‘Belonging’ – Why is it so important for children to feel like they ‘belong’ around other people?

As human beings, we all want to feel a strong sense of belonging to something. Imagine playing a game, and having a suspicion that the game would be more fun for everyone else if you weren’t involved. Or maybe you get invited to the pub, but you hesitate because you worry that you’ll have nothing to say, or that the people just ‘won’t get you’. Imagine this feeling as a child, and imagine what kind of effect it will have on your ability to build strong friendships, and the effect it could have on who you are as you grow up?

Whether it is belonging to a family unit, church, football team, peer-group and so forth, a sense of belonging is important to us all. If as adults ‘belonging’ is important to us, imagine how significant this feeling of ‘belonging’ is for our children and young people.

What does a sense of belonging mean and is it really important?
Goodenow and Grady (1993), defined sense of belonging as ‘the extent to which individuals feel personally accepted, respected, included, and supported within their social environment’. It is hugely important for our children and young people to have a strong sense of belonging, and to many psychologists this is the most important thing in child development: it’s a need that has to be satisfied before any other needs can be fulfilled (Maslow, 1962). Research indicates that unless children and young people within schools feel welcomed, valued, respected and feel like they ‘belong’, their level of educational participation and engagement will always be limited (Finn’s 1989). With participation and engagement having a significant correlation with academic attainment, your child having a strong sense of belonging may be a significant factor to their success inside and outside of school.

How can we ensure that children and young people have a good sense of belonging?
So, here comes the question which I am sure is lingering in your mind, how can we ensure that children have a good sense of belonging? Below we have highlighted some ideas in which parents, carers and professionals can ensure that children and young people to have a better sense of belonging. These suggestions are not exhaustive, rather a starting point to cultivate similar ideas around increasing your child or young person’s sense of belonging. (If you do have similar ideas, feel free to leave these in the comment section below).

For schools:
• Use group work and participation to ensure your children are engaging with each other
• Include books and recordings in all languages spoken by the children in the class
• Encourage children to bring memories of home and similar items into the classroom with them
• Talk to children about what they do with family members when they are not at school
• Take time at the beginning of the year to become familiar with each child’s family
• Chat with families briefly at drop-off and pickup times to fill your ‘picture’ of each child

For parents and carers:
• Help children build their identity as a member of the family. Put together a photo album which includes pictures of them growing up, as well as pictures of their immediate and extended family.
• Be clear with children about family values. For example, “In our family, we do not steal from others”. This can lead children and young people to recognise that they belong to a family unit, with clear values and beliefs.
• Help your child or young person make friends by inviting other children to join you whilst playing.
• Start family visual’s such as eating a favourite family meal on a Friday, or have a family day each week (Bilmes, 2012)

A lack of belonging can have adverse effects for children and young people, causing them to become disaffected, disengaged within school, and involvement in activities which are unconstructive to their learning. If you’ve tried all of the above but things still aren’t working or low-mood is still growing, you might want to use a service like One-Eighty to explore this a bit further for you. Our interventions aim to re-engage young people, many of which feel a lack of belonging, inside and outside of school.

For more information use the links above to navigate to the page relevant for you. If you’re a family, go to the ‘For Families’ tab, and if you’re a school or professional working for a service like CAMHS, the police, or social services click the ‘For Professionals’ tab.

Bilmes J, (2012), ‘Beyond behaviour management’, 1st Ed, St Paul, Minn, Redleaf Press.
Finn’s (1989), Withdrawing from school’, Review of Educational Research, Vol 59, No 2, pp 117-142
Goodenow and Grady (1993), cited in Willms, J. D. (2003). ‘Student Engagement at School: A Sense of Belonging and Participation’. Results from PISA 2000. Paris: Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Accessed October 2010 from http://www.unb.ca/crisp/pdf/0306.pdf
Maslow, A. H. (1962). Towards a psychology of being. Princeton: D. Van Nostrand Company.