School & District Management

Declaration Calls for More Caring Environments in Schools

By Debra Viadero — September 21, 2004 4 min read
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A group of 23 researchers, educators, and government leaders, in a set of papers being published this week, is urging schools to do more to make students feel cared for and connected.

The statement, which the group is calling the Wingspread Declaration, draws on more than a decade of research in several fields showing that students who enjoy a sense of “connectedness” with their schools get better grades and are less likely to smoke, use drugs or alcohol, attempt suicide, join gangs, or engage in sex during their teenage years.

Read the six papers of the Wingspread group in the special September 2004 issue of the Journal of Public Health.

The declaration came out of a conference sponsored by the Atlanta-based U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Along with six studies commissioned as part of that effort, it is scheduled to appear this week in a special issue of the Journal of Public Health.

“While schools are very focused on benchmarks on achieving certain academic outcomes, the question still remains, ‘How do you get there?’ ” said Dr. Robert W. Blum, the director of the project and the guest editor for the special issue. “We now have extremely good evidence that attention to those factors that create a climate of connection for kids is a strong mechanism for getting there.”

The statement’s authors say research shows that 40 percent to 60 percent of secondary school students say they feel disengaged from school. That’s too many, they say, in the face of new and emerging studies suggesting that students’ sense of school engagement can inoculate them against a wide range of risky behaviors—and also keep those behaviors from escalating if they’ve already started.

“I think adults’ roles in school have a bigger impact than those of us who don’t work in schools thought,” said Clea McNeely, the lead author of one of the studies featured in the journal.

Making Connections

Ms. McNeely’s study, drawing on a subsample of 13,750 students who took part in successive waves of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, found that students who characterized their teachers as “fair” and “supportive” were less likely to progress from never getting drunk to occasional or regular inebriation, or to go from having an occasional cigarette to becoming a regular smoker.

The study found that the same sense of connectedness also seemed to keep students from starting to smoke or drink, try marijuana, engage in weapons-related violence, or contemplate suicide. It had little effect, however, in getting students to end their problem behaviors altogether once they had already started.

In comparison, though, students’ sense of “social belonging” did not seem to insulate them from problem behaviors. Ms. McNeely said that may be because students derive such a feeling from their peer groups, rather than from adults.

Ms. McNeely, who is an assistant professor of pediatrics and adolescent health at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, said her findings suggest that schools should target efforts to promote student engagement to middle school in order to head off problem behaviors before they begin.

Another study in the special issue, this one tracking students who took part in a Seattle-based program to promote better social development in children, found that the positive effects associated with high levels of school bonding can stay with students through their early adult years.

Deliberate Approach

Joyce L. Epstein, a Johns Hopkins University education researcher who has studied families’ and students’ engagement with school, said it was important for researchers outside education to weigh in with their findings on school connectedness. Ms. Epstein, who was not part of the Wingspread group, said all the research inside and outside the field puts the onus on schools now to pay more attention to how they can foster better relationships with educators, students, and families.

“We put a lot of responsibility on schools to wake up and alter the way they organize children to learn,” she said.

Some of the ways schools can build better ties with students, according to the Wingspread document, include: setting high academic expectations; applying fair and consistent discipline policies; fostering trusting relationships among students, teachers, administrators, and families; ensuring that a supportive adult watches over every student; creating small learning environments; and even reducing lunchroom-noise levels.

The last recommendation, Dr. Blum said, comes from research suggesting that cafeteria noise can be a proxy for measuring the level of disorder or disruptive behaviors in a school.

But Dr. Blum, who is also the chairman of the department of population and family-health sciences at Johns Hopkins’ school of public health, also worries that, because terms like “connectedness” may appear to be soft, educators may believe they are already addressing the issue.

“The issue isn’t one of saying, well, we already do this,” he said. “It’s to say how can we move from where we are to the point where more kids feel part of school, and perhaps we need to be more deliberate and systemic in our approach.”

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