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The Lost Connection: Enhancing Belonging in Young People

Feeling disconnected seems to be par for the course these days. For many of us, the global pandemic amplified these feelings, while the pervasive presence of technology and the practice of ‘phubbing’ – ignoring someone in favour of a digital device – continues to erode our relationships.

It may come as little surprise, then, that according to recent research, a majority (55%) of young people report feeling isolated at least some of the time; almost one quarter report feeling lonely most or all of the time (Mission Australia, 2022).

Loneliness differs from social isolation; it's a subjective feeling of social disconnection which can persist even when we are physically surrounded by others (Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2010). That is, it's about meaningful, genuine and authentic connections. Importantly, feeling lonely is more than just a social issue, with research associating loneliness with poorer physical and emotional wellbeing outcomes (Christiansen et al., 2021; Lim et al., 2016).

In this landscape, schools hold a unique position as more than just institutions of learning. Rather, they serve as communities with endless opportunities for connection, and are well-placed to foster a sense of belonging among young people.

Fostering School Belonging

School belonging is defined as:

“The extent to which students feel personally accepted, respected, included, and supported by others in the school social environment”.

(Goodenow, 1993)

Research shows that school belonging is associated with a number of positive outcomes, including social, emotional and physical wellbeing, and academic performance (Korpershoek et al., 2019)

Perhaps surprisingly, a recent meta-analysis (that is, a statistical summary of available data) found the greatest factor contributing to a student’s feeling of belonging at school was teacher support (Allen et al., 2018). This highlights the significant role educators can play in fostering a strong sense of connection and belonging in their students, for example by:

1. Creating an environment where a strong sense of belonging is valued and normative.

2. Working to strengthen teacher-student relationships. Students are more likely to experience a greater sense of school belonging when they have a positive relationship with their teacher, and believe that their teacher is caring, empathetic and fair.

3. Promoting inclusivity and establishing an environment that celebrates diversity and embraces everyone’s strengths. This promotes a sense of acceptance and reduces the risk of loneliness.

Feeling connected is associated with a myriad of positive outcomes. Schools as a whole, and teachers in particular, are well-placed to foster a profound and enduring sense of belonging among their students.

Contact Dr Laura for enquiries on staff professional development workshops around evidence-based strategies for enhancing school connection and belonging.


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