School 'Connectedness' Makes for Healthier Students, Study Suggests
Students are less likely to engage in drug use, violence, and early sexual activity when they attend schools with caring teachers and tolerant discipline policies, according to a new study.
In an analysis of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a federally funded survey of 72,000 adolescents in grades 7-12, a group of researchers found that a sense of "connectedness" to school is critical to a teenager's well-being.
Well-managed classrooms and ample opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities were also found to foster that bond, according to a summary of the analysis published in the April issue of the Journal of School Health.
"What goes on in the classroom is key to keeping kids from becoming disenchanted with school," said Dr. Robert Blum, the director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Adolescent Health and Development and an author of the analysis. "It doesn't matter whether you have 20 or 30 kids in a class. It doesn't matter whether the teacher has a graduate degree. What matters is the environment that a student enters when he walks through the classroom door."
The findings underscore the need to invest in programs that promote good education and good health, experts say.
"Health and education are very much an interdependent phenomenon," said Dr. Lloyd J. Kolbe, the director of the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Division of Adolescent and School Health. "What these data help us understand is that socio-psycho environment, and that the climate young people live in for 13 years at a very vulnerable time of their lives is critical to their development."
For schools to foster the strong connection needed to help students avoid unhealthy behavior, Dr. Kolbe said, they need to build comprehensive health programs that include health services for poor students, nutritious meal programs, physical education, counseling, health education, health programs for faculty and staff, and family and community involvement.
"School health programs have been languishing and actually deteriorating in our nation," he said.
The researchers focused their analysis of the national longitudinal study on what factors can alienate a teenager from his or her school community. They found that teenagers' links to their schools are lower when classroom climates are chaotic and negative.
The solution? "When teachers are empathetic, consistent ... and allow students to make decisions, the classroom management climate improves," the authors write.
The overall level of school connectedness is also lower in schools that suspend students for what the authors say are relatively minor infractions, such as possessing alcohol. That means so-called zero-tolerance policies, which typically mandate suspension—even for first-time offenders—for certain transgressions, could do more harm than good, the authors warned.
"We found that students in schools with those types of discipline policies actually report feeling less safe at school than do students in schools with more moderate policies," Dr. Blum said. The analysis also found that, on average, students in smaller schools feel more attached to school than students in larger schools. "Several researchers suggest that large school size negatively affects school connectedness because, in such settings, teachers cannot maintain warm, positive relations with all students," the authors wrote.
Still, the effect of school size was minimal, and class size was not found to have any influence on teenagers' sense of attachment to their schools, leaving the authors to suggest that even large classes may be a small enough setting for students to form strong social ties with teachers and classmates.
Vol. 21, Issue 32, Page 16