Belonging and behaviour: Relationships not sanctions

Written by: Professor Kathryn Riley | Published:
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New research has shown the benefits of ensuring schools are a place of ‘belonging’, where the emphasis is on relationships, not sanctions and exclusion. Professor Kathryn Riley explains

I expect that you returned to school in 2021 with a mixture of emotions: Glad to be out of 2020 and hoping for better prospects in 2021.

While life is likely to be tough for some time to come, one thing is certain – what you do every day can make a difference to young people’s lives.

For many youngsters today, home and community are not fixed, and schools represent one of the few points of continuity and stability in their lives. Covid-19 has sent a shockwave across the globe, exposing the divisions within and across society and throwing a spotlight on the importance of schools as places of belonging.

“Belonging” is that sense of being somewhere where you can be confident that you will fit in and feel safe in your identity.

Take a look at the evidence. The table below gives a flavour of the belonging challenges and opportunities.

The research story

In 2020, we carried out a research inquiry for the National Education Union (NEU) on the links between a sense of belonging, behaviour and learning outcomes. Our broad conclusion was that pupils who have a sense of belonging in school tend to be happier, more confident and perform better academically.

In our first research report we reviewed the literature and found little compelling evidence to support so-called “zero-tolerance” behaviour policies (Allen, Riley & Coates, 2020). Instead, what emerged was a strong relationship between good behaviour, the quality of teacher relationships with students, a sense of belonging, and strategies aimed at enhancing the social and emotional aspects of learning.

For our second study we carried out a series of case studies (Riley, Coates & Allen, 2020). In the schools we visited we found:

  • Little about “tough” sanction-based behaviour policies based on exclusion and social isolation, and much about the enjoyment of learning.
  • A strong emphasis on relationships.
  • Interventions that were purposeful and aimed at creating a sense of place, belonging and agency.
  • Behaviour policies that were owned by everyone. Staff and pupils knew what they were, had helped shape them, and thought they were fair.
  • That exclusions were rare and staff and pupils felt a strong sense of belonging.

Our conclusion: Intentional whole-school practice can help to create a climate of welcome and belonging in school. The benefits are far-reaching for staff, students and their families.

Stepping into a different world

Our world is at a turning point, a moment of transformation. Covid-19 can be our spur for creating a new education reality. The pandemic has also taught us that wisdom and compassion help build connections and communities, and that schools need to be places of belonging.

If you are worried about the examinations to come – belonging matters. We know from international data (e.g. the OECD), as well as our own research, that the links between a sense of belonging and academic performance are strong.

If you are worried about rising rates of exclusion and alienation – school belonging matters. In schools where “belonging” works, exclusions are low.

If you are looking for a great place to work – belonging matters: for staff as much as young people.
And so here is my suggested new year’s resolution for your school. It is a winner for everyone: “I will do everything I can do to help create the conditions for school belonging.”

As well as your school’s new year’s resolution, we also need:

  • A shift in government thinking away from the transactional (here are the results you need to get) to the aspirational (here is what you can do to enable young people to fulfil themselves and contribute to society).
  • Intentional, purposeful, and positive interventions (not one-off reactions) that are clearly understood and which aim to create the conditions for school belonging.
  • Place-based, compassionate, and intentional leadership which listens to and involves staff, young people, families, and communities.

So, to start your belonging journey ask yourself: “Is my school a place where everyone feel they belong?”

Further information & resources

Further reading

  • Allen & Kern: Boosting School Belonging: Practical strategies to help adolescents feel like they belong at school, Routledge, 2020.
  • Riley: Place, belonging and school leadership: Researching to make the difference, Bloomsbury, 2017.
  • Smylie, Murphy & Seashore Louis: The Practice of Caring School Leadership, Corwin Press, 2019


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