Supporting Young People to Belong at School

March 2021

Everyone needs to belong somewhere. The feeling of belonging is a basic human need: it gives us a sense of place in the world and is critical for our resilience and wellbeing. 

For children and young people, feeling a valued part of a school community gives a sense of belonging. Schools that are working hard to build inclusive school communities where all students feel they can participate – none are marginalised – are protecting the mental health of their pupils. 

Why is belonging at school so important now?

We all know how hard it can be to join new groups, to put ourselves forward in situations that don’t feel natural to us. And what’s natural about schools at the moment? Young people have been at home for almost three months, their interaction with their peers, if any, being mainly through the use of technology, through screen time and virtual classrooms. 

Back to school and young people are suddenly surrounded by other young people. For many, the opening of schools will bring joy as they get to reconnect with their friends and spend less time in their own homes; for others, this may be a time of trepidation, fear of the unknown, and, for exam-year students, added concern about their grades. There is also that lingering worry hanging over adults and young people that the schools could shut again at any time: another barrier to some pupils settling back into their schools and feeling a true sense of belonging. 

Belonging is essential for transitions back to school

For those going back into schools they’ve been at for years, the sense of belonging they have to the school community may still be strong, more so in students who have positive relationships with their peers and have an established friendship group. To some children, especially those in year 7, being back at school after lockdown may seem like a replay of the primary to secondary transition. Moving from primary to secondary, even without a pandemic, can cause stress and anxiety. It takes time for young people to find a sense of belonging in a new school: throw the uncertainties of lockdown into the mix and there will be higher levels of anxiety and stress in many students. 

Reducing the negative impact of lock-down

Young people may have heard themselves referred to as ‘super spreaders’ and maybe feel associated guilt with this; they may be worried that in going back to school they will be putting their own loved ones at risk of catching COVID, with these feelings leaving them unsettled and unsure they do actually belong in school at present. 

Some young people will have been experiencing difficulties at home resulting from financial and other pressures on their family and the additional stress these bring. Some young people will have been witness to domestic abuse and some will have been victims of abuse themselves. School is a way for young people to escape unhappy homes, but this escape route was taken away and for some, the worry that schools may shut again at any time could be overwhelming.

Never before has there been a time when the mental health of young people has been more important to look after, if we are to reduce the risk of mental illness in young people now and in adulthood. 

Peer support essential for wellbeing

Many young people find it easier to talk to their peers than to discuss their feelings with family members or professionals. Nurturing peer to peer relationships builds trust and can increase feelings of control in the peer and the ambassador. Positive relationships help young people feel that they belong at school, which is essential for wellbeing. 

School connectedness can be defined as the belief by student that both peers and teachers in their school care about their learning and them as individuals 2. Students are more likely to engage in healthy behaviours and succeed academically when they feel connected to a school. 

Our Wellbeing Ambassador Programme, through combining both coaching psychology and positive psychology techniques, ensures that groups of young people are trained and supported to develop peer wellbeing in their schools.  

I saw the impact the Wellbeing Ambassadors Programme had on the other students we were supporting they became more open and friendly with not only us but their peers around them.

Lydia Year 11 Wellbeing Ambassador Brig House High School

Wellbeing Ambassadors to support school belonging

The Wellbeing Ambassadors Programme can help young people build resilience and improve wellbeing by enhancing feelings of belonging through positive peer relationships. Students feel cared for and listened to, feel like they are part of something. The benefits of this wellbeing programme are not only for the peer being supported but are also for the ambassador as they learn new skills that improve wellbeing and contribute positively to their school community. 

Worth-it has developed this programme over several years, working with CAMHS, schools and local authorities. Most importantly, the programme has been developed with young people themselves. As Wellbeing Ambassadors, young people build on their listening, communication, reliability, responsibility, supportiveness, empowerment, and motivational skills as well as learn the importance of being non-judgemental towards others and themselves.

Once trained, young people lead a variety of wellbeing initiatives in their school or setting. These vary depending on what the Ambassadors themselves have identified as key priorities to improve peer wellbeing. Students may choose to run initiatives such as reducing racism, raising awareness of suicide prevention, offering LGBTQ+ support groups and running campaigns to reduce stigma surrounding mental illness. The Wellbeing Ambassadors decide what’s best for their school community and, in opening up conversations and offering support, contribute to an increased sense of belonging for their peers.

The full effects of the pandemic on the mental health of young people will not be realised for years to come, but the time is now to put interventions in place to minimise repercussions, protect mental health and reduce the risk of mental illness. 

How do you develop the SEARCH in your school?
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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2009). School connectedness: Strategies for increasing protective factors among youth. Atlanta, GA: US Department of Health and Human Services; 2009. www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth
  2. What does coaching have to offer to young people at risk of developing mental health problems? A grounded theory study Liz Robson-Kelly & Christian van Nieuwerburgh International Coaching Psychology Review l Vol. 11 No. 1 March 2016