Belonging can change how bullying impacts students


In May 2019, ERO conducted a survey of 11,000 students across years 4 to 13, to hear their thoughts and experiences of bullying in New Zealand. This resulted in the Bullying Prevention and Response: Student Voice report.

This report revealed a range of important findings, some of which we explored further. We wanted to use this issue of Insights (and more to come over 2020) to highlight some of the interesting and surprising findings from this survey.

In this issue, we discuss students’ ability to retain a sense of belonging despite having been bullied. This sense of belonging might have influenced students’ attitudes towards bullies and bullying at their schools. We also touched on what could have contributed to this, specifically exploring the effect a school’s response to bullying can have.

We found that confidence in schools’ bullying prevention methods could help maintain a stronger sense of belonging among students, particularly those who experienced bullying. These findings give schools some possible areas to focus on when it comes to bullying solutions.

This paper is not a comprehensive or decisive study of these topics, but gives some interesting viewpoints on a subject of utmost importance in our school system.

Students still feel they belong in a school despite being bullied

In May this year ERO published Bullying Prevention and Response: Student Voice,[1] following a survey of approximately 11,000 students across Years 4 to 13. One in four (25 percent) of the students who reported they had experienced bullying still indicated they had a strong sense of belonging in their school. By contrast fewer than one in twenty (less than 5 percent) reported a strong sense of not belonging. This was not what we expected, nor what other researchers had found (Cunningham, 2007; OECD, 2017; Jang-Jones & McGregor, 2019). We know students’ sense of belonging is important as it is linked to wellbeing (ERO, 2015), and can be directly influenced by school strategies (ERO, 2016). Wellbeing in turn has a strong influence on positive student outcomes including academic success (ACU, 2008). We wanted to further explore the link between belonging and being bullied and how this influenced what students wanted their school to do about bullying.

Students who felt they belonged had more positive solutions to deal with bullying in their school

We compared the group who felt strongly that they belonged at their school, with the group who felt strongly that they didn’t belong. We found that the types of responses students gave tended to differ depending on their sense of belonging. The exception to this was that about one fifth of both groups suggested they would make the bullying stop, without detailing how.

For those who felt they belonged, almost a third suggested people needed to be made kinder and more accepting. For example:

“I would make people’s hearts bigger so they don't be mean.”

Students who felt they belonged most commonly located the issue with the bully’s lack of positive traits such as empathy and kindness. Some students went as far as identifying a deeper reason behind why some students bully, suggesting things such as:

“Help the bully become emotionally stable because usually when someone is being mean to someone there is something going on whether it's at home or they are being bullied themselves or any other various reasons.”

In contrast, there was a notable tendency for those who felt they did not belong to suggest harsher punishments and for teachers to respond more visibly to bullying. For example:

“If I could do anything I would get the bullies suspended or expelled.”

Or they wanted:

“Different teachers, ones who care about all students and not just excelling ones even when they’re the bullies.”

Students, who did not feel they belonged at school, tended to identify an issue beyond the bullies themselves, pointing rather to a lack of justice. They often indicated the bully should be isolated or excluded.

What could contribute to these differences?

Several factors could be contributing to the different reactions to bullying. It may be that those who felt they belonged wanted the bullies to experience a similar feeling of inclusion. They may regard the bully as an outsider and want them to feel a connection to the school community and its values. They think this would reduce the bullying behaviour.

Another possibility could be the differences arise from the confidence students have in their school to deal with bullying incidents. A Canadian study, investigating student belonging (Ma, 2003), found that the perception of fairness was an important aspect contributing to students building a sense of belonging in school. Ma (2003) also found that a sense of belonging was linked to overall improved outcomes.

Students’ understanding and confidence in their school’s response to bullying is important.

If students’ lack of belonging is associated with having little faith in their school’s systems and teachers’ attitudes towards bullying, then this aspect should be an area for schools to focus on. Making responses to bullying more visible and promoting faithful implementation of the school system might improve the sense of belonging in more students, even after they have been bullied.

The OECD (2017) comments that one essential element to tackling bullying is having teachers explicitly communicate to students that bullying is not tolerated in any way. A good system is not enough. Students need to have confidence the system is well-functioning, applied fairly to all students, and visible to victims. The system also needs to support students to recognise that the problem is not theirs but located with the bully.

The evidence suggests that if a student has a greater sense of belonging they are likely to have more empathy towards others, taking a more positive attitude towards bullies. Another positive could be that if bullies feel they belong their wellbeing could increase, and they might be less inclined to bully.

Further research would be needed to more thoroughly identify what characterises students’ feelings of belonging in a New Zealand context, and how this might link to bullying.


ACU. (2008). Scoping study into approaches to student wellbeing. ACU and Erebus International.

Cunningham, N. J. (2007). Level of bonding to school and perception of the school environment by bullies. victims, and bully victims.

ERO. (2015). Wellbeing for childrens success at Primary school. Education Review Office.

ERO. (2016). Wellbeing for success: A resource for schools. Education Review Office.

Jang-Jones, A., & McGregor, A. (2019). PISA 2018 New Zealand Students' Wellbeing school climate and mindsets of 15-year-olds.

Ma, X. (2003). Sense of Belonging to School: Can Schools Make a Difference. The Journal of Education Research, 340-349.

OECD. (2017). PISA 2015 Results (Volume III) Students' Well-being. Paris: OECD Publishing .


[1] Available at