School Performance Tops List of Adolescent Worries

By Cindy Currence — February 29, 1984 4 min read

Young adolescents worry more about their performance in school than about anything else, according to the results of a survey of more than 8,000 students in grades 5-9.

The survey, released last week by a consortium of religious groups and youth-service organizations, reports that the three major concerns of adolescents are school, their looks, and their friends. Fifty-six percent of the students “worry very much or quite a bit” about how they are doing in school, 53 percent worry about their “looks,” and 48 percent worry about “how well other kids like me.”

The research, which measured students’ values, attitudes, and physical and behavioral development, was designed to assist its sponsors in creating programs to address the needs of young people. Sponsoring organizations included the United Methodist Church, 4-H Extension, the United Church of Christ, the National Catholic Education Association, the Presbyterian Church in the United States, the National Association of Homes for Children, the Evangelical Covenant Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, the American Lutheran Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church, the Baptist General Conference, and the Churches of God General Conference.

Carried out by the Search Institute, a Minneapolis-based independent, nonprofit research and program-development firm, the survey of 8,000 public- and private-school students and 10,000 parents was administered by local affiliates of the sponsoring organizations. The Lilly Endowment provided a $273,000 grant to fund the research.

While students worry a lot about school, the majority of young adolescents express positive attitudes toward it, survey results suggest. Fifty-two percent of the students reported liking school “very much” or “quite a bit.”

But among what the researchers call the “commonplace” differences between boys and girls found in the study are particularly noticeable ones in attitudes about school.

Girls reported greater interest in school at all five grade levels--only 45 percent of boys say they like school, compared with 59 percent of girls--as well as higher educational aspirations and higher achievement motivation.

Interest in school and academic motivation do seem to decline, however, for both boys and girls between the 5th and 9th grades, the study found. Sixty-one percent of 5th graders said they “try their best at school,” compared with only 30 percent of 9th graders.

In the 5th, 6th, and 7th grades, 60 percent of the students said they never cheat. By the 9th grade, only 33 percent said that.

Adolescent Values

One of the most highly ranked goals of students was “to make my own decisions.” The importance of this value changed more between the 5th and 9th grade than any of the other value statements. Fifth-grade students ranked automony 19th out of 24 values, but by the 8th grade, students ranked the importance of making their own decisions 12th.

Out of the list of values, the two most important to the students who completed the survey were “to have a happy family life” and “to get a good job when I am older.”

Values that become less important between 5th and 9th grade include God, church, and “concern for people and the world,” the survey results indicate.

Nonetheless, a majority of young adolescents (54 percent) in the study reported that religion is the “most important” or “one of the most important” influences in their lives. Sixty-nine percent of the students report that they pray, other than at meals or in worship services, daily or “most days.”

Among the students surveyed, beliefs about God and Jesus were very stable across the five grades, the results indicate. Eighty-six percent of all young adolescents in the study said they are “quite sure” or “sure” that God exists.

Sex becomes more of an issue between the 5th and 9th grades, according to the survey. In the 5th grade, 24 percent of boys and 18 percent of girls reported thinking about sex “often” or “very often.” By the 9th grade, 50 percent of boys and 35 percent of girls said they think of sex frequently.

Twelve percent of 5th graders and 16 percent of 6th graders reported having had sexual intercourse. “The 5th- and 6th-grade data may be suspect,” authors of the survey caution, “reflecting in part uncertainty about the meaning of the term ‘sexual intercourse.’ It is safe to assume that 8th and 9th graders know what is being asked, and for these two grades, nearly one in five report experience with sexual intercourse.”

Trouble Spots

The survey indicates a number of areas in which programs for young people would seem particularly important, according to the report. “Trouble spots” include:

The number of young adolescents who worry about sexual and physical abuse. Some 23 percent of 5th graders worry “very much” or “quite a bit” about sexual abuse; 17 percent worry about being physically abused by their parents; and 18 percent worry about getting beaten up at school.

Adolescent use of alcohol. About 28 percent of 9th graders and 12 percent of 5th graders reported being drunk once or more during the previous 12 months.

The relatively commonplace occurrence of some forms of aggression among young adolescents, particularly boys. About 64 percent of the young adolescent boys reported that they had “hit or beat up another kid” during the previous 12 months; 16 percent of the boys reported they had been involved in six or more fights during that period.

Representatives of the sponsoring organizations were expected to meet last weekend to discuss developing new youth programs based on the results of the survey. Several leaders of the organizations expressed reluctance to discuss the survey until after the meeting.

A version of this article appeared in the February 29, 1984 edition of Education Week as School Performance Tops List of Adolescent Worries