The Struggle For Belonging For Kids With Complex Health Conditions

Why Belonging Matters

The concept of ‘belonging’ is rich with implications, and it’s clear that experiencing a sense of belonging can profoundly influence a young person’s life. Now, the Australian Education Research Organisation (AERO) has found that “a positive sense of belonging at school has fundamental benefits for children and young people and flow‑on benefits for their learning and engagement with school” and that “students who experience positive peer relationships in school are up to two months ahead in their NAPLAN scores two years later”.

That’s a huge difference in academic results, and worth repeating: “a positive sense of belonging at school … two months ahead in their NAPLAN scores two years later”.

We also know that a sense of belonging is positively correlated with higher levels of interest and motivation in school, positive homework behaviour, enjoyment of school, and civic-mindedness.

But the glaring omission in most of the dialogue about belonging and connectedness – including in the AERO Practice Guide – is how belonging and connectedness should continue for students who can’t physically attend school. Thankfully, our work addresses this.


A positive relationship with the school community can shape a student’s emotional, behavioural, and cognitive engagement with schooling and influence academic outcomes. ~AERO, 2023


The Struggle For Belonging For Kids With Complex Health Conditions

For over a decade now, MissingSchool has been diligently collecting data and shining a spotlight on the challenge of belonging at school for students with complex health conditions who are chronically absent.

Parents of absent students tell us that their children feel worried about missing out, falling behind, being forgotten and transitioning back to school after absences. They share poignant experiences:

  • “She’s really been struggling with her mental health lately. The academics are important but she’s feeling so disconnected and that’s such a worry. When she misses school she feels like she’s missed out and there’s such a gap.”, and
  • “He feels like he doesn’t belong in his peer group as much any more.”

Amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic, the harmful and life-limiting effect of social isolation is gaining global prominence and momentum.

Last week, we saw the significance of social isolation emphasised through the World Health Organisation’s declaration of loneliness as a global health priority, and the establishing of a new Commission on Social Connection.

Commissioner, and US Surgeon General, Dr Vivek Murthy said, “Given the profound health and societal consequences of loneliness and isolation, we have an obligation to make the same investments in rebuilding the social fabric of society that we have made in addressing other global health concerns, such as tobacco use, obesity, and the addiction crisis.“

Surely we can hope that Australian Governments hear our rallying cry and hasten recognition of kids with complex health conditions as a priority equity cohort, deserving dedicated solutions in the face of significant school isolation.



Belonging For Every Student, Every Day

The good news is that we don’t have to leave isolated kids alone. Telepresence technology, including robots and videoconferencing equipment in schools (i.e. GoogleMeet, Microsoft Teams, Webex and Zoom), can be turned on today so physically absent students stay socially and academically connected.

Just as schools provide wheelchair ramps, they must adopt synchronous telepresence technology to support students who can’t be there.

Telepresence technology enables continuous learning from anywhere, and should be included in schools’ transformation agenda, in Australia and globally. It offers students with medical absences continuity of classroom access, consistent curriculum, equality of opportunity, and learning alongside peers.

Telepresence technology also lets teachers teach lessons once, easing already stretched workloads and classroom complexity.

The recent pandemic emphasised the essential role of technology during health crises, and created a world in which “work from anywhere” has become a mainstay. Schools, post-COVID, can turn telepresence back on and follow workplaces into the 21st century by championing a “learn from anywhere” system for students who can’t physically attend.

This change is not only necessary, it’s immediately achievable at scale. The technology is already in schools.

As one parent said:

“This [hospital] is not always a happy place. But there are times, where glimpses of life sparkle again in his eyes. And none more so than when he is connected. To his classmates. To his *normal* life. We are so lucky to have some amazing technology to connect to school.”

At MissingSchool, we believe in the power of community and belonging to galvanise and empower everyone. Together, we can foster an environment where every child feels like they belong. It would be impossible for us to stay the course without your incredible support. There are many ways to help:

Every action moves us closer to the finish line: a world where every child is seen and heard at school.

Let’s keep connecting.

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