The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

John Dabell

Making schools 'ibasho'

Do your pupils feel at home in your school? John Dabell explains why schools should be places of ‘ibasho.’

In Japanese, the word ‘ibasho’ means a place where you can feel like being yourself, a place where you feel a sense of belonging and purpose resulting from the social relationships associated with that place.

  • Ibasho is a term made up of i (‘being’ or ‘existing’) and basho (‘place’ or ‘space’).
  • Ibasho is a place where you feel at ease and a place where you have a role to play. This could be a physical or virtual space, such as the internet. Ibasho can be positive and negative.
  • Ibasho is a ‘place you can be without difficulty or ‘place you are accepted’ (Kanzaki, 2019).

Nick Kemp (2022), in Ikigai-Kan, offers a deeper and broader definition and says that ibasho ‘can be an object, a context, a community, a person, a particular walk, or even a favourite coffee shop. A situation where you feel safe, at peace, secure, accepted and where you belong. A sense of wellbeing.’

This is an interesting concept and one that relates to schools. The term ibasho was first discussed in the field of truancy and youth work in Japanese society in the 1980s and came to be widely used in Japan in the 1990s in educational practice and policymaking (Tanaka, 2021).

However, ibasho isn’t a concept that has captured Western education, which is puzzling as it is so relevant.

It is as important for staff as for young people to experience a sense of belonging in school.

A place where I belong

Schools should be places of belonging or ibasho. They should offer a comfortable space, reliable social relationships, and a positive belief in the future.

Belongingness and connection to the school is a fundamental student need that supports motivation and pro-social behaviours.

Think about the following.

  • Does your school offer the ibasho feel-good factor?
  • Do you put children and young people at the heart of the school’s endeavour?
  • Is it a place where students and staff fit in and feel at home?
  • Do they feel psychologically and physically safe, secure, comfortable, accepted, and approved?
  • Is school a place where they have a feeling of growing, learning and self-actualisation?

Schools are or should be, a place of refuge and empowerment. Some students describe their schools as a ‘second home’, and there can be no greater praise than that.

Although school is the second place where students spend most of their time, those who do not have an ibasho in school look elsewhere outside of school. Many students’ places of belonging are beyond the school gates or lack ibasho and don’t have a place to be.

Some schools have to work hard to be places where students want to be present and belong. They have to make ibasho and create a community.

If a school can give its students a sense of belonging and identity, they develop a deep attachment to it and a feeling of pride. It is a place they can be comfortable and relaxed because they are accepted, and there are no threats.

Ibasho and inclusion

Ibasho schools contribute towards social inclusion and where good relationships are guaranteed.

A school itself can be ibasho, or elements within the school provide it, such as an open space, a classroom, a club, a specific activity, a subject or a trusted adult.

Some students fashion their ibasho within the school space and invent their own community through friends and group activities (Tokunaga, 2018). Many are fortunate enough to have ibasho inside and outside school.

Making school an ibasho for students should be the priority of all teachers, and helping children find their ibasho is crucial to their wellbeing. The NEU commissioned research, ‘Place and Belonging in School: why it matters today,’ offers examples of how intentional whole-school practice can help create a climate of welcome and belonging in school.

The research found that one in four young people feel they do not belong in school, and with rising rates of mental illness, disconnection and social isolation, strategies are needed to help stem the tide.

Where it does exist, a sense of belonging has been linked to:

  • increased student motivation
  • increased staff wellbeing, motivation and retention
  • reductions in student absenteeism
  • other positive social outcomes, e.g. health and wellbeing
  • improved academic achievement
  • a growing sense of agency in students and staff: a belief that they can make a difference.

Schools can foster belonging, but this requires a culture of intention, purpose and a commitment to connectedness, and school leaders are the mediating force responsible for shaping this culture.

Ibasho is a place where you feel at ease and a place where you have a role to play.

Ibasho is for everyone

It is as important for staff as for young people to experience a sense of belonging in school. A teacher’s sense of belonging in school has been found to predict a student’s sense of belonging in school (Allen, 2021). The research concluded that a sense of belonging is at the heart of the connectivity cycle.

It is manifested in relationships and how staff and students talk to and about each other. Staff and students feel they belong. They are heard and seen for who they are. They have a sense of agency.

Students need to feel personally accepted, respected, included, and supported by their school and leaders, teachers, parents and peers all play a crucial role in bringing about ibasho.

One of the most powerful predictors of school belonging is teachers because when students feel liked and cared for by teachers, they are more likely to report feelings of school belonging.

But teachers are just one part of the picture. Allen and Kern (2020) state that bringing this about requires a multi-systemic approach because belonging is a relational, cultural, geographic, and dynamic concept.

They state that a young person’s sense of belonging can waiver between high and low. It is influenced by individual personalities, social groups and families, schools, local communities, the natural environment, culture, and even the broader issues surrounding the planet, such as climate change.

Ibasho is a protective factor for health and wellbeing, and when students feel that they belong, they are more likely to get good grades and otherwise perform well in school. Making schools ibasho fosters positive attitudes toward learning, improves wellbeing, and improves students’ confidence in their ability to do well in school.

When students have that sense of being somewhere where they can be confident that they will fit in and feel safe in their identity, they will flourish. This is what we all want for our students and ourselves.

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