The importance of social belonging for staff in early childhood services

THE EARLY YEARS LEARNING FRAMEWORK (EYLF) (DEEWR, 2009) ENCOURAGES CHILDREN’S SERVICES STAFF TO THINK AND TALK MORE ABOUT BELONGING AND WELLBEING IN EARLY CHILDHOOD. THE RESPONSE ABILITY INITIATIVE BELIEVES THAT IT IS JUST AS VALUABLE TO LOOK AT WHAT ‘BELONGING’ MEANS FOR US INDIVIDUALLY AND IN OUR WORKPLACES.

WHAT IS BELONGING?

Humans have an instinctive need to belong. According to researchers, the need to belong may even have an evolutionary origin, where cooperation and group relationships led to an increased level of survival. Belonging is a lifelong requirement and although how and where we experience a sense of belonging can change, belonging remains a key contributor to our wellbeing and participation throughout our lives. Maslow felt it was of such importance that in his hierarchy of needs he placed belongingness just above physiological and safety needs.

Our sense of belonging can emerge from the connections we make with people, places, culture and groups. It can be contextual and we can experience different types of belonging or connection with our family, friends, workplace or community. Hagerty, Lynch-Sauer, Patusky, Bouwsema and Collier (1992, p. 172) define a sense of belonging 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’. In other words, belonging is about people feeling needed, valued, or important to other people, groups, organisations, environments or spiritual dimensions.

For a sense of belonging to develop it is necessary that the person experiences a fit or similarity with the people, groups, organisations or places, through mutual or complementary characteristics (Hagerty et al., 1992). Additionally, to build a sense of belonging, people need to have: the energy to be involved, the possibility and desire to meaningfully engage,and the potential for shared or complementary values, beliefs or attitudes.

BELONGING AND SOCIAL AND EMOTIONAL WELLBEING

Belonging is an essential part of our health and happiness, and an important part of our social and emotional wellbeing. Social and emotional wellbeing, also referred to as ‘mental health’, relates to our capacity to enjoy life, cope with stresses, meet our goals and potential, and connect to others. Our sense of belonging, or the absence of it, has a significant impact on our mental health. Research has shown that loss of belonging has been associated with stress, illness and decreased wellbeing. In particular, lack of belonging has been linked with depression.

When we feel a sense of belonging, whether it is to family, community, workplace or a group, this contributes to our mental health. People who belong to a social network are more likely to feel cared for, loved, esteemed and valued. They are also able to draw on their support networks in times of difficulty. Evidence suggests that there is a link between our sense of belonging and our capacity to function physically, psychologically and spiritually.

Some of the positive effects of experiencing belonging include a greater capacity to manage stress when it occurs, to ‘bounce back’ in difficult times, improved physical health, and reduced experience of symptoms of psychological distress such as depression and anxiety.

Having a sense of belonging and connectedness can act as a protective factor against mental health problems and mental illnesses. Belonging to a group, family or community can help provide meaning to our lives, and also lead to us feeling supported through our friendships. Connection to these groups can contribute to the development of skills that will help us overcome mental health problems.

BELONGING IN THE WORKPLACE

While the desire to belong may occur instinctively, experiencing a sense of belonging does not always occur so easily. We may feel a sense of belonging within our family, friendship groups and communities—but what about the workplace?

Workplace research has often linked a lack of belonging and social isolation as key factors in burnout. Belonging has been linked with people’s capacity to persist with activities, be motivated to undertake tasks and roles, as well as assisting people to achieve outcomes (sometimes in the face of adverse or negative circumstances). Importantly, there is evidence that having a sense of belonging is an important contributor in being able to help others to belong. If we benefit from the positive effects of being connected, accepted, included and valued then we are able to devote our energies more readily to creating this experience for others.

A sense of belonging for staff at work is likely to occur when staff feel valued for the work they do; are respected and accepted; have positive relationships; and are in a safe environment. Additionally, belonging is increased when people feel their work is meaningful and when they share similarities with the people with whom they work and the culture of the workplace.

Because belonging and wellbeing are closely related, staff who experience a sense of belonging in their lives and workplace are more likely to have a greater sense of connectedness, security and wellbeing.

FOSTERING A SENSE OF BELONGING FOR STAFF IN CHILDREN’S SERVICES

The EYLF encourages us to create spaces where children and families can feel they belong. However, it is also important to create a sense of belonging for all staff, particularly for new staff members or those feeling like an outsider at their service.

Response Ability advocate for children’s services staff to create a sense of belonging by:

  • creating positive relationships with other staff members
  • making each other feel valued (by acknowledging efforts and achievements)
  • acknowledging that everyone is unique (embracing diversity—including culture, values and beliefs—without prejudgement or stereotypes)
  • creating a workplace reflecting equality, where everyone can feel free to voice their ideas and views
  • being empathetic
  • being inclusive.

The need to belong is something we all have in common. It is just as important throughout life as it is in the early years. Adopting these practices will help children’s services staff to develop a sense of belonging and equip them to offer the same support to the children in their care.

Response Ability is an initiative of the Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing, implemented by the Hunter Institute of Mental Health in partnership with universities and tertiary educators. More information can be found at: www.responseability.org.

Gavin Hazel, Elizabeth Kemp, Ellen Newman and Sara Twohill
Response Ability

Reference

Hagerty, B.M.K., Lynch-Sauer, J., Patusky, K.L., Bouwsema, M., & Collier, P. (1992). Sense of belonging: A vital mental health concept. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, 6(3), 172–177.