August 3, 2020

How can we work together to make every kid feels like they belong at school?

Every child wants to belong wherever they are, but after decades of atomized family structures, breakdowns in traditional social connections, and over-reliance on technology for human interactions, young people may be falling into deep alienation.

Like all social phenomena, what happens in society shows up in our public schools.

A new study conducted by the Portland Public Schools surveyed 5,770 middle and high school students, and 3,672 elementary schoolers; and the results are heartbreaking.

About a third of students say their connection to school staff is weak, and 16% of those said they “don’t feel at all connected to the adults in their building.”

Here are more of the results as reported by The Oregonian:

Only 18% of gender fluid and non-binary students said they had a positive view of their relationships with the adults in their schools, the lowest of any demographic surveyed.

Students in seventh and 10th grade also overwhelmingly said they feel like they don’t matter to other people in their school. Only 33% of students surveyed said they either matter “quite a bit” or “a tremendous amount” to their fellow students.

Another 9%, or 527, said they felt like they don’t matter at all while 21%, or 1,212,said they matter a little bit.


Gender fluid and non-binary students again registered some of the most grim responses, with only 18% saying they felt like they either mattered quite a bit or a tremendous amount in school.

Students in middle and high school also overwhelmingly said they’re not excited in class or eager to participate. About 15% said they were excited about their courses and 1 in 5 said they were eager to participate in class activities.

About 14% of seventh and 10th graders said they “almost always” saw their peers act disrespectfully toward each other, while 32% said they frequently saw such behavior and 31% said they saw it sometimes.

When I say these results are crushing it’s not just out of concern that kids aren’t feeling good about their schools in general; it’s because the consequences of that disconnectedness are often risky behaviors that harm them for life.

Past research has shown this:

Having high levels of connectedness to their schools and families was associated with a 48 to 66 percent lower likelihood of adverse adult health outcomes, such as incidences of violence, risky sexual activity, mental health episodes and substance abuse….The study also found that these family and school relationships were associated with an increased likelihood of graduating from college.

Past research suggested “school belonging significantly and positively affects several motivational measures such as expectancy of success, valuation of school work…[and] academic achievement and school engagement.”

Students who feel connected to school are less likely to be bullies, be violent, or fall into anti-social behaviors.

So, what can educators and schools do?

According to the American Psychological Association, researchers from the University of Minnesota found factors like class size and the degrees teachers hold are less associated with student connectivity to their schools than how well managed the school is.

Among the factors they suggest are important:

School size. The smaller the total school enrollment, the more connected students felt–down to a total school size of 600 students. Although the average number of students per classroom can affect academic performance, it did not predict whether students felt connected to their school. Moreover, school type (public, private or parochial) and school location (urban, suburban or rural) did not predict connectedness.

Teachers. Teachers’ experience and education level had no effect, but students were more connected to their schools when their teachers managed classrooms well. “This speaks to the ability of teachers to make kids feel like they are important members of the school,” ….. “Other research has shown that when teachers are empathetic and consistent, allow students to manage themselves and encourage them to make decisions, the classroom is a better place–and so is the school.”

Discipline policies. Students in schools with harsh discipline, such as zero-tolerance policies, reported lower school connectedness. However, researchers are unsure if the harsh discipline policies make students feel less connected to school or if some other factor is at play. “Still,” Blum notes, “we found that students in schools with [harsh] discipline policies actually report feeling less safe at school–since feeling safe at school was a component of school connectedness–than do students in schools with more moderate policies.”

Students’ friendships. While specific student demographics, such as race, age and family structure, didn’t predict whether teens felt connected to school, the researchers did find better connection when students’ social circles included those of different races and gender, instead of only one race or gender. Interestingly, cliques generally became less integrated as the number of minorities rose.

Back to the kids in Portland and the others across the country like them. I’ll pray for them; that they find meaning and comfort enough in school that it sparks in them the curiosity and self-determination it will take for their growing years to be successful. God knows they deserve safe, nurturing, and connected spaces to learn each day.

There may not be easy fixes for disconnectedness, but there is nothing in life that isn’t made better by all of us showing care and concern about kids.


What does this post mean?

Perhaps it’s an admission that the militant focus of #HowAreTheChildren on proficiency in reading and math requires attention on the precursors to student outcomes. Academic success comes from a context where students feel valued, respected, and connected to their peers and teachers.

What can you do?

First, I’d love to her your ideas for parents and advocates to support schools that want to strengthen school belonging among students. Please email your thoughts to me at

Second, contact your school district’s superintendent and/or school board members to ask what actions they are taking to improving school belonging. Bonus points if you find a volunteer opportunity to support educators and students.

Finally, consider hosting a small group of like-minded parents to discuss the research on school belonging.

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