Here, we chat with Jo Cole, a psychologist and KidsMatter national project manager at the Australian Psychological Society, about why creating a sense of belonging has a positive impact on children’s mental health and wellbeing – and what health and community professionals can do to help. 
 
How does fostering a sense of belonging help children and their families?
When working with children and families, it’s important to consider a range of factors influencing their lives, including those that are making things more difficult for the family, and those that can increase support and have a positive effect on their lives. A sense of belonging is one of those protective factors that can make it easier for children and families.  
 
What impact does belonging have on children’s mental health and wellbeing?
Belonging and connection are important contributors to the mental health and wellbeing of everyone, including children. When children and families are connected within the community, at school, in their early childhood education and care service, and with extended family and other community groups like sports, they’re happier, more relaxed, learn better and have fewer behavioural problems. 
 
What does feeling included look like in day-to-day practice?
Feeling like you belong includes feeling safe, that people care about you, that your needs for support, respect and friendship will be met, and that you will get help to work out problems. For very young children in an early childhood setting and children at primary school, it means that someone knows you, your needs, your likes and dislikes, and is there for you just about every day. In this kind of environment, children learn that they are valuable, they learn skills in managing their emotions, and they learn about positive relationships, which will lay the foundation for their mental health, now and in the future.  
 
What role do parents play in helping their children belong?
Parents play a big role in how young children feel they belong – and the added benefit for the adults in the family is that connections and belonging have a positive effect on their mental health and wellbeing too. Being involved at the child’s early childhood service or school, making connections with other families, or joining in with activities in the local community that match their interests are ways that parents can contribute to their child’s sense of belonging. 
 
Sometimes there may be barriers that make this more difficult for families, so if you are supporting a family it can be helpful to work with them to problem solve around the issue. Sometimes the extra support people need is not from a referral to another service, but to get linked in with a support network that increases the opportunities for them to feel connected.