PISA Update: Too Many Students Feel Like They Don’t Belong at School!

By | First Published: | Last Updated: 7 May, 2021

PISA Data Update! School belonging matters but too many Australian students feel like they do not belong at school! Moreover, students in many other countries feel the same. And, the problem is getting worse. According to the latest PISA data, over 20% of Australian students feel like an outsider at school. This is more than double what it was in 2002.

Too Many Students Feel They Don’t Belong

Even more students don’t feel like they belong! In fact, 28% of Australian students feel like they don’t belong in school. This is 1 in 4 students or roughly 7 students in every class.

7 students per class feel they don't belong at school

If we want to do something about this disturbing PISA data, we need to know why students like they belong or don’t belong at school. A recent meta-analysis of available research helps us here. It provides some insight into the factors linked to students’ sense of belonging.

Factors Affecting Your Students’ Sense of School Belonging?

When I first came across this research, I read the title. I saw the phrase, fostering school belonging. My mind jumped straight to things such as school spirit and involvement in extracurricular activities.

Yet, the research did not support this. It showed that extracurricular activities were not significantly related to students sense of belonging at school.

What did matter were 8 distinct factors:

  1. Academic motivation of students
  2. Emotional stability of students
  3. Gender
  4. Other personal characteristics of students
  5. Parent support
  6. Peer support
  7. Safety and security
  8. Teacher support

Here is a quick summary of what each factor means.

1. Academic Motivation

Academic motivation refers to a student’s desire to learn and do well at school. Students with higher levels of academic motivation were more likely to feel a sense of school belonging.

2. Emotional Stability of Students

Emotionally stable students are generally happy, resilient and calm in a crisis. They are not prone to mood swings, angry outbursts, excessive worrying or depression. Students with higher levels of emotional stability were more likely to feel they belong at school.

3. Gender

Girls were more likely to feel a sense of school belonging than boys.

4. Other Personal Characteristics of Students

This refers to positive personal characteristics not captured under other headings. Such characteristics include conscientiousness, self-reliance, self-efficacy, and problem-solving in the face of adversity. Students with higher levels of these characteristics were more likely to feel they belonged at school.

5. Parent Support

While the nature of students’ relationships with their parents changes during adolescence. Yet, students still look to their parents for support. This can range from emotional support to practical support with school, relationships and life in general. Students with higher levels of parent support were more likely to feel a sense of school belonging.

6. Peer Support

Peer support refers to how close students are to their friends and how well they get along with other students. Students with higher levels of peer support were more likely to feel they belonged at school.

7. Safety & Security

Students want to feel safe and secure at school. This largely comes down to how well the school manages student misbehaviour and bullying. Students who felt safe and secure were more likely to feel a sense of belonging.

8. Teacher Support

Students were more likely to feel a sense of school belonging when they had a good connection with their teachers.

The Relative Impact of These Factors

There is little that you or schools can do about some of these factors. Yet, there are some factors that you can influence and others that you control. The single strongest link was the supportive relationships that students have with their teacher.

comparative impact of 8 factors on school belonging

While the PISA data is concerning, the related research gives us one clear way forward.

What Can You Do About It?

The first and most important thing is that teachers need to forge good relationships with and show their active support of their students. How?

  • Be positive and happy most of the time
  • Treat every student with dignity and respect
  • Show that you care about each of your students – both as learners and as people
  • Display your passion for helping your students to succeed and belong
  • Encourage effort, learning and problem solving (academically and personally)
  • Praise students when they deserve it
  • Be friendly, firm and fair
  • Expect all students to succeed AND help them to do so
  • Manage your students’ behaviour
  • Be available to offer personal support to your students
  • Connect your students to other support services when needed

As for the rest, the best you can do is hope to have some influence. School-wide policies and programs can help with this, but their impact is limited.

shaun killian drawing

(MEd., MLead.)

Shaun Killian (me) is an experienced and passionate teacher, as well as a past school principal. After a heart transplant and having both my legs amputated, I am not yet capable of returning to work. Yet, my passion for helping students succeed has led me to use my time to research teaching and associated practices. I then share what I find in practical ways through this website. The greatest compliment I have ever received from a past student was I never left any student behind. That is mission of most teachers and I hope you find the information on this site useful.

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