August 21, 2023

Building Belonging In Physical Education

With a new school year about to kick off, many of us are coming up with ideas on how we can help our students thrive in physical education.

In both my experience and research, I've come to realize the importance of doing what is necessary so that every child and youth that enters my gym feels that they belong there.

In this post, we will be taking a look – through our physical education lens – at how to help foster a sense of belonging in your teaching.

A Primer on Belonging

Belonging is a fundamental psychological need that is baked into our biology as human beings and can be defined as the feeling that you are an important part of the systems or networks in which you exist.

As a construct, belonging is dynamic in nature: the way that we feel or experience belonging can shift and flow based on the situations that we find ourselves in.

In her work on belonging, Dr. Kelly-Ann Allen and her colleagues identified four interconnected factors that influence our sense of belonging:

  • Competencies for belonging
  • Opportunities for belonging
  • Motivations for belonging
  • Perceptions of belonging

Competencies for belonging refer to the skills and abilities that we have to form connections with people, places, or things. Two key categories of skills can have a direct impact on our ability to develop a sense of belonging: social skills and cultural skills.

Social skills help us navigate social situations and form relationships with others. If you are familiar with CASEL's work on social and emotional learning competencies and capacities (check out my blog post Teaching Through An Emotional Lens), then you will recognize many of the social skills that play a role in belonging. These include:

  • Self-awareness
  • Social awareness
  • Emotional self-regulation
  • Verbal and nonverbal communication
  • Active listening
  • Respecting social norms

Cultural skills help us connect with our own cultural background. These skills also improve our ability to recognize, respect, and acknowledge the cultural backgrounds and traditions of others. Examples of cultural skills include:

  • Acknowledgement of one's heritage
  • Mindful recognition of place
  • Alignment with relevant values

Opportunities for belonging also play an important role in shaping our ability to feel that we belong. After all, what's the use in being able to form connections if we do not have access to opportunities to do so.

When discussing or planning opportunities for belonging, it is important that we consider the role that social networks play in supporting belonging and building social capital.

Let's take a deeper look at social capital.

In a nutshell, social capital is value that comes from social networks that can be leveraged to reach individual or collective goals.

Let's say you move to a great neighbourhood. What makes it great? Is it that your neighbours are kind? Are there a lot of kids that play in the street? Do people say hello to each other or have a drink together on their porch? Are you able to call up a neighbour for help with changing a tire, for a ladder, or for help with the school bake sale?

All of these intangible things – the things that make your neighbourhood great – are social capital in action. Because of the networks, trust, and norms that exist, you're able to lean into the value that they produce to achieve goals.

In his book "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community", author Robert D. Putnam discusses the two types of social capital: bonding social capital and bridging social capital.

Bonding social capital is formed within tight-knit groups who share similar backgrounds and characteristics (i.e. homogenous groups). This type of social capital creates a high level of trust within a social network and facilitates the flow of information amongst members. However, bonding social capital can lead to the formation of cliques as well as the hoarding of resources, expertise, and opportunities. Because of this, bonding social capital is referred to as exclusive belonging.

Bridging social capital is formed within heterogenous social networks. It is built when people of diverse backgrounds connect to share resources and knowledge. In this way, bridging social capital helps remove friction that may occur when you bring people of different walks of life together, which is why it is referred to as inclusive belonging.

Both types of social capital are valuable: I once read that bonding social capital is the glue that holds groups together while bridging social capital is the lubricant that makes it easy for new members to join community and grow social networks.

As we design opportunities for belonging, being mindful of the type of social capital that these opportunities help create can help us build communities that are both strong and welcoming.

Belonging motivation is the need we feel to be accepted by others, belong to a group, and interact/connect with others.

Individuals who are motivated to belong enjoy positive social interactions, look to build interpersonal connections, and try to find things that they have in common with others.

According to self-determination theory, intrinsic motivation has three key needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

When a person repeatedly has these needs denied, it can affect their motivation to belong and lead to that individual adopting learned helplessness.

On the other hand, if a person has these needs met, their motivation to belong can increase. This motivation affects the way that individuals exercise their competencies for belonging, participate in opportunities for belonging, and perceive their experiences in regards to belonging.

The fourth component is an individual's perceptions of belonging, which has to do with a person's feelings and thoughts about their experiences.

Belonging is baked into our DNA as humans. Because of this, we are constantly evaluating whether or not we fit in with the people, places, or experiences that we find ourselves in. This evaluation can be affected by our past experiences with belonging. For example, individuals were have been repeatedly excluded or denied belonging in the past may find it different to experience belonging in new situations.

For these cases, there are three strategies that individuals or leaders can use to help reshape perceptions of belonging:

  • Reframe our thoughts about negative social interactions or experiences.
  • Normalize feelings of not belonging as "normal" feelings that everyone feels sometimes.
  • Shift the cause of negative feelings from interactions from internal to external (e.g. "I am enough: there is nothing wrong with me")

As mentioned earlier, these four components are dynamic in nature: they can shift and change based on the situations that we find ourselves in. Understanding this fluidity can help us make sense of behaviours or issues related to belonging within a group and take action to help support individuals who may feel excluded.

Making Sense of School Belonging

School belonging has been defined as "the extent to which students feel personally accepted, respected, included, and supported by others in the school social environment" (Goodenow & Grady, 1993).

School belonging is related to academic performance, prosocial behaviours, and psychological well-being.

More specifically, a stronger sense of school belonging is linked to improvements in several positive outcomes including academic adjustment, academic behaviour, academic self-efficacy, happiness, self-esteem, positive self-identity, and smoother transition into adulthood.

School belonging is also linked to reductions in many negative outcomes including absenteeism, truancy, school misconduct, fighting, bullying, vandalism, emotional distress, and other risk-taking behaviours (including early sexualization).

As we learned earlier, there are several factors that can influence one's sense of belonging. Additionally, one's sense of school belonging can ebb and flow based on the factors that affect it.

To make sense of the factors that affect school belonging, we can use a socioecological model.

At each level of Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological model of human development, we can identify factors that have an effect on students' sense of school belonging.

Let's start at the individual level. Although there are many factors at play, four stand out as being especially relevant to school belonging:

Academic Motivation

  • Thoughts about academics
  • Participation and performance
  • Perceived instrumentality ("Can this learning help me reach my goals?")
  • Academic self-regulation
  • Academic confidence

Positive Personal Characteristics

  • Self-efficacy
  • Conscientiousness (e.g. wanting to do well)
  • Coping Skills
  • Positive affect
  • Hope
  • School adjustment
  • Relatedness

Negative Personal Aspect (e.g. factors that affect emotional stability)

  • Maladaptive coping skills
  • Psychoticism
  • Depressive symptoms
  • Fear of failure
  • Negative affect
  • Accumulated stress

Demographic Factors

  • Gender
  • Race
  • Ethnicity
  • Age

At the microsystem level, the quality and quantity of a student's relationships with others can impact their ability to school belonging. These relationships provide students with the support they need to be able to thrive.

There are three main sources of support that help students experience belonging at school: parental support, peer support, and teacher support.

Parental support refers to "the ability for parents or other caregivers to provide academic support as well as social support, open communication and supportive behaviour" (Allen et al., 2018). This type of support includes the sense of safety and acceptance that comes from knowing you are cared for and being treated with compassion.

Peer support comes from developing close, trusting relationships with friends and peers. Peer support offers social and academic encouragement, and can help foster a sense of care and acceptance. When it is absent, students can experience stress and social anxiety.

Finally, teacher support stems from teachers who promote mutual respect, care, encouragement, friendliness, fairness, and autonomy (Allen et al., 2018). Teacher support is experienced when students feel connected to their teacher(s). Students are more likely to build this connection when they view their teacher as being likeable, attentive (e.g. praising good behaviour and work), and available (for both personal and academic support). Teachers can support these perceptions by holding high expectations for all students and scaffold learning to help everyone achieve.

At the mesosystem level, school belonging is affected by factors such as participation in extracurricular activities and the school environment.

Although school belonging is associated with the number of groups students are members of as well as the number of ECAs students are involved in, this doesn't mean that we should encourage students to sign up for as many opportunities as possible. In fact, as we'll see later, participation in extracurricular activities can actually have a negative effect on school belonging. That said, there isn't enough research currently available to draw too strong of a conclusion here, so don't start discouraging students from getting involved!

As for the school environment, students thrive when they feel that they are in an environment that is safe, secure, and fair. Knowing this, it is important for schools to reflect on the policies they have implemented that can affect school belonging. Specifically, this means:

  • Policies that shape discipline procedures.
  • Policies that affect fairness.
  • Policies that affect student safety.

What Matters (According To Research)?

A 2018 meta-analysis study examined the effect of 10 themes – across multiple levels (i.e. individual, microsystem, mesosystem) – that had been identified as being particularly relevant to school belonging. These themes were:

  • Academic Motivation
  • Personal Characteristics
  • Emotional Stability
  • Gender
  • Race/Ethnicity
  • Parental Support
  • Peer Support
  • Teacher Support
  • Extracurricular Opportunities
  • School Environment

The study discovered that each of these themes had a positive effect on school belonging.

Knowing the effect size of these different themes can help us identify high-impact areas that we can focus on in order to maximize the impact that we are having in regard to supporting a sense of school belonging amongst our students.

Here are the effect sizes for each of these themes, ranked from most significant to least (but still) significant:

  • Teacher Support (r = 0.46, Large Effect)
  • Personal Characteristics (r = 0.44, Large Effect)
  • Emotional Stability (r = 0.35, Medium Effect)
  • Parental Support (r = 0.33, Medium Effect)
  • Peer Support (r = 0.32, Medium Effect)
  • School Environment (r = 0.32, Medium Effect)
  • Academic Motivation (r = 0.31, Medium Effect)
  • Gender (r = 0.18, Small Effect)
  • Race/Ethnicity (r = 0.11, Small Effect)
  • Extracurricular Opportunities (r = 0.09, Small Effect)

Evidence-Informed Strategies for Developing School Belonging

We've arrived at our destination!

With a much deeper understanding of what belonging is and how to support school belonging, let's now dive into specific strategies that you can use to help foster a sense of belonging in your physical education classroom and school.

Strategy One: Build Healthy Relationships With Your Students

Primary Theme: Teacher Support

Secondary Themes: Personal Characteristics, Emotional Stability, School Environment, Academic Motivation

Gaah! We already covered this one last time!

Jokes aside, this additional evidence supporting the importance of positive teacher-student relationships only confirms that this is an area that every teacher should double down on.

Although we have already discussed the importance of building relationships around respect, equality, safety, and trust, research tells us that there are additional areas related to positive relationships that teachers can focus on in order to support school belonging.

According to the meta-analysis cited earlier, the variables with the greatest effect within the theme of "teacher support" were:

  • Autonomy, Support, & Involvement (0.78)
  • Caring Relationships (0.68)
  • Fairness and Friendliness (0.63)

In John Hattie's "Visible Learning: Maximizing Impact on Learning", the author identifies four factors that contribute to student-centred teaching: warmth, trust, empathy, and positive relationships.

To convey warmth, we need to remember that our actions speak louder than our words. Students need tangible, observable evidence that their teacher cares about them. To achieve this, teachers can focus on demonstrating acceptance, affection, unconditional respect, and a high regard for all students.

I've always been a fan of Randy Spring's "Positive Culture Banner". Yes, actions speak louder than words... but words still matter. Randy uses this banner not only as a tool to remind his students that they are cared for, but also as a reminder to himself to the commitment he's made to building positive relationships with his students.

When our school opened up after several months of pandemic-driven lockdown, I knew that some students would be weary of returning to campus. I took a similar route to the one that Randy took, but used the steps that lead up to our school as the canvas.

Another way to convey warmth is to greet your students at the door. Doing so helps you ensure that you have acknowledged and connected with every child at the start of your lesson. This practice has also been shown to increase academic engagement by 20 percent and decrease disruptive behavior by 9 percent.

Greeting charts make this practice fun and provide students with the choice they need to feel comfortable. Here is an example from #PhysEdU member Tanner Roos  (you can find other examples of PE-specific greeting charts here):

In regard to trust, students need to know that – even when they are struggling in their learning – their teacher believes in their ability to overcome obstacles. Teachers can support this belief by setting high expectations for all students, providing each student with the support they need (by building students up to meet the learning challenge rather than teaching down), and remaining attentive to students' efforts and progress (rather that being solely focused on the end goal).

Empathy requires taking the time to get to know one's students. The goal here is for teachers to improve their ability to engage in perspective-taking: to be able to see the learning and associated challenges through their students eyes and make sense of the feelings, thoughts, and beliefs that their students are experiencing. Students want to know that their teacher "gets" them and teachers need to understand their students in order to best support them.

Warmth, trust, and empathy all lay the groundwork for strong, positive teacher-student relationships. When those relationships are formed, students experience stronger belonging, motivation, reslience, and achievement-levels.

Strategy Two: Bake Social & Emotional Learning Into Your Teaching

Primary Theme: Personal Characteristics

Secondary Themes: Emotional Stability, School Environment, Peer Support

For students to experience belonging, they must develop competencies for belonging. As we learned earlier, these competencies can include various social and cultural skills that can be taught/strengthened through meaningful social and emotional learning.

CASEL (the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) identifies five key competencies for social and emotional learning:

  • Self-Awareness
  • Self-Management
  • Social Awareness
  • Relationship Skills
  • Responsible Decision Making

Within these five competencies are a variety of social and emotional capacities that individuals can develop to improve their social and emotional well-being.

Although there are several SEL-based approaches and curricula out there (find all of the CASEL SELect Programs here), my preferred approach is RULER.

As opposed to other SEL curricula that provide sample lessons and activities, RULER takes a systemic approach to transforming schools. As Marc Brackett – the director of the Yale Centre for Emotional Intelligence, which is the organization behind RULER – writes in his book "Permission to Feel: Unlocking the Power of Emotions to Help Our Kids, Ourselves, and Our Society Thrive":

SEL can't be addressed only in a ten-minute morning meeting or every Thursday, fourth period. It can't be isolated in occasional assemblies for students or in workshops for teachers. SEL has to be an everyday thing-it has to become part of the school's DNA. There needs to be a common language among all stakeholders. SEL has to be integrated into leadership, instruction, faculty meetings, family engage-ment, hiring procedures, and policies.

In other words, the most effective way to approach SEL is to bake it into the DNA of your teaching. Here are three tactics you can use to achieve this:

🔍 Teach Through an Emotional Lens.

In so many ways, physical education and social-emotional learning go hand-in-hand (just take a look at SHAPE America's Physical Education/SEL Crosswalk to see how the outcomes of both areas overlap).

Because of this relationship, PE presents multiple opportunities for social and emotional learning. However, this kind of learning needs to be approached in an intentional way.

A few years back, I created this set of SEL Capacity Cards to help make it easier to add an SEL lens to your physical education lessons.

The purpose of these cards was to make it easier for teachers to add an emotional lens to their lessons by inviting students to look at their experiences in PE through a pre-determined SEL capacity.

If you'd like to learn more about how to teach through an emotional lens, check out the blog post that I wrote on the topic.

❤️ Introduce The RULER Anchor Tools

Although RULER takes a systemic approach to SEL within schools and school communities, the program does include four anchor tools that make it easier to bake SEL into the school experience. These tools are:

  • The Classroom Charter
  • The Meta-Moment
  • The Mood Meter
  • The Blueprint

The RULER anchor tools help embed the five key skills of emotional intelligence (Recognizing, Understanding, Labelling, Expressing, and Regulating Emotions) into the classroom experience. You can learn more about how each tool works and how to introduce into your teaching in this blog post. You can also access the RULER tools that I designed in the Visuals Space.

Strategy Three: Build Social Capital Within Your Classroom

Primary Theme: School Environment

Secondary Themes: Peer Support, Race/Ethnicity, Gender

Earlier we learned that – to develop a sense of belonging – we need to have access to opportunities to experience belonging.

The quality and type of social capital – the value that exists within specific social networks and structures – can affect a person's access to opportunities that support belonging.

As a reminder, there are two types of social capital:

  • Bonding Social Capital: The glue that creates powerful, tightly-knit communities of people who share similar characteristics.
  • Bridging Social Capital: The grease that reduces the friction that newcomers can experience when joining a new community.

For a community to thrive to its fullest potential, it needs a combination of both bonding and bridging social capital.

Within your classroom, you probably feel pockets of bonded groups (sometimes called "cliques"). Best friends who always want to be grouped together, school sport teammates who always warm up together. While the social capital that exists within these groups can help those students thrive in class, it can also make others feel excluded.

To avoid this kind of exlusion happening in your classes, focus on balancing out the pre-exisiting bonding social capital with activities and practices that can support the development of bridging social capital. Here are two tactics you can try:

💬 Introduce Equity-Based Discussion Protocols

Equity-based discussion protocols are frameworks for student discussions that give every student an opportunity to be heard and to learn from their classmates. Whip Arounds, Concentric Circles, Think-Pair-Shares are all examples of these types of protocols.

The power of equity-based discussion protocols is that it helps students learn about their classmates perspectives, build additional social connections, and see the value that each classmate brings to the classroom.

Although many of these discussion protocols exist (here is a document that collects and links to several examples), many would need to be tailored to fit into a physical education context. I will be working on a separate post that explores how to adapt different protocols for PE.

🔠 Use Pedagogical Models That Emphasize The Social-Affective Domain

Another way to build social capital within your physical education classes is to use pedagogical models that emphasize the social-affective domain.

Examples of these models include:

Pedagogical models are evidence-based approaches that are proven to help students achieve a variety of educational outcomes. The power of models that emphasize the social-affective domain lies in the way that these models help students exercise their voice, build stronger connections with their classmates, and share meaningful experiences together.

If you would like to learn more about pedagogical models, I'd recommend that you follow the work of Ash Casey(who happens to have a book on models-based practices).


Belonging is a powerful protective factor that can help students continue to learn and thrive in a variety of environments, including physical education.

I hope that this blog post provided you with a few ideas on how you can intentionally and purposefully help foster a sense of belonging in your PE classroom.

If you enjoyed this post and would like to read others like it, be sure to sign up for The #PhysEdU Newsletter! My weekly email includes an essay in which I explore ideas related to PE, past resources that I believe can help you continue to learn, and links/resources I've come across online that I believe are worth checking out.

Happy Teaching!

Joey Feith
Joey Feith is a physical education teacher based out of Nova Scotia and the founder of ThePhysicalEducator.com.
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