Research Insights: Supporting Belonging and Community in School Life

Summer 2023

By John Gulla

fit startThis article appeared as "Fit Start" in the Summer 2023 issue of Independent School.

In the past 10 years, I’ve visited more than 600 U.S. independent schools in my role as executive director of the E.E. Ford Foundation. If I were to create a word cloud for every utterance in my presence during these visits, I’m confident that “community” would be the word in the largest font. And if I were to analyze trends over time for increasing frequency of usage, “belonging” might be the word with the steepest gradient. This supposition was recently captured in the February Chronicle of Higher Education article, “Everyone is Talking About ‘Belonging.’ What Does It Really Mean?”

What do we mean by belonging? Furthermore, is there data that can guide how we can best support students and influence school culture, data that might direct our efforts to maximize the benefits of the experiences we offer to the students we serve? Successful teachers and effective school leaders develop impressive instincts about what works and what doesn’t in their classrooms and schools. While the anecdotes they share are often more persuasive than any form of measurement—after all, stories are memorable—data can be both more reliable and powerful. 

What do we know, for example, about the connection between a child who feels known, one who feels a strong sense of belonging to their community and the connection of these self-reported perceptions to other self-reported measures? Is that student who feels a strong sense of belonging in a better position to take full advantage of the opportunities presented? Conversely, do we know that a student who does not feel respected and valued is less likely to thrive? How can we even begin to understand these perceptions on the part of students and the correlations of these elements with other measurable dimensions of life in high schools in North America? 

The Study

These questions—that speak to the need to probe beyond the anecdotal—as well as the worry about schools possibly dismissing the importance of belonging and community were weighing heavily on my mind when I agreed to work on a survey project with Kevin Graham, president of Lookout Management, which conducts constituent surveys for independent schools, and Steve Piltch, senior fellow and director of the School Leadership Program at UPenn. Graham’s surveys of independent school alumni have long made clear that the single factor that most closely predicts a student’s positive assessment of their high school experience is the level of engagement they had with activities beyond the classroom. We wanted to do something similar with “community” and “belonging” to find what we could learn about attitudes and perceptions and the correlations among these two elements and dozens of other components of school life. 

We pursued this data-gathering project to shed light on these and other related questions for schools not on behalf of our respective organizational affiliates, but as three colleagues and friends with common interests and more than 100 combined years of experience in and around independent schools. And with the help and endorsement of many independent school association executive directors, school heads, and student counselors, we developed the “Community and Belonging Survey of Students 2022,” a 45-question survey (42 multiple choice and three open-ended questions) designed to measure relationships between and among students’ self-reported preparedness, sense of feeling respected, and personal experience with discrimination along with time spent on sleep, homework, and social media. 

We administered the survey online in November 2022 to 96 independent schools who volunteered to participate—80 in the U.S. and 16 in Canada. There was no cost to the schools, and each school received a comprehensive analysis of their own results compared to the aggregate whole (while all data was kept confidential). 

This survey of what we believe is a representative cross-section of the North American, 9–12 independent school population, generated more than 22,000 student responses, giving us a high level of confidence in the patterns, correlations, and generalizability of the results. The resulting data can help schools better understand the correlations between community, belonging, and their connection to dozens of other elements of a high school student’s experience.

The Highlights 

The good news is that the data affirms much of what is already prevalent in most independent schools and the shared values reflected in many mission statements. Nurturing curiosity, developing passions, and heightening engagement lead to good outcomes. These three goals correlate highly with a student’s sense of belonging, the ability to effectively manage time and levels of stress, and the confidence to face challenges.

Students in independent schools have long had the opportunity to choose electives in the latter years of upper school, but more schools are now offering “certificates” or “institutes,” which become the equivalent of a high school major. This is tapping into a level of student agency and autonomy that is positively fueling passions. In turn, this is leading to students becoming better decision-makers, which correlates with less stress and better time management, and the evidence suggests students are finding themselves better prepared to take on challenges. 

The data strongly suggest that feeling “respected and valued” has very strong positive associations with virtually every other desirable measure in the survey. Disrespected and unvalued students don’t become engaged members of the community. 

The not-so-good news? Not surprisingly, social media is contributing to a host of issues that negatively correlate to students’ sense of belonging and community. The weighted average of social media usage is 2.4 hours a day, with more than a quarter of students reporting more than three hours a day. Increased use of social media correlates with steady declines in the respondents’ reported levels of satisfaction with their experience at school; enthusiastic involvement in outside of classroom activities; and the claim of respondents to be passionate about the study of at least one subject. 

In addition, as hours of social media use increase, the average number of hours of sleep decreases. It’s not exactly shocking news to find that adolescents are suffering from a lack of sleep. The survey results show wide-sweeping and profoundly negative correlations of a lack of sleep with desirable outcomes. 

The Takeaways

As the saying goes, it helps to know where you want to go if you want to increase the likelihood that you’ll get there. If you believe community and belonging matter and want to ensure this isn’t too easily dismissed as the latest education fad or momentary fixation, consider these key takeaways from the survey and work to address these ideas in your school community.
  • Talk about and reinforce with students, parents, and teachers the importance of adequate sleep. The impact of inadequate sleep is wide-sweeping and profoundly negative.
  • Engage with students and families in efforts to reduce time spent on social media. 
  • Intentionally create opportunities to nurture in students curiosity, passion, and engagement. These three are key correlates to sense of belonging, time and stress management, and facing challenges with confidence.
  • Intentionally create opportunities for students to become better decision-makers. Making choices that lead to emotional well-being and time management skills should be prominent in this effort. 
Read the full "Community and Belonging Survey of Students 2022" report, as well as a detailed set of reports for U.S. and Canadian schools, explanatory videos, recommended reading, and more
John Gulla

John Gulla is executive director of the Edward E. Ford Foundation.