At the heart of my inquiry is student sense of belonging. Specifically, my question of inquiry was:
My research began with why a sense of belonging is important. Although I had a hunch that maintaining a sense of belonging was important to mental health and success in school, I dove into the literature to help guide my inquiry. I began by exploring how a sense of belonging at school affects adolescents. Through this reading, I also was able to develop my working definition of sense of belonging using the experts'. A repeated theme within the literature was the centrality of relatedness in feeling a sense of belonging. The two were so closely intertwined, that my working definition of sense of belonging derived from a study on student relationships and relatedness. This is what connected me to self-determination theory, a broad macro theory of human motivation. Sense of belonging is homologous to relatedness, and in finding this equivalence, I was able to move forward with self-determination theory as my main framework. I reviewed more literature on the effects of sense of belonging and relatedness in adolescence and how they can be measured. Finally, with a definition, framework, and ideas for measuring growth and change of sense of belonging in my students, I considered how different types of interventions might impact my students’ sense of relatedness.
How can I foster students' sense of belonging in our classroom community?
I wanted to understand the effects that a sense of belonging has on adolescents. There were two primary reasons for this: first, if the presence of a sense of belonging had significant implications, it would mean that it may need to be prioritized, at times even over content in the classroom. Secondly, it would provide direction for interventions and interpretation of data over time.
A study by Newman et al. (2007) showed evidence that having a sense of belonging is negatively correlated with behavioral issues, both internalized and externalized. Compared to peers who do experience a sense of belonging, students who value group membership and do not have a positive sense of belonging report more internalized and externalized behavioral problems. The authors assert that a sense of group belonging is positively associated with mental health and although they agree that some forms of social interaction can be a distraction to academics, they propose, “peer groups may help to preserve adolescents' mental health under conditions of rejection by [other] peers, parents or schools” (p. 260).
Wallace et al. (2012) propose a model of sense of belonging consisting of four subdimensions: generalized connection to teachers; connection to a specific teacher; identification and participation in official school-sanctioned activities; and perception of fitting in with peers. Their construct is what informed my understanding of sense of belonging for the purposes of my inquiry. Ultimately, it comes down to students’ relationships with their environment and people therein.
This aligned with my education philosophy where I explored the importance of relationship-building for student sense of belonging. I had been inspired by a specific quote from Toshalis et al. (2012):
“For those whose social pathways lead to frequent experiences
of alienation and marginalization at school, the need to be engaged
personally and socially may come before they develop any substantive
motivation to achieve academically” (p. 4).
The model proposed by Wallace et al. (2012) on sense of belonging not only supported my philosophy but also helped expand my thinking from just student-teacher relationships to the many others that exist in the classroom and school.
Newman et al. (2007) argued that social relationships can be a distraction from academics, but could also serve as a buffer for mental health when students faced rejection. This certainly is the case in some contexts, but research suggests relatedness can also have a positive effect on academic motivation. Furrer et al. (2003) found that student-parent, student-teacher, and student-peer relationships all contributed to 3rd-6th grade students’ engagement. Madill et al. (2014) found that students who did not perceive strong relationships with teachers tended to be more aggressive-disruptive. Research from the University of Texas A&M by Hughes et al. (2011) at the University of Texas A&M showed that students' sense of relatedness (as measured by teacher-student relationship and peer relatedness) and the quality of their social relationships within the classroom mediated academic self-efficacy. Finally, Mikami et al. (2017) found that students’ perception of relationships predicted their behavioral engagement, which in turn predicted their end-of-year finals scores with a positive correlation.
II. Sense of Belonging and Relatedness
Relatedness is also found more broadly in psychological literature about human motivation. Self-determination theory is a macro theory of human motivation that was proposed by Deci et al. (2008) from the University of Rochester. They claimed that there are three basic psychological needs: competence, autonomy, and relatedness that when cultivated, contribute to a perceived internal locus of causality. When one feels competent, autonomous, and feels a relationship to their environment, one feels more in control, which then contributes to intrinsic motivation and manifests as a curiosity to learn, produce, and engage.
The opposite is also true - when competence, autonomy, and relatedness are stifled, there is a decrease in motivation. This is not just a reduction in a perceived internal locus of causality, but also an increase in a perceived external locus of causality, a sense of loss of control over one's behavior and motivation, an experience of stress. The researchers suggest stress arises when one does not feel that they are in control of their behavior and feel pressured to behave in a certain way because of fear of negative consequences. It is clear then how stress would undermine a sense of internal motivation.
Also from the University of Rochester, Niemiec et al. (2009) provide an analysis of how self-determination theory can be applied in the classroom environment to promote high-quality learning. They suggest that a traditional teacher-centered classroom environment, one in which the expert figure decides and tells students what, when, and how they should be learning, undermines students’ sense of relatedness with their teachers. Supporting the basic psychological needs of competence, autonomy, and relatedness in the classroom is crucial to support healthy academic motivation in students.
Similar to the sense of belonging and the research done by Newman et al. (2007), Niemiec et al. (2007) argue that a focus on the needs of competence, autonomy, and relatedness is necessary for the general wellbeing of students as well. On the role of relatedness in motivation, the authors state that “[Students will] tend to internalize and accept as their own the values and practices of those to whom they feel, or want to feel, connected, and from contexts in which they experience a sense of belonging” (p. 139). The breakdown of relatedness provided by Niemiec et al. (2007) supports the construct proposed by Wallace et al. (2012) as well as my decision to synonymize sense of belonging and relatedness for my inquiry project.
Figure 1: Self-determination Theory
(Deci et al., 2008)