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School-based interpersonal relationships: setting the foundation for young adolescents' belonging in middle school.

The importance of fostering high quality school-based interpersonal relationships for young adolescents (10- to 15-year-olds) is a critical component of a developmentally responsive middle school environment (National Middle School Association, 2010). Students' sense of school belonging is intimately related to the nature of school-based interpersonal relationships, including teacher-student and student-student relationships (Nichols, 2008). Although research on school belonging is well documented in the literature (Goodenow, 1993; Juvonen, 2006; Osterman, 2000), little is known about how students and educators perceive the interpersonal dimensions of school belonging, especially within diverse urban middle schools (Nichols, 2006; Juvonen, 2007). The focus of the present within-site qualitative case study (N = 24) was to gain a deeper understanding of the ways school-based interpersonal relationships may have helped to set the foundation for young adolescents' belonging within one large, diverse urban middle school. The current investigation utilizes the interpersonal dimension of perceived school belongingness as advocated by Nichols (2006, 2008) and extends this dimension to include young adolescent and educator perceptions of teacher-student and student-student relationships.

Interpersonal Dimension of School Belonging

Students' perceptions of school belonging are multidimensional and complex (Nichols, 2006, 2008). Goodenow (1993) defines school belonging as "students' sense of being accepted, valued, included, and encouraged by others (teachers and peers) in the academic classroom setting and of feeling oneself to be an important part of the life and activity of the class" (p. 25). Nichols' (2006) qualitative data suggest students define belongingness in three dimensions of schooling: interpersonal relationships (teacher-student and student-student), learning/academic community, and school facilities or activities. As stated by Nichols (2008), "Most students attributed positive or negative belonging beliefs to the quality of their relationships with their teachers or other students" (p. 164). Nichols (2006, 2008) found a majority of students described school belonging as being socially supported by school-based student-student and/or teacher-student relationships. Thus, interpersonal relationships between and among students and teachers may play a pivotal role in promoting adolescents' sense of belonging in school.

In addition to Nichols' (2006, 2008) interpersonal dimension of school belonging, we used two interconnected theoretical frameworks to help guide the current study. Self-determination theory suggests meeting students' basic lifelong psychological needs, including relatedness, competence, and autonomy, allows intrinsic motivation and high quality learning to flourish (Deci & Ryan, 1985, 2000). Important for school-based interpersonal relationships and central to school belonging, relatedness encompasses a sense of connection to others within a social group (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Osterman, 2000). Stage-environment fit theory suggests educators can foster a responsive school environment by aligning students' developmental needs with classroom and school-based opportunities (Eccles et al., 1993; Eccles & Roeser, 2011). Two developmental needs critical to adolescents' sense of school belonging are high quality friendships and peer acceptance (Rubin, Bukowski, & Parker, 1998), as well as close relationships with nonfamilial adults (Eccles, 1999). Declines in school adjustment and belonging may be a result of a mismatch between the middle school context and students' developmental needs (Anderman, 2003; Eccles & Midgley, 1991). Secondary schools that are responsive to students' basic and developmental needs are likely to foster a sense of school belonging and positive school adjustment (Deci & Ryan, 1985, 2000; Eccles et al., 1993; Eccles & Midgley, 1989; Eccles & Roeser, 2011; Johnson, 2009).

School belonging, including school-based interpersonal relationships, is pivotal during the middle level years and contributes to adolescent development and learning in unique ways (Juvonen, 2007; Wentzel, Battle, Russell, & Looney, 2010). Nichols (2008) states, "the extent to which students perceive they belong in a school setting is related to positive social, psychological, and academic orientations" (p. 146). School belonging has positive associations with academic achievement (Anderman, 2002; Sanchez, Colon, & Esparza, 2005), expectancies for school success (Goodenow, 1993; Goodenow & Grady, 1993), as well as motivation, engagement, and academic efficacy (Gutman & Midgley, 2000; Roeser, Midgley, & Urdan, 1996). Research indicates students with a greater sense of belonging adopt prosocial goals (i.e., adhering to classroom rules, helping classmates with academic problems) and positive behavior in the classroom (Wentzel, 1994), are absent less frequently, less likely to engage in risky behaviors, and less likely to drop out of school (Blum & Rinehart, 1996; Finn, 1989, 1993).

In middle level education, we have long known that relationships are critical to a sense of school belonging (Jackson & Davis, 2000; National Association of Secondary School Principals, 2006; National Middle School Association, 2010). However, there is a need to further investigate the interpersonal school-based dimension (Nichols, 2006), as there are few recent studies that directly investigate the nuances associated with such relationships at the middle level. For instance, Nichols (2008) makes the call that "additional research needs to be conducted to understand more fully the range of ways students define what it means to belong in an academic setting" (p. 167). The importance of school belonging has implications for educators in terms of fostering a responsive learning environment and interpersonal relationships that may set the groundwork for students' belonging and positive adjustment in school. Given that educators and peers help to shape learning environments and relationships in unique ways (Nichols, 2008; Wentzel et al., 2010), this study investigates how both teacher-student and student-student relationships may lay the groundwork for young adolescents' school belonging.

Teacher-Student Relationships. High-quality teacher-student relationships where individuals trust, care, and respect one another and where teachers support the emotional and cognitive development of their students are critical for the positive development of young adolescents and their school success (Eccles & Roeser, 2011; Jackson & Davis, 2000). Noted to be a critical school-based social relationship (Juvonen, 2007), responsive teacher-student relationships and the support students receive from such relationships are central to fostering school belonging (Libbey, 2004). Teachers who promote supportive and responsive teacher-student relationships are often characterized as those who establish caring connections with students. Although hard to quantify, the need to be cared for is a universal characteristic (Noddings, 2005) involving a sense of mutuality, connection, and desire to understand and help one another reach their fullest potential (Chaskin & Rauner, 1995; Hayes, Ryan, & Zseller, 1994). School has been identified as a critical place for the nurturance and promotion of care (Chaskin & Rauner, 1995). It is essential that each adolescent within a school have at least one relationship with a nonfamilial adult who understands their developmental needs and enjoys working with them (Eccles, 1999; Jackson & Davis, 2000) in order to increase his/her chance of feeling cared for and being successful in school (Ellerbrock & Kiefer, 2010; Jackson & Davis, 2000; National Middle School Association, 2010; Noddings, 2005).

Educators and school personnel who exhibit care provide students the opportunity to receive the emotional support they need to strengthen their sense of school belonging and experience success in school (Eccles & Roeser, 2011; Libbey, 2004; Roeser et al., 1996). Ozer, Wolf, and Kong's (2008) multi-method study, using primarily qualitative data sources, investigated the relational dimensions of perceived school connection among ethnically diverse urban adolescents. Results indicated the importance of feeling cared for was evident by teachers knowing students on a personal level and caring for them as individuals. Whitlock (2006) conducted a mixed method study examining adolescents' perceptions of school connectedness. Focus group findings indicated students felt connected to school when they perceived high quality adult-youth relations in school. However, as stated by Noddings (2005), unless a student receives care, the caring relationship is incomplete, "No matter how hard teachers try to care, if the caring is not received by students, the claim 'they don't care' has some validity" (p. 15). Students' sense of school belonging often declines during the middle school years; however, students who report perceptions of their teachers as caring and responsive to their needs experience less of a decline (Anderman, 2003). However, many middle school teachers are unaware of the impact high-quality teacher-student relationships have on adolescent development and success in school, or are uncertain that building such relationships is their responsibility (Davis, 2006). This underscores the importance of reexamining teacher-student relationships in promoting student school belonging at the middle level.

Student-Student Relationships. Aspects of school-based peer relationships, including peer acceptance and peer support, are critical sources for young adolescents' sense of school belonging (Hamm & Faircloth, 2005; Nichols, 2006; Wentzel et al., 2010). Young adolescents are often preoccupied with peer approval and acceptance, reflecting the desire to fit in with peers and advances in social-cognitive development (Brown, 2004; Eccles, 1999). Being accepted and supported by peers has important implications for students' academic and social adjustment in school (Anderman, 2002; Bishop & Pflaum, 2005; Furrer & Skinner, 2003; Goodenow, 1993; Osterman, 2000; Roeser et al., 1996). Adolescents who do not perceive peers as supportive and caring may not develop a sense of belonging (Goodenow, 1993) and may be at risk for poorer academic and social adjustment (Wentzel et al., 2010).

Peers can provide young adolescents with valuable academic and emotional support. Students often turn to peers for help when they encounter a problem in school (Altermatt, 2007) and may view peers to be an equally or more important source of support than teachers (Lempers & Clark-Lempers, 1992). Peers may offer academic support by clarifying teachers' directions regarding academic activities, providing necessary information and knowledge, and comparing school work (Hamm & Fair cloth, 2005; Wentzel et al., 2010). Peers, especially close friends, may also provide students with emotional support and security (Wentzel et al., 2010). These types of peer support may provide adolescents with a sense that they can rely on others (Hamm & Faircloth, 2005), which can assist with helping to establish a sense of belonging in school. It is important to investigate ways peer relationships may promote school belonging in ethnically diverse, urban classrooms and schools at the middle level so students in these contexts feel safer in school, are less harassed by peers, and feel less lonely (Bellmore, Witkow, Graham, & Juvonen, 2004; Juvonen, Nishina, & Graham, 2006). This research indicates urban, diverse middle schools may provide psychological benefits for students and may expand our understanding of the ways interpersonal school-based relationships, including teacher-student and student-student relationships, promote school belonging.

The Current Study

Research examining school belonging at the middle level has predominantly relied on quantitative and mixed methods research (Battistich, Solomon, Watson, & Schaps, 1997; Goodenow, 1993; Johnson, 2009; Nichols, 2006, 2008; Ozer et al., 2008). Recent qualitative studies examining student belonging during middle school are not very prominent (see Nichols, 2006, as a noteworthy exception). As Ozer et al. (2008) state, "we know little about the specific experiences or conditions that contribute to adolescents' sense of connection to school" (p. 439). Research on adolescents' school belonging predominantly includes the perceptions of educators and not the perceptions of students themselves (Nichols, 2008). As a result, much of what we know about school belonging has been primarily defined from an adult perspective (Brophy, 2005; Nichols, 2008). Nichols (2006, 2008) makes a call for additional research into understanding student perspectives of school belonging at the middle level through the lens of student and educator voices. Using a qualitative case study approach allowed us to incorporate voices of key members within the school, including students along with school personnel, and provide a deeper understanding of young adolescents' school belonging. Caskey (2011) urges that adolescents be treated as "honored guests" where they are invited into conversations, including research discussions, and be recognized as having noteworthy contributions. Kaplan, Katz, and Flum (2012) strongly recommend researchers rely on participants' perspectives:
   The researcher is not the ultimate authority on what takes place in
   the educational context.... The researcher has little or no
   knowledge of the characteristics of the context: the history and
   characteristics of participants and of the organization, their
   values and goals.... It is the participants who have expertise in
   this information. (p. 179)

Listening to young adolescent along with teacher and administrator voices may be an effective way to investigate the interpersonal dimension of school belonging at the middle level. Thus, this body of research indicates a need for more in-depth qualitative studies that investigate the ways school-based interpersonal relationships may promote student school belonging within urban, diverse middle schools from the perspectives of all key participants within the school ecology.



The focus of the present within-site qualitative case study (N = 24) was to gain a deeper understanding of the ways school-based interpersonal relationships may have helped to set the foundation for young adolescents' belonging within one large, diverse urban middle school. Case study methodology is noted to be a preferred way to study a single bounded system, such as a school, in great detail (Merriam, 2009). Specifically, we wanted to know, "In what ways are students' sense of belonging fostered at Sanchez Middle School?" (1) This study was part of a larger, year-long, investigation conducted during the 2010-2011 school year that included a series of studies on student motivation, engagement, and school belonging at the middle level, including a student survey (N = 224) and a subsequent in-depth case study (N = 24). This study reported on the qualitative case study data and was not informed by the survey study. A multisource case study approach highlighting the complexity of student, teacher, and administrator voices provided a deep understanding of the ways in which school-based interpersonal relationships helped to set the foundation for students' sense of belonging.


Located within one of the largest school districts in the United States, Sanchez Middle School is a large, urban, socioeconomically and ethnically diverse middle school. At the time of data collection (spring of 2011), Sanchez had a total school enrollment of 1,038 students. Sixty percent of Sanchez's population was minority and 56% of students received free or reduced price lunch. Sanchez's school population was representative of student demographics at the school district level, where 59% of students were minority and 56% of students qualified for free or reduced price lunch.

Identification of Participants

Purposeful sampling was used to select participants in order to help ensure an "information-rich" case (Patton, 2002, p. 46). A total of 24 participants were involved in this case study investigation in the spring of 2011, including 18 students, 5 teachers, and 1 administrator. Students who returned parental consent forms and participated in the larger investigation were considered for this study (this sample reflected the overall demographics of the student population). Researchers sought for the student sample to reflect the overall demographics of the student population (60% minority), as well as include an equal number of males and females (9 males, 9 females) and grade-level involvement (six students per grade). A total of five teachers were recruited to participate in this study, including three social studies teachers, one science teacher, and one language arts teacher. Teachers were recruited in an effort to ensure at least two different subjects were represented at each grade level (language arts and social studies at sixth grade, and social studies and science at both seventh and eighth grade). The middle school assistant principal was recruited due to her responsibilities for the day-to-day focus on students' instructional and social needs, including efforts focused on school belonging (see Table 1 for participant information). All participants signed informed consent forms, including parents/guardians of the student participants. Students were read aloud the informed assent protocol and asked to provide verbal affirmation and written consent prior to participating.

Data Collection

Grounded in the aforementioned theoretical frameworks, the current study utilized Merriam's (2009) qualitative case study methodology to gain insight on the ways students' school belonging was fostered within one large, diverse urban middle school resulting in a theme-based description of the case (Creswell, 2007). In the current investigation, 24 individual student, teacher, and administrator interviews were analyzed, including 18 student interviews, 5 teacher interviews, and 1 administrator interview. Semistructured interview protocols guided all interviews. A sample interview question for students included, "Talk to me about a time when you felt like you belonged at Sanchez this past year." A sample teacher and administrator interview question included, "What does it mean for students to feel like they belong at your school?" See the Appendix for the list of semistructured interview questions used. All interviews were audiotaped and completely transcribed (236 single-spaced pages of student transcripts, 42 single-spaced pages of teacher transcripts, and 10 single-spaced pages of administrator transcripts, with a total of 288 single-spaced pages of transcripts).

Multiple methods were employed to protect confidentiality and limit the amount of bias, including the creation of pseudonyms for participant and school names along with member checks where participants validated if the researchers accurately represented their perceptions. Additional methods included peer reviews where trained qualitative researchers examined the data analysis process used to confirm the trustworthiness of the findings, the use of a researcher journal to decrease bias, and the use of analyzed data to assist in the continued collection efforts.

Data Analysis

This investigation utilized Hatch's (2002) inductive approach to data analysis. Inductive analysis involves looking for patterns in data in an effort to generate general statements regarding the phenomena. This method was chosen due to its ability to focus deeply on a particular entity and highlight participants' stories. Inductive analysis begins with reading and rereading the data, resulting in separation of data into analyzable parts worthy of further examination, called frames of analysis. The researchers independently coded all data into frames, and discussed each frame until a consensus regarding the inclusion of each frame was reached. Framed transcripts were uploaded into Atlas.ti, a qualitative data analysis program, and analyzed. The entire framed dataset was then individually analyzed by each researcher for domains or a set of categories that reflect relationships represented in the data. Domains were discussed by the research team and refined until each completely and clearly addressed the research question. Two domains emerged from the data: responsive teacher-student relationships and responsive student-student relationships. All researchers independently analyzed each domain for supporting and disconfirming evidence. By asking, "What does this all mean?" (Hatch, 2002, p. 173), fostering responsive, school-based interpersonal relationships with students that are both academic and social in nature emerged as the major theme in setting the foundation for young adolescents' belonging at Sanchez. Lastly, a master domain sheet was created (see Figure 1). Excerpts from the data were chosen for inclusion in this manuscript.


In this investigation, researchers sought to gain a deeper understanding of the ways school based interpersonal relationships set the foundation for young adolescents' belonging within one large, diverse urban middle school. Two domains emerged: teacher-student relationships and student-student relationships. Key elements in the teacher-student domain were teachers fostering caring connections with students, and teachers responding to student needs. Being known and accepted as well as supported both academically and emotionally by peers were key elements identified in the student-student domain. However, all students did not perceive every teacher-student and student-student relationships as setting a foundation for school belonging.
Figure 1. Master outline for key elements that fostered responsive
school-based interpersonal teacher student and student-student
relationships that may set the foundation for school belonging.

Teacher-Student Relationship Domain
  --Key elements that helped promote responsive school-based
    interpersonal teacher-student relationships
      --Caring connections with students
      --Responding to student needs

Student-Student Relationship Domain
  --Key elements in that helped foster responsive school-based
    interpersonal student-student relationships
      --Being known and accepted by peers
      --Being supported both academically and emotionally by peers

Teacher-Student Relationships

The teachers here are kind; they want you to do your best. They want you to have a good future, and they really do want you to pay attention. They don't just teach you, and here you are. They give you everything that they need to give you. They want you to succeed. (Amy)

This quote by Amy, a seventh-grade student, highlights the responsive connection between students and teachers that may have the potential to support students' sense of school belonging. Teachers who foster caring connections with students are responsive to their needs, an essential element in supporting young adolescents' sense of school belonging (Goodenow, 1993; Nichols, 2006). However, not all students reported having responsive interpersonal relationships with all their teachers.

Caring Connections. In this investigation, all educators and over half of students interviewed (N = 10) described a sense of connectedness and care between teachers and students, which may help to promote students' sense of school belonging. As Mrs. Barnes stated, "You have to connect with them. You have to. And you have to love them. If they don't think you like them, toss the year. It's done. I mean, just toss it." Students, like Deidre, affirmed the importance of feeling cared for by teachers, "I love Ms. Clark, definitely. She is one of those crazy teachers that just loves you and she will help you with just about anything." Such relationships where students have purposeful, caring connections with adults in the school building can extend beyond the teacher-student relationship to include other school personnel, including school administrators. As Mrs. Foster, the assistant principal, explained:
   I speak their language sometimes because I connect with them that
   way. I relate to them. I may see them in the cafeteria, or the
   courtyard, or the bus ramp, and I may start just randomly singing
   one of the songs that are the coolest hippest songs that they know
   and they think, "oh wow, she's cool." So then if I have to connect
   to them at a different time, that relationship and that rapport has
   been established to some degree, a foundation.

Such caring connections have the potential to promote a strong sense of school belonging. As Kaitlin stated, "When you get along with your teachers, you just feel like 'I'm here to stay.' You've already made a bond with your teachers and it just feels really good."

Responding to Student Needs. All teachers attested to the importance of responding to students' needs and provided instances highlighting their responsiveness, which may help to promote students' sense of school belonging. For example, Mrs. Scott created a communication system within her classroom, "If I have upset you and don't know it, if you need to talk, [or] if you need to see somebody, stick it [a note] in here [the box]. Some of them can't verbalize so they write me a note." Half of the students (N = 9) indicated they received emotional support for personal needs from their teachers. Such caring connections between teachers and students may provide a base for students to seek out support from adults within their school in times of personal or academic need.

Throughout the investigation students spoke of numerous instances where caring connections were evident and their needs were being met. As Shannon shared about one of her teachers, "She's someone I can really go and talk to about stuff because I know that whatever I say, she can give me advice but she'll never reject what I'm saying." Sabrina also shared, "If something personal happens, you can go to that one specific teacher you feel the most confidence in, like they tell the other teachers why you're acting that way, but they wouldn't tell the students." Deidre shared an example of when she had a personal need and benefited from having a responsive teacher-student relationship:
   I talked to Ms. Clark when my grandmother died because I wasn't
   really doing any of my work, and I was kind of being quiet and not
   really into classes. She helped me get my work done so I would get
   back on track.

Damien attested to the importance of teachers who help meet his academic and personal needs:
   Helping me out with my homework and with the subject and getting to
   know me a little bit better.... They pull you aside sometimes in
   class and ask you what's going wrong or like they tell you about
   themselves a little bit more.

For Damien, these responsive relationships were beneficial to his learning, "I think the classes are easier if I have that kind of relationship with the teacher." Another student, Adam, explained an instance when his math teacher met his personal and academic needs:
   In math, I was having issues understanding leaf plots, and I for
   some reason didn't want to ask any questions 'cause everyone else
   had known about it. But the teacher, by my face, my teacher knew
   that I was having trouble and came over to help me. I was pretty
   happy because she wasn't like "Adam" or just had my name spoken out
   and was like, "Are you having trouble?" [She] sort of kept it

Two students in this study did not perceive teachers at Sanchez as promoting responsive teacher-student relationships. As Shannon explained, "She's the only teacher that I don't like because she won't stop and really help you. She's so sarcastic all the time that I don't even know when to take her serious sometimes." David shared he did not like teachers he considered to be unfair. He explained, "I think some of the teachers will lean towards certain sexes and stuff." David also stated, "Some [teachers] can just be like, they don't care at all really." Shannon's and David's perceptions of their teachers may be unresponsive to their needs and undermine their sense of school belonging.

Student-Student Relationships

I have lots of friends and sometimes they just kind of stop by and say hi and I guess when that happens a lot, I feel like I do belong here. (Dominick)

As this quote suggests, adolescents perceived student-student relationships as helping to set the foundation for school belonging. Being known and accepted in addition to being supported academically and emotionally by peers were identified as key elements in the student-student relationship domain. However, not all students consistently felt known and accepted by peers or perceived peers as being academically and emotionally supportive.

Being Known and Accepted by Peers. All students in this study overwhelmingly described being known and accepted by peers as important to fostering school belonging. In response to the question, "Do you feel like you belong at Sanchez?" Amy responded affirmatively, providing the following justification, "I think I have a lot of friends here. I just feel happy to be here with everybody I know, and I am just happy I can be a friend to everybody." According to Dominick, feeling like you belong entails, "Having lots of different kinds of people know you." As Dominick stated, having numerous friends who recognized him throughout the day enhanced his sense of belonging. Deidre shared, "Having friends here that accept them for who they are and not someone they're trying to be." Deidre expressed it was paramount for her to feel like she was known and accepted by her peers, "I'm a friend to basically everyone in this school, so when I walk in the hallway, I'm saying 'hi' to everybody."

Peer acceptance was important to all students in this investigation. For example, Derek expressed his sense of acceptance at Sanchez, "I can fit in with everybody here ... everybody accepts each other's differences. It feels like nobody is going to make fun of you ... it makes you feel like everybody is here together." Paul reinforced the importance of peer acceptance, "Everybody's nice to me and no one is mean and says that 'I should get out of [the] school.'" In addition to students, teachers also recognized the significance of students knowing and accepting one another. For example, Mrs. Barnes emphasized the importance of building relationships with peers as a central component of students' desire to go to school, "Connection, connection! They make friends and they build relationships, and that's what brings them to school." Mrs. Turner also shared the salience of peer relationships during early adolescence:
   I think at this particular age a lot of it is the realm of peers
   because in sixth grade, coming out of that fifth grade and into
   sixth grade, it really becomes more about socialization and how do
   I fit in with my peers.

When students were asked what would help increase their sense of belonging, students responded with specific ways they could be known and accepted by their peers. Amy shared specific strategies, "[I] say to myself, that person looks nice. Maybe that person will introduce me to more people, and I can get more acquainted with everyone else." Adam reinforced this by stating his classmates could introduce him to more people to help him increase his school belonging, "Some kids might not want to make new friends, but if I'm friends with their friends, they might be like, 'this kid's really cool,' and I'll make friends like that." Damien, who was new to Sanchez as a seventh-grade student, talked about how he didn't feel he belonged at first, but then he started to feel "in place at my school." When asked if he had any advice to give other students who are new to a school in developing a sense of belonging, Damien stated, "You should always get to know other people, be involved in class." Students noted a desire for helping their peers establish a sense of belonging in school. For example, Mustafa shared how he could support fellow students foster a stronger sense of belonging by helping them connect with others, "Probably like saying, 'Hey, come play with us,' maybe after school and hang out."

Several students (N = 5) indicated it took time to develop strong student-student relationships and a sense of belonging when first arriving at Sanchez. When asked to tell about a time he didn't feel a sense of belonging, Andy replied, "The beginning of school last year [beginning of sixth grade], cause I didn't know anybody. I just went below the radar. I just walked around and didn't really get noticed by anyone." He proceeded to share that he eventually made friends by talking in class with other students and getting involved in band.

Academic and Emotional Peer Support. For both teachers and students, academic and emotional peer support was perceived as important in promoting students' sense of school belonging. All teachers, like Ms. Clark, shared instances where they noticed students going out of their way to support their fellow classmates. She described an occasion when her students provided support for an absent classmate by copying their notes in the library, which was generally not allowed:
   We had a student once. He was in a car accident, and there was a
   family member that passed away in the car accident. [The student]
   was gone for a very long time--weeks and weeks. While he was gone
   the kids realized he was falling behind so they were copying their
   [notes]. I didn't even realize they were doing it; copying their
   agenda so that he would have the work, and then copying their notes
   so that he could try to catch up at home ... I said [to one of the
   students], "What are you copying for him?" And she said, "Look, we
   all take turns [copying notes for the student]."

This example illustrates a specific experience where young adolescents demonstrated care and provided academic and emotional support for a classmate.

Half of the students (N = 9) in this study discussed the importance of academic and emotional peer support as a way to help promote school belonging. For example, regarding academic support, Damien stated, "Friends, they always try helping you with homework and you can always study with them. If you don't understand a question, you can always go to them and ask them how they're doing it if you need help." Kaitlin also shared how she and her friends worked together outside of class to promote academic success:
   I have two best friends.... We'll talk on the phone at night to go
   over our homework together to see if we all have the same answers
   or the correct answers, and if we all have different answers, we'll
   go over the textbook and see why we got different answers and
   elaborate on it.

Half of the students (N = 9) highlighted emotional support as important in supporting their sense of belonging. This was particularly true when students could relate to other students at Sanchez, which was affirmed by Liza:
   I have a lot of people that I can relate to in this school. Because
   I have a lot of friends [whose] parents are also divorced, and when
   my parents first got divorced, they were able to help me through it
   because they've been through the same thing.

Paul agreed, "[My friends] help me when I'm depressed. They cheer me up; make me laugh."

Students perceived that emotional peer support fostered a sense of family. For example, Tina shared that having emotional support from her friends at school was like having "another set of family." She elaborated, "Since they're such good friends, you feel like you've known them for your whole life." Amy stated, "My friends make me feel very, very secure and happy. They're always supportive and I support them. We support each other. It's like a giant family, and I love that feeling."

Although all students in this investigation indicated they were known, accepted, and supported by peers at Sanchez, some students also voiced instances when they experienced a lack of peer support and acceptance. This has the potential to hinder students' sense of school belonging. Sabrina shared one such instance:
   Like if me and my best friend got into a fight. Not a physical
   fight, but an emotional fight; not calling each other names, but
   just saying stuff they did wrong to you. I guess when that happens
   I don't like being at this school because whenever I see them I
   want to be their friends again.


The aim of this current study was to gain a deeper understanding of the ways school-based interpersonal relationships may have set the foundation for young adolescents' belonging within one large, diverse urban middle school. Two major conclusions materialized from this study. First, responsive teacher-student relationships where teachers fostered caring connections and responded to student needs may have served as a way to foster students' sense of belonging. Second, responsive student-student relationships where young adolescents felt known and accepted by peers and received academic and emotional peer support may have served as a way to promote students' sense of belonging. The current study contributes to middle grades research by incorporating voices of key members within the school ecology (Juvonen, 2006; Kaplan et al., 2012; Nicholls 2006, 2008), including students (Caskey, 2011) along with school personnel. Further, this qualitative approach provides a deeper understanding of the ways school-based interpersonal relationships support young adolescents' school belonging, especially within diverse, urban middle school settings (Bellmore et al., 2004; Juvonen et al., 2006). Findings underscore the importance of fostering responsive, school-based interpersonal relationships with students that were both academic and social in nature in setting the foundation for young adolescents' belonging in middle school.

The first conclusion is responsive teacher-student relationships where teachers purposefully fostered caring connections and responded to students' academic and social needs served as a way to help foster student belonging. This finding is consistent with the importance of each student having at least one caring adult who knows and shows an interest in them academically and personally (Carnegie Corporation, 1989; Jackson & Davis, 2000; National Middle School Association, 2010). Teachers who foster caring connections may help students develop trusting relationships and promote intellectual and emotional growth (Hayes et al., 1994). Findings underscore the importance of adolescents feeling cared for by teachers who know them as individuals (Ozer et al., 2008; Wentzel, 1997). Findings add to extant theory and research that indicate being responsive to adolescents' basic and developmental needs is a key characteristic of a successful middle school and that teacher-student relationships play a central role in promoting students' sense of belonging, well-being, and school success (Deci & Ryan, 2000; Eccles & Roeser, 2011; Nichols, 2008; National Middle School Association, 2010). An implication for middle level educators is to be aware of the role responsive teacher-student relationships may play in supporting students' school belonging, and to purposefully create caring connections and be responsive to their needs. Findings from this study reinforce the importance of adolescents having responsive relationships with nonfamilial adults especially in large, urban middle school contexts (Eccles & Roeser, 2011).

The second conclusion is that responsive student-student relationships where adolescents were accepted and valued by peers and received academic and emotional peer support helped to promote students' school belonging. Students voiced that feeling known and accepted by peers as well as academic and emotional support from peers was central to their sense of belonging. Given that peer relationships are a key developmental context during adolescence (Brown, 2004; Rubin et al., 1998), it is important to investigate the role peers play in the interpersonal dimension of school belonging (Nichols, 2006, 2008). An implication for middle level educators is to consider ways to support responsive student-student relationships within the classroom and school (Farmer, Lines, & Hamm, 2011; Ryan & Patrick, 2001), as these relationships may play a crucial role in promoting belonging in school (Nichols, 2006, 2008). Findings underscore the importance of peer relationships in promoting a sense of school belonging, as well as academic and social adjustment in school (Anderman, 2003; Goodenow, 1993; Wentzel et al., 2004).

However, the current study is not without its limitations. This study was part of a larger, year-long investigation that included a series of studies on student motivation, engagement, and school belonging in middle school. Although the current study included the voices of 18 students, 5 teachers, and 1 administrator, incorporating more student and educator voices may provide additional insight. Due to its case study methodology, the researchers were an essential part of the study and the findings are a coconstruction of researcher and participant understandings. Further, only one dimension of school belonging, the interpersonal dimension, was examined (Nichols 2006, 2008). Examining multiple dimensions of school belonging simultaneously may provide a more complete understanding, although research indicates students feel like they belong mostly due to interpersonal relationships (Nichols, 2008). Despite these limitations, this study utilized the voices of students and educators to provide a rich understanding of how one urban, diverse middle school may have set the foundation for young adolescents' school belonging through responsive teacher-student and student-student relationships.

Findings have implications for middle level educators' understanding of interpersonal relationships that are responsive to adolescents' basic and developmental needs in an effort to lay the groundwork for students' school belonging. Teachers need to consider ways to provide opportunities to foster responsive relationships among and between teachers and students so that students themselves experience a sense of belonging in school. Although this aligns with best practices at the middle level, responsive interpersonal relationships and school belonging are not always promoted in practice (Davis, 2006; Juvonen, 2007). This study provides empirical evidence that supports Juvonen's (2007) discussion regarding the importance of enhancing students' school belonging and social connectedness in middle school. Similar to Juvonen (2007), the intent of the current study is to help bridge the research to practice gap in fostering school belonging at the middle level, "one of the most critical challenges facing educational reform in America is the underutilization of research guiding practice" (p. 205).

In conclusion, teacher-student and student-student relationships may play a central role in meeting student needs and fostering school belonging at the middle level. Educators can work toward providing more opportunities for responsive relationships among and between teachers and students in an effort to help meet young adolescents' unique needs and promote school belonging. Continued research--especially longitudinal studies--that investigate teacher-student and student-student relationships and the ways such relationships provide students with academic and emotional support by utilizing student voice is necessary to further examine ways educators and adolescents themselves can promote school belonging. Further, research within diverse, urban school contexts that investigate interpersonal relationships (Bellmore et al., 2004; Juvonen et al., 2006; Nichols 2006, 2008) and various student supports is warranted to help move forward into practice what is well-established in the literature regarding student belonging and adjustment in middle school (Juvonen, 2007).



The questions listed below are questions from the larger investigation that informed the current study

Student Interview Questions

* How long have you been a student at Sanchez Middle School?

* Describe your school to someone who has never been here.

* How do you feel about being a student at this school?

* What are your core/team teachers, friends, and classmates like?

* What does it mean to "feel like you belong" at a school?

* Do you feel like you belong at your school? Why/why not?

* Tell me about a time when you felt like you did/didn't belong at Sanchez.

* What would you say might help to increase your sense of belonging in school?

* How can parents, teachers, classmates, or friends support your belongingness in school?

Teacher Interview Questions

* How long have you been a teacher at Sanchez Middle School?

* Describe your school to someone who has never been here.

* What is it like being a teacher at Sanchez?

* What are the core/team teachers and students like?

* What does it mean for students to "feel like they belong" at Sanchez?

* Tell me about a time when you felt a student "belonged" at Sanchez.

* How can students maintain/increase their school belongingness?

* How can teachers and parents help support student belongingness in school?

Administrator Interview Questions

* How long have you been the assistant principal at Sanchez Middle School?

* Describe your school to someone who has never been here.

* What is it like being the assistant principal at Sanchez?

* What are the core/team teachers and students like?

* How are the teachers and students organized at Sanchez?

* What does it mean for students to "feel like they belong" at Sanchez?

* Tell me about a time when you felt a student 'belonged' at Sanchez.

* How can students maintain/increase their school belongingness?

* How can administrators, teachers, and parents support student belongingness in school?


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Cheryl Ellerbrock and Sarah M. Kiefer

University of South Florida

Kathleen M. Alley

Mississippi State University


(1.) Pseudonyms were used to remove any identifying factors.

* Cheryl Ellerbrock, Assistant Professor, University of South Florida. E-mail:
List of Student Participants

Pseudonym     Demographics                     Grade
Julie         White female                     Sixth
Sabrina       White female                     Sixth
Tina          Asian female                     Sixth
Mustafa       Multiracial male                 Sixth
Paul          Asian male                       Sixth
Kirk          Latino male                      Sixth
Amy           White female                     Seventh
Deidre        Multiracial female               Seventh
Liza          Latina female                    Seventh
Adam          White male                       Seventh
Damien        Latino male                      Seventh
Andy          White male                       Seventh
Kaitlin       Latina female                    Eighth
Sofia         Latina female                    Eighth
Shannon       White female                     Eighth
Dominick      Latino male                      Eighth
David         White male                       Eighth
Derek         African American male            Eighth

              Teacher and Administrator Participants

Pseudonym     Position                         Demographics
Mrs. Turner   Sixth grade language arts        White female
Mrs. Scott    Sixth grade social studies       White female
Mrs. Barnes   Seventh grade social studies     White female
Mrs. Clark    Seventh & eighth grade science   White female
Mr. Miller    Eighth grade social studies      White male
Mrs. Foster   Assistant principal              African
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Author:Ellerbrock, Cheryl; Kiefer, Sarah M.; Alley, Kathleen M.
Publication:Middle Grades Research Journal
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2014
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