Stickl, Jaimie E. (2017). The need to belong: An exploration of belonging among urban middle school students. Doctoral dissertation (Counseling and Education Development), University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Abstract: The need to belong is a fundamental human motivation and involves an individual’s desire to experience a sense of worthiness to receive respect and love (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Osterman, 2000). Although the need to belong is fundamental for all human beings, young adolescents in particular have a driving need to feel accepted and belong, with a desire to define themselves according to their groups and social contexts (Newman, Lohman, & Newman, 2007; Collins & Steinberg, 2006; Noam, 1999). Considering adolescents spend more time in school than any other setting (Eccles & Roeser, 2011), sense of belonging in school is a critical concept to explore.

Although belonging in school is important across grade levels and various school contexts (e.g., Anderman, 2002; Osterman, 2000; Sanchez, Colon, & Esparza, 2005), sense of belonging may be particularly impactful for middle school students in urban settings. Middle school represents a period of vulnerability for all adolescents, but it may be especially challenging for students living in poverty, who are often situated in urban settings and face a myriad of challenges within the home, school, and community contexts (Berliner, 2006; Gutman & Midgley, 2000) Given that belonging can play out differently in various contexts (Nasir et al., 2011), it is imperative to better understand what constitutes belonging specifically for urban students. However, there is a lack of understanding regarding what comprises belonging for diverse student groups (Faircloth & Hamm, 2005), and there are a number of limitations in the current literature that has made conceptual clarity of belonging in school elusive.

The purpose of the current study was to clarify what constitutes belonging for urban middle school students through obtaining their subjective perspectives including affective, behavioral, and familial dimensions of belonging. The researcher implemented Q methodology, grounded in a bioecological framework, in order to explore the perspectives of 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students in one urban middle school. Three factors emerged from the study representing distinct viewpoints on belonging in school. Perspectives included students who had a sense of belonging tied to the academic culture of the school, those who desired authenticity and affective connections with others, and those who viewed belonging as cultural respect and adult support. Findings from this study support that belonging is a complex and multidimensional construct that includes affective, behavioral, and familial dimensions. Implications for educators, school counselors, and researchers are discussed.

Jaimie E Stickl <jaimie.stickl> is in the Office of College and Career Readiness, Denver Public Schools, Denver, CO (USA).