Relationships and belonging
Generally, for a child to flourish and achieve in school they need to feel that they belong and are a valued part of the school community. School belonging or school connectedness involves feeling ’personally accepted, respected, included, and supported by others in the school social environment’ (Goodenow, 1993).
There is also evidence that this feeling of belonging is an important protective factor as children transition between schools. It has also been linked with improved mental health, reduced involvement in risky behaviours and as a buffer against the effects of disadvantage.
Studies show that poor relationships between children and staff in primary school affect self-esteem and are linked to poorer attainment and poorer mental health. Poor relationships with school staff should act as an alarm bell to invest additional effort with these children, tracking their wellbeing and helping them get extra support if needed.
We are still exploring exactly which parts of ‘belonging’ to a school make a difference to children’s progress, but we know they include:
- Warm, positive, consistent relationships with staff: children believe that adults in the school care about their learning and about them as a person. They feel accepted by and able to talk to staff.
- Peer relationships: children feel accepted and included by other pupils – and the school has low levels of bullying and conflict.
- School engagement: children feel committed to and actively participate in their learning.
- Respectful and nurturing environment: the school generates a sense of community (drawing together parents, children, school staff, outside agencies) and creating a respectful, tolerant, safe environment backed up by authentic concern for children and families.
- Feeling listened to: children feel they can voice worries and that their voice matters about what happens in the school.
Engaging parents in their children’s academic and school life may also promote school connectedness. For families this involves feeling able to approach and trust school staff; feeling listened to, valued and cared about; and feeling that they can work collaboratively with staff to build on strengths, solve problems and help their children learn and develop. It may also involve linking with other families in the school.
Children who may be at most risk
Children who may feel less connected to schools include those who have struggled to develop good attachments. For pupils who have experienced maltreatment at home and who have learned not to rely on or trust adults around them, building relationships will take patience and consistent nurturing. Developing a good quality relationship with a trusted adult outside of the family can be an important factor in promoting good child mental health.
Other children who may struggle to feel included and belong are those who are perceived as different in some way (e.g. children from different ethnic backgrounds, children with disabilities, LGBT children etc.) and those children who have poor school attendance.
Protective factors: what schools can do
- Create an environment in which children feel they belong, feel valued and feel cared for is a whole-school responsibility driven by senior staff. It includes, for example, leadership and policies but also involves all members of staff using their relationships to build that sense of belonging through every interaction. It also involves the small things such as:
- Welcoming children (and families) and addressing them by name each day.
- Displaying children’s work on the walls of the classroom and school.
- Noticing when they are struggling and communicating support with small gestures (acknowledging a child with a nod, a smile, warmth in your voice, a note on her/his work etc.).
- Giving a child responsibilities/chores for the classroom to boost their self-esteem and give them some control over their environment.
- Positive relationships in the classroom/school that are built on trust, kindness, safety and security are an important tool for change, linked not only to better child wellbeing but also to better educational performance. It has the greatest potential to impact on those children who struggle the most to build effective relationships. Developing relationships with these harder to engage children involves:
- Not blaming children when they struggle to build relationships with staff but also staff not blaming themselves (e.g. they don’t like me or I don’t like them).
- Investing patiently and persistently in a relationship with a child; being creative and problem-solving.
- Providing positive feedback and praise for small successes. All children thrive on praise and on self-belief and these will be important drivers for them to develop good quality relationships. Give a child specific, positive information about themselves. For example: ‘I notice that you are someone who makes friends easily’ or ‘I notice that you are someone who really tries hard on difficult problems.’
- It also means being alert to the broader jigsaw of factors that might be impacting on that child’s ability to form attachments.
- Staff modelling skills in building relationships, including resolving conflict effectively.
- Support all children to learn effective social and emotional skills such as relationship building, empathy, kindness and tolerance. Key messages and learning should be reinforced across the school and in the broader curriculum activity.
- A number of universal programmes and targeted, small group work can help children develop these vital skills.
- The resource library section of this website also has many resources which help promote inclusion, acceptance of diversity, healthy relationships, kindness and effective conflict resolution. See, for example, personal development and mutual understanding curriculum from Northern Ireland.
- Deliver lesson plans that are tailored to diverse populations and learning styles, with clearly described lesson goals, encouraging open, respectful communication etc.
- Regular use of circle time may also promote inclusion.
- Engaging parents in children’s school life may also promote school connectedness.
- Linking with BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) community leaders and parents to strengthen and problem-solve school engagement for children from different communities.
- Systematically ensuring that children’s choices and voices are at the heart of developments in the school.
- Some schools are adopting restorative approaches to dealing with conflict, which can manage and help prevent relationship-damaging incidents. See, for example, this case study on restorative approaches in a Hull primary school, which includes some key questions to help guide the restorative process.
If children show significant and ongoing problems with their relationships, discuss this with your pastoral lead and additional learning needs lead to problem-solve what might help. When a child continues to struggle, it can be helpful for parents and staff to discuss how they might work together to help the child learn good relationship-based skills.