Immigrant Students Crave School Belonging

The need to belong has long been recognized as one of the most important psychological needs in humans (Maslow, 1943Bowlby, 1977Ainsworth, 1989Baumeister and Leary, 1995). In self-determination theory (Ryan and Deci, 2000), which has been frequently applied in educational settings (Niemiec and Ryan, 2009), relatedness and psychological belonging are linked to motivation and personal growth. Research with immigrants and members of ethnic minorities shows that identification with and orientation toward their ethnic culture can promote a sense of social belonging (Ward, 2001), notably in the face of discrimination and exclusion by members of the mainstream society (Branscombe et al., 1999). Meanwhile, the orientation toward and identification with the mainstream society may facilitate a sense of belonging in a predominantly mainstream context like school (Güngör, 2007), especially if there is a high expectation by members of the mainstream society that immigrants and members of ethnic minorities should assimilate to the mainstream culture.

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, 1993, p. 80). It is also sometimes treated as the emotional component of school engagement, which is linked to other, more behavioral forms of engagement as well as achievement (Fredricks et al., 2004). Research has consistently shown that immigrant students experience a lower sense of belonging at school than their mainstream peers. They also experience a steeper decline in belonging through adolescence (Li and Lerner, 2011). This phenomenon, sometimes referred to as the belonging gap, partly explains the achievement gap between immigrant (or ethnic minority) and non-immigrant (or ethnic majority) students (Motti-Stefanidi and Masten, 2013Voight et al., 2015).

A high level of school belonging has been identified as a major protective factor associated with lower levels of delinquency in adolescent immigrants (Titzmann et al., 2008). School belonging was also found to mediate the relationship between perceived school context (e.g., classroom climate, student-teacher relations) and academic outcomes, such as achievement (Wang and Holcombe, 2010), intrinsic motivation (Byrd, 2015), and psychological school adjustment (Schachner et al., unpublished) of culturally diverse students (for a review, see Eccles and Roeser, 2011).

A study with Latino students in the United States confirmed that students who felt more connected with their teachers and their school were also more motivated to attend school, which was in turn associated with better achievement (Close and Solberg, 2008). A recent study from Belgium further suggests that a sense of relatedness with the school and the teacher had a stronger effect on achievement for Turkish immigrant students than for their national mainstream peers (Coskan et al., 2015). It is therefore of great importance to identify individual and policy-level conditions which are associated with higher school belonging and engagement, specifically amongst immigrant students.

IINII uses a revolutionary Design Thinking process to help your school community gain an understanding of one’s sense of self, as well as developing an understanding of students’ values; having an understanding of one’s values matters because research has shown that it is linked to better well-being, less stress, and increased confidence in one’s ability to succeed.

Understanding students’ values can be developed with culturally responsive practices that reflect a student’s identity and experience. Particularly helpful is focusing efforts on cultural competence and relevance and providing opportunities for students to practice bridging differences between diverse identities in a safe environment. To learn how you can create a dynamic learning environment that honors your student community, visit our website at, or contact us at or 1800-507-2502.

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