Relational spaces

Three school spaces where children feel they can belong and learn

Schooling is not always a pleasant experience for children and young people. School experiences can be alienating for some and can lead to marginalisation, disengagement and risk of dropping out of school completely. Almost one in five young people are affected this way.

For disenfranchised children such as these, alternative schooling can offer a second chance at meaningful learning. Alternative schooling, according to the Australian Association for Flexible and Inclusive Education, supports the learning of around 70,000 young people across Australia each year.

In this post, I’ll tell you about some young people’s perspectives at an alternative school and spaces that foster and support belonging, acceptance, and the desire to learn.

Spaces in school where disenfranchised children feel they can belong

There are three spaces I want to tell you about. While they would not be exclusive to this particular school, or to alternative schooling generally, I believe it is important to recognise them, and to look at how they work from the perspective of the children experiencing them.

 The three spaces are:

  • Relational spaces, that focus school relationships and interactions,
  • Material spaces, predominantly focusing on the learning environment, and
  • Pedagogical spaces, that focus on approaches to teaching.

These spaces that are associated with belonging tend to incorporate schooling practices based on choice, mutual respect and support.

Relational spaces

Relational spaces support and encourage social (and at times emotional) interactions between young people and their teachers and workers, and young people and their peers. In particular, those interactions that are inclusive and acknowledge the complexities of a young person’s life.

For example, one student recollects her experiences:

I was in a relationship, and my boyfriend moved away. So, he stopped going to school, so I kind of lost it a bit there. That same year, my parents divorced and that was a bit confusing. And then my friends stopped talking to me, and then I started going down into the hole of depression. It’s really hard to get out of there. You try talking to someone … so you talk to your friends about it … [but] they were ignoring me and then I lost motivation to keep going to school. … I searched for a job.  I couldn’t get a job. So, I actually just sat on the couch at my mum’s place and did nothing for six months. And that didn’t help anything at all.

She went on to say that her life was turned around when she enrolled in a school, in this case an alternative school, where she felt that she belonged.

For other students, their disengagement resulted because of their classroom interactions. For example, this student shared that:

At my other school, I always seemed to do the wrong thing. I’d always get detentions and I started to get a bad reputation with the teachers.  My first school that I went to, I ended up getting expelled, then I went to another school but I didn’t end up going. I just stayed home and made excuses. I just didn’t enjoy it. I don’t know why I got into trouble a lot. I just got in trouble. At the start, I used to listen to the teachers, and then after a while, I don’t know, I didn’t really care anymore so I just stopped listening and gave up.

For some students, disengagement can culminate in expulsion from schooling:

I’m not allowed back to any schools in Queensland because I’ve been kicked out and this is a second chance for me. I respect that they have given me this second chance. I’m quite grateful to be a student.

While suspension and expulsion rates vary across Australian states and territories, research suggests these are increasing.

Relational spaces are often characterised by inclusion and acceptance, as suggested by these students:

To be a student at this school means being accepted by a group of people that actually like you and don’t judge you.

When I come to school each day, I feel accepted. I feel absolutely no stress to come here. It is so free-flowing and easy to do the [school] work.

Young people often cited their relationships with teachers and other school workers as being central to their feelings of belonging and acceptance.

The teaching is just really nurturing. They pay attention to you. They get deep into what is really troubling you, and they help you out. It’s really cool.

Practices within relational spaces promote caring, tolerance and understanding:

It is a lot easier to understand everyone. We normally sit down and have group discussions. If something is not right, we try to help each other.

As with all social units, there are parameters that regulate spaces and the behaviours within these spaces which students indicated developed a sense of commitment to the group:

To have a sense of belonging, equality, and that someone is just there to care about you.   It’s pretty chill, like casual, but still strict in the areas it needs to be. Yeah, it has good guidelines like family does.

The social and emotional supports offered within relational spaces enable productive learning and relationships.

Material spaces

When school learning spaces are configured in ‘non-traditional’ ways, the possibilities are endless and can potentially shift the composition and function of school spaces. Some alternative schools describe their learning spaces as ‘studios’ rather than classrooms. This is more than an exercise in nomenclature. The studios are not filled with front-facing desks lined up in rows, nor other traditional layouts. Instead, they are spacious multi-purpose environments with kitchens and lounges and other comfortable furniture that could be found in a home. These material spaces often prompted students to refer to their studios as being ‘not like school’:

Our learning space is like my home environment. We’ve got couches, we’ve got TV, we’ve got computers surrounding us, we’ve got a kitchen that we go cook food, so I like that – no desks or a whiteboard and chalkboard. 

When I visited this school, it was clear that the kitchen was the hub of the school. This alternative school, like many others by virtue of their smaller population, embraced the opportunities associated with the practice of preparing and eating meals. This student recollects:

We have the convenience of lounges in our classroom instead of hard chairs and desks. When we have breakfast and lunch, we sit around the table to make it a kind of family feel because some of us don’t sit at the table with our family at home for dinner.

While families vary in composition, and not all experiences of family are positive for all students, the young people at this alternative school would often refer to the material learning spaces as creating a sense of belonging akin to a ‘family’.

Pedagogical spaces

This alternative school often disrupted traditional pedagogic practices for those that better suited the young people, rather than the systems that devise them. Additionally, the school individualised the learning of each of its students through a ‘project-based learning’ approach. Students acknowledged this approach as a means of enabling choice.

We get a lot of choices at my school, which I love. … You get all of your maths and English through the semester, but you don’t have to sit in the class. It’s good because you don’t just go from class to class. It’s more up to the students. You have to push yourself to do it every day. It’s a great motivational skill.

Ensuring that work is connected to young people’s lives and is meaningful to them, draws on integrated approaches to curriculum delivery and facilitates student input into decision making. Teachers were considered to be a key part of this learning process:

The style of teaching is more interactive, and it just gets you involved more. It actually makes you want to learn.

The pedagogic spaces also motivated students because they enabled the students to work at their own pace, make decisions about their learning, and gain support from staff when required:

When I got to this school, I settled down and started putting effort into schoolwork. It made me feel good. I don’t need to stress anymore with work and stuff like that; I can just do it at my own pace and how I like it. I enjoy having a team leader and advisor as part of my studio because they help me with what I need help. I can ask them anything I want, if it’s personal or to do with work, and they’ll help me with that.

For some students at this school, their newfound ‘success’ improved their lives and relationships beyond the school:

Previously, I didn’t really do well at school.  I just sat around. Done nothing. But here, I’ve passed subjects and got ‘B’s and ‘A’s. That’s motivated me to do better and see how far I can push myself. It feels amazing.  My mum is proud of me. I haven’t seen that look of pride on her face for a while and I was kind of ashamed of being a ‘drop-kick’ because I got kicked out of school and didn’t get good grades and now I’m getting ‘B’s.  I’m happy with that.

These spaces can work in any school

When listening to the voices of the young people at this alternative school, they shared experiences of increased satisfaction with their schooling, re-engagement with learning, and a desire to plan and work towards future careers goals; as well as feelings of safety, acceptance and belonging.

While addressed separately, these spaces intertwine and intersect to form the school space, enabling young people to be active participants in their learning. These relational, material and pedagogic spaces support belonging and operate to include disengaged and marginalised young people in their education and schooling.

The spaces described in this blog are not unique to this alternative school, or to alternative schooling in particular. They are spaces that can, and do, operate in any school or learning community.

This research on relational, material, and pedagogic practices could be useful to educators, school leaders and policy makers interested in how spaces where children and young people feel they belong and are valued member of their school community, can work. The principles described here can be effective within all modes of schooling and school communities.

For those who want more Exploring spaces of belonging through analogies of ‘family’: Perspectives and experiences of disengaged young people at an alternative school

Aspa Baroutsis is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Griffith Institute of Education Research, Griffith University. Her background is in secondary school teaching. She completed her doctorate at The University of Queensland. Currently, Aspa holds an elected position on the executive of the Australian Association for Research in Education. Her research interests include the mediatisation of teachers and teaching; teachers’ work and identity; learning spaces, student engagement and agentic voice. Twitter: @aspa25

Aspa Baroutsis is presenting with Annette Woods on Geographies of learning to write: Mapping literacy learning through draw and talk at the AARE 2019 Conference.

Hundreds of educational researchers are reporting on their latest educational research at the AARE 2019 Conference 2nd  Dec to 5th Dec. Check out the full program here.