trained to teach MBSR and then .b Foundations.

I have been struck again and again by how the courses support us to be human, individually and collectively. What we do is supported by research and an evidence base. It also goes beyond words. Children I have worked with express the impact in their pictures better than I can.

As well as having the shared vocabulary, understanding and experience there is something special that arises in the ‘relative’ quiet of a whole class practising together that weaves connectedness, and the teachers participating alongside their students positively benefit too.

And this reminds me why I want to teach .breathe to 180 year 7s at my son’s school.

[i] Sadiq, A. (2020). Belonging − the missing ingredient of diversity and inclusion, The CBI.
[ii] Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497–529.
[iii] ‘Place and Belonging in School: why it matters today’ A Research-based Inquiry undertaken by The Art of Possibilities & UCL, Institute of Education Professor Kathryn Riley, Dr Max Coates, Dr Tracey Allen November 2020
[iv] Roy F. Baumeister & Davina A. Robson (2021) Belongingness and the modern schoolchild: on loneliness, socioemotional health, self-esteem, evolutionary mismatch, online sociality, and the numbness of rejection, Australian Journal of Psychology, 73:1, 103-111, DOI:
[v]Helping students feel they belong’ Mary Beth Hewitt, eJournal of The International Child And Youth Care Network, Issue 101, June 2007
[vi]Making sense of belonging’ Dr Kelly-Ann Allen MAPS
[vii] The Casel Framework