The Research Files Episode 91: The long-term impacts of a sense of school belonging on mental health

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Thanks for downloading this podcast from Teacher. I’m Dominique Russell. In this episode of The Research Files we’re going to be delving into new research into the long-term benefits of school belonging on an individual’s mental health.

I’m joined today by Associate Professor Kelly-Ann Allen from Monash University who is the lead author of a new paper sharing research into data on over 1,500 adults taking part in a longitudinal study called the Australian Temperament Project. The research involved examining links between the feelings of belonging at secondary school of the participants when they were aged 15 to 16, and their mental health in young adulthood when they were aged 19 to 20, 23 to 24 and 27 to 28 years old. As you’ll hear in this episode, the results showed that higher levels of school belonging appear to be associated with lower mental health symptoms across young adulthood. The report also says that these findings underscore the importance of adolescent school belonging in reference to feeling socially valued, as a long-term protective factor that can mitigate against later depression, anxiety, and stress.

During our discussion Kelly-Ann also gives us some fascinating insights into the broader implications of this research for schools, including considerations for school staffs’ feelings of belonging. Let’s get started.

Dominique Russell: Thank you so much Kelly-Ann for joining us on today's episode of The Research Files. I thought to start us off, it would be great if you could introduce yourself to our listeners and also tell us a little bit about your research areas of interest.

Kelly-Ann Allen: Of course. Well, first off, thank you so much for having me. I'm Kelly-Ann Allen and I'm an Associate Professor at Monash University in the School of Educational Psychology and Counselling. I have a background as a school psychologist and practitioner working in schools, so I've spent a lot of time working around schools.

And I think if I really think back to where my research interests came from, it was certainly … from being on the ground and working in schools. And it was there where I had noticed that my research interests, or research passion, on school belonging sort of came from; seeing that some schools did school belonging and generated such a strong sense of belonging in students so well and other schools didn't do it as well. And that's where that's where my research interest came from. And it's made me, I guess, want to pursue this area more deeply so that I can find the ingredients of what helps students feel a sense of belonging, so that it can be shared with all schools.

DR: And so today we'll be discussing your new paper that's titled Adolescent School belonging and Mental Health Outcomes in Young Adulthood: Findings from a Multi-wave Prospective Cohort Study (Allen et al., 2024). Why was it important for you and your colleagues to conduct this specific body of research?

KA: Yeah, that's a really great question. I've been researching belonging probably since 2010 – that's when I first started looking at this particular topic. And I have to say that, back then, belonging wasn't a particularly interesting – well, it was always an interesting topic to me – but it wasn't a particularly interesting topic to the general public. I think back in 2010, things like resilience and bullying, they were really the meaty topics of interest back then.

So, I think why it's important today is [what] I have certainly seen over time is a rise in popularity of belonging research. And I wonder, I think maybe back before COVID we might have dismissed belonging as a topic of relevance or interest, just because it just wasn't on our radar. You know, some people might have thought belonging was a fluffy or insignificant topic, or people thought it just was easy or naturally occurred. And perhaps it took something like COVID to create some isolation, physical isolation or social isolation in some of us, and that absence of belonging in some respects to really sort of have us reflect on just how important a sense of belonging is to us, but also how important it is to students as well.

So, I guess why the research is so important is because it adds to the evidence that school belonging is needed, student belonging is important and sort of contributes to that literature, but also schools and teachers and school leaders, with their evidence base, for why they might be prioritising school belonging in their setting.

DR: And so before we get into the specifics of what the study involved, I thought it would be important to first have a bit of a discussion about what is meant by the term school belonging in this context, because I'm sure that, you know, in many schools in different areas of the country, there's probably some variance in their own definitions of what school belonging really means, isn't there?

KA: Absolutely. And you know, for any schools that are prioritising school belonging or conducting their own research on school belonging, I really strongly encourage them to maybe create a shared definition of what ‘school belonging’ means for their particular students, for their staff, for their parents, within their specific context. I think that's really important.

We've looked at perceptions of belonging in a wide range of students. We've looked at 4- to 8-year-olds, we’ve looked at definitions from adolescence. And we find that the commonly used way of defining school belonging is about feeling accepted, respected, valued, and included in the school setting. Which is good news in that it also matches up with the very famous Goodenow and Grady (1993) definition of school belonging that many of the researchers in this field are using to operationalise their research. But students will talk about those kinds of features related to their sense of belonging to their particular educational context. They also talk about feeling comfortable, and they also talk about feeling safe – so we know that those kinds of words are the words that students strongly associate with a sense of belonging.

There is one thing I would like to add to that. When we've asked students at Monash University what helps them to feel like they belong, they've said things along the lines of feeling safe and feeling included, and they talked about inclusion. But one of the really interesting things that we found is that when we looked at alumni or we looked at prospective students, they had slightly different definitions of what a sense of belonging meant to them, to the institution. So I think for anyone that's listening that's interested in this and interested in creating a shared understanding or a shared definition, it might be useful to look at students at different stages within their educational journey, because you might find that there might be some nuances around what makes them feel a sense of belonging.

DR: So let's get back to your study now. Can you just give me a bit of an overview and all the details about what you're study actually involved?

KA: Well, the study came from a really interesting collaboration with Deakin University, the Melbourne Children's Research Institute, Monash University, of course, and the University of Melbourne. And it tapped into a data set called the Australian Temperament Project – which is this marvellous 40-year-old project which follows this immensely large community sample from infancy right through to adulthood with this intergenerational follow up. So, they've got, this cohort now has children, which are a part of this project; so, we've got this really unique and rich data set in one way is one of Australia's greatest assets in terms of this data. And it just coincidentally happens to also look at school belonging, which is very fortunate for me.

So, the project is a really nice collaboration between these institutions. But in a nutshell, the research looked at a sense of school belonging at the age of 15 and 16 as well as mental health symptoms and was able to track outcomes at ages 19 to 20, 23 to 24, and 27 to 28. And who knows, in the future – the cohort is now 40 years old, so hopefully down the track we will be able to revisit some of the findings and look at 40-year-olds as well.

After the break, Kelly-Ann Allen delves into the overall findings of this data analysis and discusses the implications for school leaders and teachers.

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DR: And so can you tell me a little bit about the overall findings?

KA: Yeah, well the findings really provided some really rich evidence towards the significant role of school belonging in secondary school. So, the presence of feeling like you belong to school (while you're in secondary school) and predicting lower levels of anxiety, depression and stress across adulthood at those 3 critical time points that I mentioned before (19 to 20, 23 to 24 and 27 to 28). So that sense of feeling like you belong to school had a relationship with lower levels of anxiety, depression and stress right up to the age of being nearly 30 years old. So, really rich, interesting, substantial data or evidence of why school belonging is important.

But the other interesting part of the findings was that the association was particularly strong for school belonging in relation to that sense of feeling valued within the school environment. So, I guess this suggests that when students feel like they're valued and included (particularly in adolescence) it can have this protective effect on their mental health down the track. So that was really the key finding, that it had this these long-term benefits around mental health.

DR: Absolutely, and that's a clear benefit of having such a longitudinal range of data, isn't it, being able to measure from adolescents, at a young age, well into adulthood. It's fantastic that you've got such, like you say, a rich data set. I think that discussion just there about those findings leads on beautifully to me wanting to ask you about the implications for school leaders and classroom teachers on the ground. What from these findings can they take to really reflect on in their own school setting?

KA: Yeah, absolutely. In some ways – look, and I don't know if this is the best way to remember it – I feel like, in terms of implications of these findings, one of the things that we need to do is not necessarily go off and implement a new belonging intervention (although I'm not saying that that wouldn't be a bad idea) or necessarily have a new belonging policy (although again, I'm not saying that's not a bad idea). But we do need, I think, constant reminders of why feeling a sense of belonging, not just for students – the research is about students – but also, you know, if we look at the importance of belonging, it's identified as a fundamental human need, it's important for everyone. It's important for staff. It's important for admin. It's important for leaders. It's important, you know, for the specialist teachers that are only coming in once a week. It's important for the early career teachers or the psychologist that's, you know, popping into the staff room and might be feeling a bit awkward because they're not there 5 days a week. So it's important for everyone.

So, we need reminders that belonging is an important psychological need linked strongly to our mental health and wellbeing. And then once we've got those reminders in place – and I guess the research serves a purpose in that – then we need to make sure that we're providing opportunities to feel a sense of belonging. Now, anybody that's worked in in a school can attest that – it can be immensely powerful in terms of building a community. You know, the parents and the teachers and the school staff, it can be a really rich source of community that can extend way beyond our time working in those kinds of institutions.

But we need to look for those opportunities that we're providing to students and people to feel a sense of belonging. So, one thing working in schools and then being a parent of my own children, just seeing that natural ability to form groups of interests and allowing students to be able to lead those groups. And often, you know, they only need a dry space and maybe a little bit of casual supervision from the yard duty teacher or personnel who's on. But just allowing those natural groups and opportunities to occur and be encouraged. And then, you know, those things that that might exist, that really bond them or hook them in and then allow them to commit.

So it's not only the reminders or finding those opportunities, but the ability to be able to come back to them and constantly reflect, ‘well what are the things that help build my sense of belonging? And what are the groups?’ and keeping in mind that for many people it's social relationships that are important for a sense of belonging.

So, schools that are able to track and identify things like social networks and social dynamics and interactions are going to be best equipped to be able to monitor belonging, and also when it doesn't look like belonging is occurring and there might be, you know, a student at risk of isolation, or ostracism, as an example.

DR: Certainly plenty to think about and to unpack from that. Just to wrap things up, it would be great to now look ahead and maybe have a little bit of a think about is there any room for further research in this area?

KA: There's immense room for research in this area. I think the study really builds on some really powerful work around mental health. I'm thinking of people like in Ian Shochet and his team and their work around identifying correlates with depression and school belonging (Parr et al., 2020 & Schochet et al., 2011). And there's other research that shows that school belonging is also important for things like suicide prevention, substance use, further education, and employment. So there's a lot of research there that this builds on in terms of why it adds to the evidence.

But in terms of future directions, I think one thing that we're really missing is research into early childhood and primary schools around the importance of belonging and what patterns can occur throughout that trajectory into adulthood from the belonging experiences in those formative years.

And also belonging for teachers. I feel that teachers and school staff, you know, are often kind of neglected. I know students come into the school and the purpose of school is education, and we’re nurturing and growing students through their educational journey … and we've had different priorities around social and emotional learning and student wellbeing.

But, in reality, you know, the school is functioning as a community and teacher wellbeing and teacher belonging and teachers, you know, wanting to come into their workplace and feeling like they're contributing to something that's giving them great meaning and satisfaction and they feel safe and comfortable doing so, is really important. So, we've got a lot of work to do in this space around teacher belonging and, you know, really pulling the puzzle pieces together on what actually makes a school community and looking at all the elements of that.

… I conducted a 2018 meta-analysis and within that I found that the student-teacher relationship was one of the most important determinants when it came to fostering a sense of school belonging (Allen et al., 2018). So, finding ways and time for teachers to really get to know their students, help them feel seen, help them feel valued, help them feel known is a really important aspect of fostering that sense of school belonging.

So, it's that real relationship building. And maybe because of the natural power dynamics between students and teachers, teachers carry a high value in terms of them noticing and appreciating and valuing students. And those student-teacher interactions are really important from the student’s perspective. But they also probably have a lot of benefit from the teacher perspective as well.

That’s all for this episode. Thanks for listening. I’ll leave a link to the full paper we discussed into today’s episode, as well as the 2018 meta-analysis Kelly-Ann Allen just mentioned, in the transcript of this podcast which is available at our website, Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast channel wherever you get your podcasts from, so you can be notified of any new episodes as soon as they land.

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References and related reading:

Allen, KA., Greenwood, C.J., Berger, E., Patlamazoglou, L., Reupert, A., Wurf, G., May, F., O’Connor, M., Sanson, A., Olsson, C.A. & Letcher, P. (2024). Adolescent School Belonging and Mental Health Outcomes in Young Adulthood: Findings from a Multi-wave Prospective Cohort Study. School Mental Health. 16, 149–160.

Allen, KA., Kern, M.L., Vella-Brodrick, D., Hattie, J. & Waters, L. (2018) What Schools Need to Know About Fostering School Belonging: a Meta-analysis. Educational Psychology Review. 30, 1–34.

Goodenow, C., & Grady, K. E. (1993). The Relationship of School Belonging and Friends’ Values to Academic Motivation Among Urban Adolescent Students. The Journal of Experimental Education, 62(1), 60–71.

Parr, E.J., Shochet, I.M., Cockshaw, W.D., & Kelly, R.L. (2020). General Belonging is a Key Predictor of Adolescent Depressive Symptoms and Partially Mediates School Belonging. School Mental Health 12, 626–637.

Shochet, I. M., Smith, C. L., Furlong, M. J., & Homel, R. (2011). A Prospective Study Investigating the Impact of School Belonging Factors on Negative Affect in Adolescents. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 40(4), 586–595.

Dr Kelly-Ann Allen says an avenue for further research in this area is teacher belonging. School belonging is often mentioned in reference to students’ sense of belonging at school. As a school leader, are you thinking of school belonging in reference to staff as well? How are you supporting casual or part-time staff to feel a sense of belonging in your school setting?