Børn på rutsjebane på en skole i København

We hope to make schools and preschools more welcoming places

The research project Politics of Belonging: Promoting children´s belonging in educational settings across borders wants to gather knowledge on how to promote inclusion and strengthen the feeling of belonging in early childhood education.

The importance of belonging

If you think back to your childhood. Can you remember how important being a part of something was? A group of friends, your classmates, or your family?

- Being a part of something and feeling a sense of belonging is something deeply human. Basically, it is an existential question and a human necessity to belong, says Professor Eva Johansson at the University of Stavanger, leader of the research project Politics of Belonging Promoting children´s belonging in educational settings across borders.

When the feeling of belonging is talked about in everyday language it is often associated with nationality or ethnicity. However, the research project Politics of Belonging focuses on how a feeling of belonging is rooted in every community we are a part of and is especially important in early childhood.

- Belonging is a relation between the individual and the environment. It is based on a person’s “feeling at home”. We argue that encouraging belonging can be a way of creating better learning communities. What we hope to do is to make schools and preschools more welcoming places, says Anna-Maija Puroila, docent and researcher on the project from the University of Oulu in Finland.

Previously within education there has been an emphasis on the challenges of inclusion and exclusion. In a world where diversion is increasingly the norm, how to include children and prevent exclusion is an important but difficult task.

- Focusing on belonging can be way of promoting inclusion and to find ways to prevent exclusion, because belonging is directly connected to the child’s experiences of being included or excluded, argues Eva Johansson.

Johansson and Puroila emphasize that belonging is important in the early years. Belonging is important for the child’s development and well-being.

- We argue that in early childhood education, belonging can be a platform for learning or in detrimental cases have the opposite effect. It is important for children themselves, and their learning ability, to find their place in the community that surrounds them. And the important thing is that we think educational institutions can facilitate this, says Eva Johansson.

Professor Eva Johansson, project leader of the research project Politics of Belonging Promoting children´s belonging in educational settings across borders.

Generating awareness

The project is financially backed by NordForsk and is a collaboration between scientists from Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Finland and Netherlands. The scientists explore how children, teachers, policy makers, and parents in early childhood education experience, interpret and create belonging.

The research group strongly argues that a concept of belonging should be a concern for educators and an essential part of our modern educational systems.

- We do not do this just to talk between us scientists. We are doing this to create awareness on a subject we argue is under communicated. We want teachers, parents and policy makers to understand the importance of belonging, says Puroila.

Eva Johansson agrees.

- It is of course important that the rest of the educational community and our politicians are aware of the importance of belonging in Education. I think our new knowledge on the subject will help in waking society up to this concept.

The project is currently nearing its end and the fruits of the group's research will be presented later this year.

- We are on our way with presenting the results of our studies, both international and national studies. It includes study of 3–8-year-old children in preschools and schools. We used video to observe the interactions between the children themselves and between the children and educators. Additionally, we conducted group interviews and set up individual interviews of both educators, children, and parents. In cooperation with this we also conducted a survey involving parents and in an analysis of the core curricula of the five countries, says Puriola and Johansson.

Creating teaching tools

The research group is also developing tools that educators can use in their classrooms to understand and promote belonging. The hope is that educators actively engage with children’s feeling of belonging when interacting in the classroom.

- Belonging needs to be planned for. That is why we are developing tools to help teachers understand and promote belonging. It is important for us that this can be put into practical use and an essential part of this project, says Puroila.

Docent Anna-Maija Puroila

The concept of belonging is quite new to our educational systems, so there are many challenges ahead.

- Our research and future research must map out the positives and negatives of our new knowledge. How can we produce belonging? How can we produce effective tools in our classrooms? Working with this going forward will be important. We need to make good plans and raise awareness in the entire educational eco-system, from politician to pupil, says Eva Johansson.

Tool example: Reflection toolbox

  • One of the Finnish sub-studies have developed a “reflection toolbox” that helps educators to recognize issues that are important for children's belonging in the daily lives of preschools and schools
  • The toolbox contains six themes important for children's belonging: transitions, peer relations, diversity, material environment, institutional and pedagogical practices, and communication.
  • Each theme contains a short text proving a basis for reflection (why this theme is important for children's belonging) and some questions to be discussed.

Nordic collaboration

Nordic collaboration is easier, and results are easier to compare across societies with so much in common. However, it is also important not to be blind to the differences. Therefore, having a collaborator outside the of the Nordic sphere – the Netherlands - was most welcome. The Netherlands shares many similarities with the Nordic countries when it comes to education, but significant differences too makes the research less Nordic-centric.

- It is good to collaborate with countries that meet many of the same challenges. The collaboration is very fruitful, and I think all parties are very satisfied. What we do is learn together and discuss our results to reach better science, says Eva Johansson.

The collaboration showed that the different educational systems have a lot in common, but also some differences.

- It was interesting comparing all the similarities and differences. For example, discovering that we had to invent a word for belonging in islandic because it did not exist previously. It all shows that collaboration is not only good for learning from each other, but also learning about ourselves, says Puroila.