Student belonging is a critical component of a school culture that supports social and emotional learning, which is important for both academic success and student well-being

One district’s push to help students feel like they belong


Belonging is a critical component of a school culture that supports social and emotional learning, which is important for both academic success and student well-being

Bullying is prevalent in high schools and can lead to a lack of a sense of belonging. According to a new study, 51 percent of high school students say they have witnessed bullying at their school. When it comes to reporting, just under half (49 percent) say they would be comfortable talking to a teacher about bullying they witnessed, while just 34 percent would be comfortable if they were the ones being bullied.  

Iowa City Community School District, which serves over 14,000 students in grades K-12, uses Qualtrics to make it easier for students to communicate their concerns about bullying, sexual assault or harassment, discrimination and school safety to administrators. Students can scan QR codes on posters prominently displayed in bathrooms, cafeterias and hallways to report what they have witnessed or experienced, anonymously or not. Students can even upload videos, pictures or screenshots to help identify the problem.  

The “Say Something” campaign has resulted in more than 300 reports, triggering automatic emails to principals and select administrators, who have then taken quick action to protect students in cases of bullying, sexual harassment, hazing and more.  

“Before we had this campaign in place, the process to submit a concern or report an incident was very formal, and students were not always comfortable,” said Kristin Pedersen, director of Community Relations at Iowa City Community School District. “Qualtrics has given us a tool that utilizes something students already have in their hands — their phones. In these sensitive situations, it can make the difference between a student feeling helpless and a student getting the support that they need.”  

Ultimately, taking action based on the reports submitted increases trust between students and administrators and makes the schools across the district a safer, more inclusive community for everyone, Pedersen added. 

Key study findings

Many teenage students say the events of the pandemic over the past two years have made them feel less connected to peers, teachers and staff. However, according to the research above, students who report feeling like they belong are more likely to say they plan to graduate from their current school (by 9 percentage points).

With mental health issues on the rise for young people and increasing concern about the risk of self-harm and violence as a result, educators are focusing more of their attention on teaching social-emotional skills like social awareness and relationship-building, as well as creating a network of support for students to rely on when facing personal challenges.  

However, a large percentage of teenagers do not currently feel like they are part of their school community, and more than a quarter (26 percent) have been the target of bullying. Although a majority of high school students (56 percent) are confident they can call or text a classmate if they have a question about an assignment, just 40 percent are confident they can go to another student for emotional support, and only 38 percent are confident they can rely on other students to help them make friends.  

When it comes to teachers, 66 percent of students say they would be comfortable discussing an academic problem, while only 32 percent say they would be comfortable discussing a personal problem.  

In contrast, in college — where students exercise greater choice in whether to attend school and where — 81 percent of students feel like they belong at their school and 86 percent of students are glad they attend their school. College students also report higher levels of confidence in their ability to rely on classmates and faculty for both academic help and emotional support.  

“These findings emphasize how important it is for school leaders to understand how their students are feeling, identify those who may be struggling and take urgent action to help them feel like school is a place where they belong,” said Katie Johnson, principal research analyst for education at Qualtrics. “Belonging is a critical component of a school culture that supports social and emotional learning, which is important for both academic success and student well-being.”  

This press release originally appeared online.

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