Loneliness and belonging in Canadian schools: A serious issue, a matter of equity and inclusion, and a case of missing data

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About the project

This knowledge synthesis study inquired into the current state of loneliness and belonging of students in Canadian schools and into existing and supportive policies and practices to address them. The project was guided by the following four synthesis questions:

  1. What is the lived experience of Canadian students with loneliness and belonging in school contexts and are such experiences different for racialized or otherwise marginalized students and for students with different demographic characteristics such as age, sex and socioeconomic status?
  2. What is the current knowledge about factors that contribute to students’ sense of loneliness and belonging in school contexts?
  3. What is the current knowledge about school educational practices and policies that seek to foster a sense of belonging in students and what are the actual policies and practices in Canadian schools and school divisions?
  4. What types of data are collected and used to inform provincial governments and school divisions about students’ sense of loneliness and belonging in school?

In this study, 202 documents published in or after 2010, with a focus on the Canadian context, were analyzed: 86 scholarly peer-reviewed articles and books; 56 documents by educational organizations; and 60 documents by provincial governments and school divisions.

Key findings

  1. Students’ lived experience with loneliness and belonging
    • Not everyone feels welcome in Canadian schools and loneliness is pervasive and increasing among K-12 students, with one extensive survey (2018) suggesting that about a third of Canadian adolescents feel lonely at school, more than doubling the number from 2000.
    • While some jurisdictions have noticed an improvement in some minority students’ sense of belonging in general marginalized students (especially LGBTQ2+, Indigenous, Black students and students with disabilities) continue to be the most common targets of (cyber)bullying, segregation, discrimination and stigma, which thus impinges on their sense of belonging and increases their sense of loneliness.
  2. Factors contributing to students’ sense of loneliness and belonging
    • Not seeing themselves represented in the school (ethos and composition) and in the curriculum is a main contributing factor to students’ loneliness.
    • Racism, bullying and other forms of victimization hinder students’ sense of belonging –  particularly for those already marginalized. This increases with a lack of at least one supportive adult in the school by whom the student feels cared for.
    • Students’ sense of belonging also tends to deteriorate during school transitions or when attending larger schools.
    • Teachers play a major role in fostering students’ sense of belonging and a nurturing teacher-student relationship is suggested to be a mediating variable for students’ sense of loneliness.
  3. School educational policies and practices seeking to foster students’ sense of belonging
    • Whole school approaches/multitiered systems of support
    • Inclusive-schools policies and classroom management practices
    • Promotion of anti-bullying efforts
    • Fostering positive relationships among peers, as well as between students and staff, and school and families; being welcoming to families
    • Differentiating instruction; being attentive and responsive to students’ strengths and interests building on what they can do as well as their social/emotional needs.
    • Promoting student leadership and experiential learning; providing authentic and engaging learning experiences that make room for students’ voice and choice
    • Infusing Indigenous worldviews in the curriculum; having an Elder in residence
  4. Types of data collected on students’ loneliness and belonging
    • Several documents use data from longitudinal surveys, which were not necessarily specifically seeking to examine student loneliness or belonging, such as data from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).
    • Many documents from governments or organizations make statements about students’ sense of belonging/loneliness and on why it is important to address those without providing empirical evidence. Often the evidence is based on an educator’s personal professional experience.

Policy implications

  • Policies of inclusion and anti-bullying are in place, but an effective implementation of those policies is lacking as evidenced by the high level of self-declared loneliness in schools.
  • Sectional-specific concerns about loneliness and belonging need to be an integral part of policy-making and implementation.
  • Data on loneliness and belonging in schools need to be systemically collected on an ongoing basis. These data need to be part of school division and provincial reviews of school educational success.

Further information

Read the full report

Contact the researchers

Thomas Falkenberg, Faculty of Education, University of Manitoba: Thomas.Falkenberg@umanitoba.ca

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