Nurturing a sense of belonging at school: what helps pupils feel connected?

Feeling like you belong can have a very positive social and academic impact, says Director of the Anti-Bullying Alliance Martha Evans, but a significant number of schoolchildren don't.

Pupils at school working in a group

Recent government research shows that just three-fifths of pupils at school feel a sense of belonging at school. Meanwhile, 15-year-olds in the UK report some of the lowest levels of life satisfaction in OECD countries (PISA, Department for Education, 2023).

This matters because evidence increasingly demonstrates that children and young people’s sense of belonging plays a decisive role in shaping their social, emotional, and mental health outcomes and academic performance. At the National Children’s Bureau (NCB), we’ve recently worked with researchers at Goldsmiths, University of London, to understand what influences pupils’ sense of belonging in school. These are the issues that are starting to emerge.

What do we mean by a sense of ‘belonging’ at school?

Since the early 1990s, we have seen growing evidence of the importance of feeling included and having a sense of belonging at school. Researchers argue that a pupil’s subjective sense of school belonging is “a potentially important influence on academic motivation, engagement, and participation” (Carol Goodenow and Kathleen Grady 1993).

A useful definition of belonging is summarised in ‘School Belonging: The Importance of Pupil and Teacher Relationships’ (Allen et al 2021) which defines it as:

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

Young people working together in school class

Key factors that influence pupil belonging

Teacher-pupil relationships

Research shows that teachers are more than educators: they are mentors and guides shaping a pupil's journey. Studies consistently indicate that the emotional resonance a teacher creates significantly impacts a pupil's sense of belonging. Empathy, availability, and emotional support emerge as pivotal elements, as highlighted by research from the PISA in a 2018 study across 75 countries.

Peer relationships and support: building connections

The power of peer relationships should not be underestimated either. Positive social interactions and peer support play a direct role in fostering feelings of acceptance and closeness. Friendships forged during extracurricular activities are particularly influential, offering a strong predictor of school belonging, as evidenced by various studies.

Research consistently shows that bullying levels are lower where a sense of belonging in schools is evident.

Individual traits: reflections on personal characteristics

A pupil's character traits are defining factors in their sense of belonging. Factors such as self-efficacy, conscientiousness, and hope have been shown to foster a positive connection, with those feelings being associated with a greater sense of belonging at school. Gender also plays a part, with studies showing that girls are more likely to form a sense of belonging in school than boys.

Pupils with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) are more likely to say they do not feel a sense of belonging at school. We must do all we can to remove the barriers that children with SEND experience in accessing learning and inclusive school environments.

Parental support: a foundation for belonging

The importance of the parent-child relationship extends beyond the home, profoundly impacting a pupil's connection to their school. Research shows that parental involvement and support create an environment of care, compassion, and encouragement, contributing significantly to a child's sense of belonging.

Extracurricular activities: beyond the classroom walls

Participation in extracurricular activities emerges as a key factor in enhancing school belonging. While involvement is positive, studies caution against an excess of activities, emphasising the need for a balance with academic studies.

School climate and safety: shaping perceptions

Research shows that a school's ‘climate’, sometimes referred to as its culture or ethos, along with safety measures, significantly influences pupils' perceptions of belonging. Fairness, both in policies and interactions, plays a crucial role in creating a supportive environment.

How safe a school may feel to a child, both emotionally and physically, can influence their sense of belonging. For example, unsupervised periods during the day can impact negatively on their interactions with others, and how school classrooms are set up can influence pupils’ wellbeing.

Pupil aspirations: bridging the present and future

A pupil's sense of belonging can extend its influence on to future career decisions. Confidence in making these decisions often correlates with a strong sense of belonging during school years. Therefore, the benefits of having a positive connection with school is palpable whilst in education and stretch into adulthood.

Academic achievement and attendance  

Research shows pupils’ sense of belonging impacts their academic outcomes, including academic achievement, classroom engagement, motivation, and attendance. Positive peer relationships and emotional wellbeing also play significant roles. Conversely, low academic achievement often coincides with a lack of belonging.

Attendance rates are also closely tied to belonging, with higher levels of connectedness correlating with better attendance, particularly among at-risk pupils. Addressing belongingness is crucial for improving outcomes.

Pupils at school smiling

Wellbeing: understanding self-esteem

Lastly, literature shows that having a strong feeling of belonging at school is very important for pupils' happiness and mental health. Feeling connected and supported by others around you helps protect you against feeling down or stressed, no matter your background.

Research shows that when pupils feel like they belong at school, they tend to be happier, more confident, and do better overall. When pupils are moving from primary to secondary school, feeling like they fit in can really make a difference in how they handle changes and challenges and feel about themselves.

Additionally, school belonging is linked to better mental health outcomes, including reduced levels of suicidal ideation and depression, and improved sleep quality, especially among secondary school-aged children.

However, challenges such as bullying, disciplinary practices like isolation, and feelings of loneliness can diminish pupils' sense of belonging and negatively affect their mental health and self-esteem. A sense of belonging in school is a basic requirement to fully experience and optimise school life.


In our quest for academic achievements, let's not forget the importance of fostering an environment where pupils feel a sense of belonging. Teachers, peers, personal characteristics, and various external factors intertwine to create a tapestry of connection.

As we navigate the evolving landscape of education, understanding and addressing these factors will be instrumental in nurturing a positive and inclusive learning environment for all pupils.

After all, education is not just about what's taught in the curriculum; it's about building a community where every pupil feels they truly belong.

Martha Evans is Director of the Anti-Bullying Alliance, part of the NCB family.

Find out more about Belonging Matters, a new project delivered by NCB