Part of the clan

Mrs Sybil Edwards, Head of Lilley House

There is something in that bond, in that connection to school that changes the life trajectory — at least in health and academic behaviour. It is very powerful, second only to parents in power. In some contexts it’s more powerful than parents (Blum, 2007).

We all know that a feeling of belonging is one of our fundamental needs. Maslow, the famous American psychologist, placed belonging just below basic requirements such as food, shelter, warmth and security in his hierarchy of needs. For students, the feeling that they do not belong to their school can create significant psychological unease and is something to consider not only as an issue of pastoral care but as something that can impact greatly on effective learning.

Studies have shown an extremely strong link between depression and school connectedness in teenagers. In 2006, QUT conducted a study of over 2 000 students which found that teenagers’ sense of belonging to their school had more bearing on students’ mental health than even their home environment. It was an even stronger predictor of depression than attachment to parents (Cockshaw & Shochet, 2010). An extensive study in the US in 1997 involving 12 000 students had found similar results — that school connectedness protected students against nearly every health risk behaviour from emotional distress to delinquency and teenage pregnancy (Blum, McNeely and Nonnemaker, 2002). School, it seems, can be one of the most stabilising forces in the lives of young people.

If this is so, then schools have an enormous responsibility which goes beyond traditional teaching and learning, and this is certainly acknowledged at our School with our strong emphasis on pastoral care. Most people associated with Brisbane Girls Grammar School, whether they be student, teacher or parent, would concede that the level of connectedness at this School is high. Mechanisms such as the House system, the Study Buddy programme and our co-curricular programme all aid in building a sense of belonging, with vertical age groupings shown to be a strong factor for success.

The Houses at Girls Grammar lay a strong foundation for bonds to be created among girls across all year levels. Whether the girls are playing games at the House party, enjoying a pancake breakfast, working together on their choir performance or simply sharing formal photos at a House assembly, there are many different avenues within the House structure which allow the students to connect and feel a part of a smaller group within a large school. Likewise, the School’s Study Buddy programme where students from Years 8 and 11 are teamed together, can provide not only academic support but another all important social connection. About fifty pairs of girls meet regularly, with the older students assisting with organisation and time management skills. Friendships can blossom alongside study, and barriers between year levels are broken down as the older students help their younger counterparts to find their footing in the high school setting.

Several studies recommend that in order for school connectedness to be strengthened, schools should not be seen to value only highly successful students or to only stress competition and performance-oriented goals (Cross, Lester & Waters, 2013). So how can we achieve this in a school such as ours with a reputation as a leading girls’ school where excellence is encouraged, acknowledged and celebrated (as it should be). The answer could be in embracing a philosophy of inclusiveness in the many co-curricular clubs within the school, rather than being purely outcomes-based.

The anime club is a prime example of a non-competitive, inclusive group consisting of around twenty students from all year groups. According to Ms Ruth Jans, the co-ordinator of the group, the club provides a haven for creative girls with interests in Asian culture such as anime and K-Pop (Korean pop). It may be easy to assume that the anime club is a quiet group who sit in the dark watching films but Ms Jans attests to the lovely sense of cohesion and spirit present in their sessions. They can become quite raucous, with the anime films prompting shouts, laughter and criticism from the students. Although they may not know each other well, it is a very unifying experience. There seems to be a lack of barriers to begin with, because all the girls are obsessed with anime and Ms Jans believes that this sense of belonging comes from grouping themselves as ‘anime lovers’.

Much has been written about the way in which drama can be used not only as a form of entertainment and teaching aid but as a means to promote group functioning. As a non-auditioned club inviting students from all ages, the school’s drama club, The Felgates, is a wonderful environment in which to build social connections. Adam Blatner, an American psychologist specialising in using drama in psychotherapy, talks about ‘the profound feelings of the body in action, doing rather than just passively watching and hearing’ (2006). He says that ‘… there is great power in feeling and hearing one’s own voice speak’ (Blatner, 2006).When playing improvisation games, devising drama, rehearsing a script or organising the technical aspects of a production, students are involved in group decision-making which requires the social skills of co-operation, concentration and commitment. As students practise these skills in drama structures, their confidence and self- esteem increase, and likewise their feeling of belonging.

Students flourish in schools where they feel as if they belong, and where individuals are recognised and acknowledged. Through our House system we have an in-built structure for strengthening connectedness with vertical groupings, and our co-curricular programme embraces not only excellence but a philosophy of inclusiveness in order to promote a sense of belonging to all students.


Blatner, A. (2006). Why Drama? Retrieved from

Blum, R. (2007). School Connectedness and Meaningful Student Participation. Retrieved from ect/school_pg3.html

Blum, R., McNeely, C., & Nonnemaker, J. (2002). Promoting school connectedness: evidence from the national longitudinal study of adolescent health. Journal of School Health, 72(4), 138–146.

Cockshaw, W. D., & Shochet, I. (2010). The link between belongingness and depressive symptoms: an exploration in the workplace interpersonal context. Australian Psychologist, 45(4), 283–289.

Cross, D., Lester, L., & Waters, S. (2013). The relationship between school connectedness and mental health during the transition to secondary school: a path analysis. Australian Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 23(2), 157–171.

Law, P.C., Cuskelly, M., & Carrol, A. (2013). Young people’s perceptions of family, peer, and school connectedness and their impact on adjustment. Australian Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 23(1), 115–140.