Students in Cafeteria

Fitting in vs. Belonging 

belonging IN EDUCATION 

Fitting in vs. Belonging action RESEARCH PROJECT

powered by imani academy™ 

In 2021, Imani Clough, Director of Imani Academy™ undertook a yearlong action research project to explore belonging in educational environments. The  project entitled Fitting in vs. Belonging, involved working with groups of young people to identify different ways to create a culture of belonging in their school / learning environment and what they consider the key components of belonging.

Imani initiated the project to better understand the experiences of young people navigating the education system, with a particular focus on students racialised as Black (people of colour), care experienced and or experiencing challenges with their mental health and wellbeing. The project provided an opportunity to develop an evidence base upon which to develop approaches to dismantle barriers and create opportunities for historically marginalised and underserved young people to feel a sense of acceptance, respect, inclusion and support in their learning and development. 

The research aims were to:

  1. Understand what is important to students, for students to feel a sense of belonging

  2. Understand how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected young people's relationships and sense of belonging

  3. Develop an evidence base to improve approaches to engagement with young people 

  4. Amplify importance of youth participation when implementing new approaches and initiatives specifically for young people


A total of 60 young people between the ages of 12 - 16 engaged in a series of Fitting in vs. Belonging Workshops. A total of 120 staff engaged in a Belonging in education training session; borne out of a Fitting in vs. Belonging youth participation project with a group of students in a state secondary school - with a focus on how to bring an intersectional lens to inclusive learning.

Some key reflections:

  1. As practitioners and educators - when we talk about inclusive spaces, often what we are really getting at is creating a space where more people have the opportunity to feel like they belong there.

  2. Fitting in takes a lot of energy from the individual. Belonging may take special effort from the community, but a lot less energy from the individual.

  3. It is the responsibility of people who create the norms of a group or environment to consider who feels they belong and who is simply fitting in. 

  4. Social justice education often helps us bring to light the work that some people are doing to “fit in” to our communities, as well as helps us acknowledge ways that we can make more people feel they have the opportunity to belong. 

  5. A student’s sense of belonging at their school has a powerful effect on their emotional well being and their ability to thrive and engage in school life. Belonging plays a central role in how students and teachers show up in school, whether they feel they can be themselves. 

  6. Our motivation to learn is influenced by the multiple goals that individuals construct for themselves as a result of their life and school experiences and the sociocultural context in which learning takes place. Motivation to learn is fostered for learners of all ages when they perceive the school or learning environment is a place where they “belong” and when the environment promotes their sense of agency and purpose. 

In the coming months we will have a full summary report to share with you, which will be accessible and downloadable via our website. We will also be sharing some tools and approaches in the form of a Belonging in Education Toolkit for those who believe a sense of belonging is important and key for positive learning and development of all young people. 


For the next phase of the Fitting in vs Belonging project we want to bring young people and their teachers (including parents/carers, mentors and youth workers) together to work on co-created projects; tackling an environmental or social challenge in their school or place of learning. We are asking those who are interested in creating positive social change to express an interest in our taster sessions, before we go ahead with launching phase 2 of the Fitting in vs Belonging Peer Educators Programme. If you work with or have a group of young people in mind, who you would like to learn with and from, please be in touch and we can host a taster session for you. 

To contact Imani Academy about the upcoming findings report or any aspect of our work with young people, please email: