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Belonging as an intervention: An opportunity to consider the adult that the child will become

May 2022

Written by Lisa Cherry

This blog is written by Lisa Cherry. Lisa is an author and a leading international trainer and consultant, specialising in assisting those in Education, Social Care and Adoption and Fostering to understand trauma, recovery and resilience for vulnerable children, young people and their families. Lisa has over 30 years of experience in this field and combines academic knowledge and research with professional skills and personal experience.

The question of ‘belonging’ has been the soundtrack to my life; where do I come from? Who do I belong to? Who do I matter to? Where shall I call home? In this blog, I will explore the different spaces children and young people in care belong, and how belonging as an intervention can make a difference to the adult that the child will become.

The need to belong is a core human motivation, often understood as a sense of fitting in or feeling like you are important in the context of something bigger, such as a family (Baumeister and Leary 1995). Yet, for children in care their experiences of belonging are often ruptured across many domains: home, school, and community. Too often limited attention is paid, by governments, out of home care service providers, and beyond, on the importance of creating relational webs that can carry and sustain children and young people in care, into adulthood.

How do we cultivate a sense of belonging that means that the adult that the child becomes can answer questions such as:

  • Where are you from?
  • Who are your friends?
  • What adults made a difference to you?
  • Who is still in your life from your childhood?

Belonging at Home:

Cultivating a sense of belonging where there has been a rupture resulting in removal from family can often be complex and traumatic (Briggs, 2015; Wilson & Milne, 2013). Belonging is intrinsically connected to relationships and while it is very difficult to establish if belonging develops at the same time as attachments or attachments develop at the same time as belonging (Chimange and Bond, 2020), those early attachment relationships are severed in some form or another. The forming of high quality relationships that feel psychologically, physically and emotionally safe while also demonstrating that ‘we matter’ harness a feeling of belonging. We can do this across the life course but if we can provide this during the developing years, we are setting up patterns and feelings that will make those relationships easier to access.

How do you facilitate a sense of belonging to home for the children, young people you care for and support?

 

Belonging at School:

When we rupture the experience of school for children who have already experienced ruptures at home, we might think about this as a ‘double jeopardy’ creating a range of vulnerabilities for that child that have been created by what has happened to them and then often by the systems that go on to work with that child. A widely accepted definition of school belonging is ‘the extent to which students feel personally accepted, respected, included, and supported by others in the school social environment’ (Goodenow 1993).

Where there is a sense of belonging for children and young people and there is access to high quality relationships, all those in the community benefit. All. But for children who depend on those relationships and that sense of belonging to somewhere, to something, it has the potential to be life changing. However, the labelling that children who are in care experience can create ‘othering’ which then creates a sense of not belonging (Jones et al, 2020). Being labelled as ‘looked after’ and having access to ‘special’ interventions and support can further ‘other’ children in care and their sense of belonging in schools (Jones et al. 2020).

Multiple studies show that having a sense of school belonging is:

positively related to student functioning such as students’ school motivation, their social-emotional functioning such as their self-esteem and their academic achievement (Korpershoek et al, 2020).

Children and young people in care value all that creates belonging at school; the friendships, the connections, the extra-curricular activities and the structure that comes with daily attendance. More importantly, they want to experience the sense of belonging and connection that they see others enjoying (Rutmana & Hubberstey, 2018).

How do you partner with schools to extend a child and young person’s web of belonging?

 

Belonging in Community:

Belonging in the community is about building a web of relational wealth. Due to the adult who is so often forgotten during the focus on the child, building relational connections and support that go beyond service provision is rarely a priority. This means that when a young person leaves care, the experience can be deeply lonely and isolating. If they experienced a school rupture they will have missed out on many of the activities that serve as meaningful transitions, for example, the process of leaving school. On top of that, there is an obsession with the notion of independence for young people leaving care. The phrase ‘leaving care’ brings up enough to highlight that you no longer belong here; you are leaving. Leaving care policy and processes perpetuate the idea that one should be able to survive alone, which of course we can’t, we don’t. In fact I would argue that the quest to try and do everything alone is a trauma response and what needs encouragement is how we ask for help, how we offer help and how we weave connections of support.

How do you talk about “leaving care” with the children and young people in your care? Do you stress independence, or interdependence? What does belonging to community mean to you?

 

Final word

We must never forget that some people will recover with little in the way of interventions, will survive and thrive in the world and will utilise their experiences in the most unthinkable and magnificent ways. We must also remember that some people will find themselves as adults in the mental health system and/or the criminal justice system as they grapple with those traumatic childhood experiences. We must never forget that many adults have care experience and we will never know about it; they simply enter into adult life and muddle or ‘assimilate.’ Because of our complexity as humans and the diverse ways that we recover, we need a diverse range of modalities providing different options for healing. Yet, belonging, so fundamental to us humans that we will seek it whether it is healthy or destructive, strikes me as our first focus. It is from there that we can move forward.

Thinking about belonging as an intervention invites us to:

  • Place greater input and support around all transitions working alongside ALL those involved
  • Support schools and social workers to develop a better understanding about the particular needs of children with more complex experiences so they can focus on cultivating a sense of belonging in an active way
  • Help families/carers to have better support to help their children with responses to the challenges that can present in behaviours that we might find challenging

The complexity of these ruptures in childhood cannot be resolved by individuals alone, in fact if you try and do this work without the supportive structures needed in place, it can lead to burnout! Services, systems and schools need to have this focus in all aspects of how we think about children and the impact of childhood trauma that will be taken into adulthood without interventions. So my questions to you are, how are you cultivating a sense of belonging within the child/young person, within your service, within your policies, within your community and how are you preparing for there to be a relational web for life that goes beyond service entitlement?

 

References

Briggs, A., & Simmonds, J. (2015). Towards belonging : Negotiating new relationships for adopted children and those in care (Tavistock Clinic series). London, England.

Goodenow, Carol. (1993). Classroom Belonging among Early Adolescent Students. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 13(1), 21-43.

Jones, Lisa, Dean, Charlotte, Dunhill, Ally, Hope, Max A, & Shaw, Patricia A. (2020). ‘We are the same as everyone else just with a different and unique backstory’: Identity, belonging and ‘othering’ within education for young people who are ‘looked after’. Children & Society, 34(6), 492-506.

Korpershoek, H, Canrinus, E. T, Fokkens-Bruinsma, M, & De Boer, H. (2020). The relationships between school belonging and students’ motivational, social-emotional, behavioural, and academic outcomes in secondary education: A meta-analytic review. Research Papers in Education, 35(6), 641-680.

Rutman, Deborah, & Hubberstey, Carol. (2018). Fostering educational success of children and youth in care: Perspectives of youth with experience living in care. Children and Youth Services Review, 94, 257-264.

Wilson, S., & Milne, E. J. (2013). Young People Creating Belonging: Spaces, Sounds and Sights. Retrieved from https://www.researchunbound.org.uk/young-people-creating-belonging/

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