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Belonging versus fitting in – what’s the difference?

Every young person wants to belong, but not at the expense of being someone they aren’t to fit in.

NEWS 3 Apr 2023
“Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.”
Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

It’s a dilemma that can emerge around adolescence. Young people want to be part of a certain friendship or social group, or to be part of the footy team or drama club, and they will do whatever they can to ‘belong’. They’ll change their interests, change how they wear their uniform or hair, and they might talk or behave differently, too.

It’s easy to mistake ‘fitting in’ for truly ‘belonging’ – but they are not the same thing.

“Everyone wants to belong to something bigger than themselves – that’s human nature,” says Carly McLatchie, Head of Professional Learning and Development at Haileybury who was previously Head of Girls Middle School.

“But when we belong, we are valued for what we bring and for everything that makes us who we are, and we are missed when we are not around. We feel valued and acknowledged for our good and bad habits – we are true to ourselves.

“Fitting in is trying to be something you are not. Girls might change what they wear, they’ll do their hair a certain way, old interests might be discarded for new interests and they’ll feign interest in something they don’t really care about. They might do things that are out of character in order to fit in, but that doesn’t mean they have a true sense of belonging.”
Carly McLatchie, Head of Professional Learning and Development

Life can become harder if adolescents prioritise belonging to a certain group, try to fit in and don’t. Adam Tobin, Head of Boys Middle School, says social media can also increase pressures and expectations to look, be or behave a certain way.

“When young people hit adolescence, they can have an identity crisis and might struggle to fit in to a social group. They might do things they don’t want to do. Their moods and body language might change. They may not want to come to school on a particular day because they are trying to fit in and don’t feel comfortable,” says Adam.

“On the other hand, belonging is being part of a community. You have a sense of who you are and you feel comfortable. Fitting in is doing whatever is asked of you to try and be part of something, but it’s not comfortable and it might not be who you really are.”
Adam Tobin, Head of Boys Middle School

Schools and families play a key role in helping young people recognise the important difference.

8 ways you can help your child understand the difference between belonging and fitting in

  1. Help your child find their people. The journey of adolescence is about dipping into different groups until you find people with genuine, common interests. When you find your people, you don’t have to try so hard because the interests you share are genuine and you can be your authentic self and know you will be accepted.”
  2. Encourage co-curricular or extra-curricular activities. That’s where children find people with the same interests who will accept them for who they are. Encourage participation in different school activities and activities outside school, too. A shared sense of hard work and success foster belonging. Shared experiences allow children to build a sense of self-worth in their group.
  3. Give it time. As a parent, it’s natural to worry if you feel your child is on the outer at school and in social groups, but give them time to find where they belong before you intervene.
  4. Talk to their school. If you are worried that your child is struggling to settle in, speak to their school. They can craft situations to help things along, like organising seating arrangements and creating group activities to help a child get to know other children.
  5. Invest in what your child does. Talk regularly about their day and be interested. Ask how their week has been, is there anything they need help with, and what has been the best part of their day today. If they are doing something new at school, ask about that. Conversations can sometimes be difficult with boys of a certain age, so ask questions that are open-ended and require more than ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers. Make the most of moments when you are alone with your child and where there is no technology, like when driving in the car or walking the dog.
  6. Guide them through the struggle. When a child is struggling in a social setting, help guide them away from the group that isn’t working towards another social group. But remind them that their new social group might have been together for a while and your child has just joined, so they should get involved slowly and take small steps until they are accepted and belong.
  7. Remind them that there is belonging beyond school. Belonging doesn’t start and finish in the classroom. Remind your child they are valued by other groups and places e.g. their soccer or netball team or youth group. Remind them they are more than a student.
  8. Don’t under-estimate the importance of belonging. When the belonging feels right, that has a positive impact on success in the classroom and on a child’s growth as a learner and student. A child performs at their very best when they have that comfortable sense of belonging.

If you would like to learn more about this important topic, please join us for an upcoming webinar on Wednesday 5 April at 7 pm where you will hear from Dianne Furusho, Carly McLatchie and Adam Tobin as they explore the topic of belonging and fitting in further.

To register for this event please click the button below.