Improving Student Attendance: Sense of Belonging and Mental Health

Hania Marien's picture
Hania Marien

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) pyramid (discussed in a previous post) provides one way to understand how childhood experiences can have lasting effects for individuals. However, while students are impacted by their past experiences, attending to the “health” of students requires more than enabling educators to “react” to potentially traumatizing past experiences. Providing guidance in how to recognize and support students who have a high number of ACEs is foundational for supporting students who have experienced trauma. Equally important is creating an environment that allows students to both process their past experiences and provide them the opportunity to engage in a supportive community that nurtures their self-esteem.

Back in 1992, Psychologists at the School of Nursing and Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan, introduced “sense of belonging” as a vital mental health concept (Hagerty et al., 1992). “Sense of belonging is defined as the experience of personal involvement in a system or environment so that persons feel themselves to be an integral part of that system or environment,” they claimed, and it “has important applicability for clinical use as well as continued theory development in psychiatric nursing” (Hagerty et al., 1992). Sense of belonging also has applicability for school connectedness – and therefore student attendance (Attendance, 2011).

Since 1992, numerous scholars have explored the importance of social connectedness and belonging for mental health. A study investigating the association between violence exposure at school and mental health in Uganda cited that “mental health problems occur in 10 to 20% of children worldwide…[furthermore…it is well known that mental health problems in childhood tend to persist to adulthood,” cited (Kieling, 2011; Patel, 2007; Thumann, 2016). “School connectedness has been defined as the belief by students that adults in the school care about their learning as well as about them as individuals,” says Barba Thumann of the Leibniz Institute for Prevention Research and Epidimiology in Bremen, Germany. “School itself is a place where children’s mental health can be strengthened, for example by increasing school connectedness,” she continues, schools themselves “are ideal places for prevention and health promotion because interventions can be conducted conveniently in this setting and reach a high number of children and adolescents” (Thumann, 2016). A 2015 study of mental health in Ugandan primary schools revealed that contextual-level school-related factors, including “connectedness to school and peers, as well as school size and urban/rural location,” were “independently associated with mental health difficulties” in Ugandan children (Thumann, 2016). If school can help promote mental health, and improving mental health can promote attendance, what factors help cultivate school connectedness? More specifically, what might “connectedness” mean for Native students?

One important factor is school climate: the feelings and attitudes that are elicited by a school’s environment (National, 2007). The Social Competence Development Model (created by researchers in 2006 to address bullying prevention) suggests addressing both the “school” and “individual student” levels “to create an encouraging classroom climate that facilitates learning and achievement.” Attending to the “school” component, the model advises considering school values, the physical environment and positive/negative expectations for students.

One avenue pursued by many schools to create a more welcoming classroom climate is creating culturally relevant curricula. Displaying tribal flags outside schools can also create a sense of connection between the students’ tribal history and school, explains Ramona Halcomb, director of the Tribal Attendance Pilot Project. Another recommendation is place-based curriculum and credit recovery programs that allow students to get credit for their involvement with tribal activities. Culture-based programs can positively impact American Indian students’ educational outcomes, largely due to indirect effects “such as a safe and positive school climate, parent involvement in school, and instruction quality” (Powers, 2006). Still, simply providing culturally relevant curricula material does not automatically translate into a more welcoming learning environment. But it can play a role in showing a dedication to learning about different communities, as well as Oregon’s history.

Moving beyond just curriculum, many schools look to culturally responsive instruction to create more positive classroom experiences for students. Such instruction can create meaning for culturally relevant curricula. Culturally responsive instruction “cannot be approached as a recipe or series of steps that teachers can follow to become effective with American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) students” (or any student group) (Pewewardy and Hammer, 2003). Instead, it requires “(1) cultural literacy (teachers’ knowledge of Native cultures and history and awareness of Native learning styles); (2) teachers’ self-reflection and analysis of their own attitudes, beliefs, and stereotypes; (3) caring, trusting, and inclusive classrooms; (4) actions of the school that model respect for diversity, Indigenous knowledge, and alternative ways of knowing; and (5) a transformative curriculum that promotes critical thinking and the advancement of society toward equality of opportunity and social justice (SV)” (Pewewardy and Hammer, 2003).

In considering how to improve the health (and attendance of our students), it is important to remember that there may be differences in how students and their families might conceptualize their health: for some mental health may “result from participation in indigenous ritual spaces enacted or performed in designated sacred places on or near the reservation” (Gone, 2008). This suggests that bridging the school and tribal communities is an important step in improving the mental health – and attendance of tribal students.


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Gone, J. P. “`So I Can Be Like a Whiteman’: The Cultural Psychology of Space and Place in American Indian Mental Health.” Culture & Psychology 14, no. 3 (2008), 369-399. doi:10.1177/1354067x08092639.

Hagerty, Bonnie M., Judith Lynch-Sauer, Kathleen L. Patusky, Maria Bouwsema, and Peggy Collier. “Sense of belonging: A vital mental health concept.” Archives of Psychiatric Nursing 6, no. 3 (1992), 172-177. doi:10.1016/0883-9417(92)90028-h.

Kieling, Christian, Helen Baker-Henningham, Myron Belfer, Gabriella Conti, Ilgi Ertem, Olayinka Omigbodun, Luis A. Rohde, Shoba Srinath, Nurper Ulkuer, and Atif Rahman. “Child and adolescent mental health worldwide: evidence for action.” The Lancet 378, no. 9801 (2011), 1515-1525. doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(11)60827-1.

Patel, Vikram, Alan J. Flisher, Sarah Hetrick, and Patrick McGorry. “Mental health of young people: a global public-health challenge.” The Lancet 369, no. 9569 (2007), 1302-1313. doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(07)60368-7.

Pewewardy, Cornel, and Patricia Hammer. “Culturally Responsive Teaching for American Indian Students.” Institute of Education Sciences. Last modified 2003.

Powers, K. M. “An Exploratory Study of Cultural Identity and Culture-Based Educational Programs for Urban American Indian Students.” Urban Education 41, no. 1 (2006), 20-49. doi:10.1177/0042085905282249.

Thumann, Barbara F., Ula Nur, Dipak Naker, and Karen M. Devries. “Primary school students’ mental health in Uganda and its association with school violence, connectedness, and school characteristics: a cross-sectional study.” BMC Public Health 16, no. 1 (2016). doi:10.1186/s12889-016-3351-z.

World Health Organization. Prevention of mental disorders: effective interventions and policy options: summary report. Geneva: World Health Organization, 2004.