A sense of belonging

The transformative power of Creative Arts education

Holly Sullivan, Head of Creative and Expressive Arts at The Alice Smith School, Malaysia, looks at the link between the Creative Arts and developing a sense of belonging in an international school.

The international challenge

One of the challenges facing an international school is for individuals to develop a sense of belonging and community within what can often be a disparate and transient student body.  Schools must engage in this challenge because this sense of belonging is essential for international students as they navigate the usual difficulties that young people face alongside the more unique global and itinerant lives that they lead. Past studies have suggested a connection between participation in the Creative Arts and a sense of belonging at school. I wanted to explore this link in a new study conducted at Alice Smith School.  Once the study was complete, I had no doubt: the Creative Arts  provide very strong support for our students as they transition between schools and life stages.

The study 

The study was undertaken as part of my Masters degree looking at students’ experiences within the Creative Arts Faculty at Alice Smith School in 2022 – 23. I considered the extent to which students felt that they belonged to that community and how activities in the Arts impacted their own self-concept. The study also examined the situated nature of belonging and the opportunities for students to develop a sense of community through participation in the Arts.

The findings

The qualitative data were generated from a series of focus-group interviews conducted with students in the Creative Arts Faculty during the Summer term of 2023. The work referenced relevant academic concepts, such as those about belonging in schools by Carol Goodenow (1993) and W. P. Vispoel’s work on self-concept through artistic endeavour (1995). I believe that the findings of my study highlight the profound influence of the Creative Arts Faculty on fostering a strong sense of belonging and a positive self-concept among international school students and Third-Culture Kids.

In particular, findings suggest that the Creative Arts Faculty’s emphasis on collaboration, mutual support and appreciation for diverse perspectives creates a remarkably inclusive environment. Students reported feeling accepted and valued within their Creative Arts groups, fostering a sense of belonging that extended beyond individual identity markers. The study showed that the faculty’s commitment to nurturing safe spaces and celebrating achievement enabled students to experience a genuine sense of community, building connections with peers and teachers who shared their passions.

Students also found that regular opportunities for showcasing their creative works in exhibitions, performances and concerts allowed them to gain a sense of accomplishment and validation. The recognition received from peers, teachers, and the wider school community bolstered their self-concept and reinforced that vital sense of belonging, not only within the Faculty, but as members of the school community itself. These achievements became tangible symbols of their contribution to the school’s cultural fabric.

The data also suggested that this cohort of students felt more at ease in the environs of the faculty and attributed this to the atmosphere experienced as much as they did the actual facilities themselves. This finding supports the work done by Mary Anne Hunter (2008), who asserted that the arts provide a safe place for students to present an authentic and relaxed version of themselves.

The implications

Implications of this study and others like it are far-reaching at a time when funding for the Arts in countries like the UK is under threat, as is the place and importance that the Arts once had in the national curriculum. For private schools operating in a competitive market, there are implications for student recruitment, while the study supports the argument that the Arts develop the kind of critical skills employers are looking for in every major sector of the economy.

But more importantly for an international school, the Arts are a bridge to a sense of authentic identity and a genuine aid to creating an environment that can help untangle the paradox of the Third Culture Kid.

Certainly, my faculty’s commitment to fostering an inclusive community, empowering self-expression, encouraging cross-cultural dialogue, celebrating achievement and contributing to the school’s identity collectively created an environment in which students feel profoundly connected and confident.

But there’s more: the implications of this study extend beyond the Creative Arts Faculty, offering insights for schools seeking to enhance students’ overall well-being and sense of belonging at the school itself. Schools should promote positive self-concept and a sense of belonging among their students by integrating strategies that emphasise collaboration and self-expression. Ultimately, this case study demonstrates the transformative power of Creative Arts education in shaping not only artistic skills, but also emotional and social development in the globalised world.

Personal impact

On a personal level, my emic researcher-practitioner role in undertaking this study has profoundly affected me. I have been overwhelmed by how confidently and insightfully the students spoke of their experiences participating in the Arts at our school. I am also incredibly proud of how my talented and inspirational colleagues have nurtured these young artists and provided them with a safe forum for self-exploration and self-expression.


Holly Sullivan is the FOBISIA Drama Committee Chair and Head of Creative & Expressive Arts at the Alice Smith School, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia




Thank you to Holly and the Creative Arts Faculty for providing the artwork and photographs.