Student Well-Being

Helping Teenagers Feel ‘Connected’ to School Yields Benefits 20 Years Later

By Sarah D. Sparks — June 24, 2019 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Adolescents can be challenging for educators to keep engaged—but putting in the effort to make them feel connected to school can pay off well into adulthood.

In a study published this morning in the journal Pediatrics, researchers at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracked more than 14,000 middle and high school students over 20 years. They found that students who felt connected to their school and family as adolescents grew up safer and with better mental health than those who were disconnected as teenagers. Connected adolescents were less than half as likely be the victims of physical violence, to use illicit drugs, or to be diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease by their 20s or 30s, a significant decline in risk.

“The work that we do in school—particularly in terms of making [students] feel more connected, feel safer, feel like the adults around them care about them and want to see them succeed—that has impacts well into adulthood,” said Kathleen Ethier, the director of the CDC’s division of adolescent and school health and a co-author of the study. “And that’s exciting to know because it’s something we know how to do.”

The study comes as districts increasingly look for ways to improve student-teacher relationships and make students from traditionally underrepresented groups feel more welcome in school.

Separate Family and School Benefits

Researchers used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, which asked students in grades 7 to 12 questions about how they felt about school (such as whether they “feel that your teachers care about you”) and family (such as whether they agreed that “people in your family understand you.”) When the students were in their 20s and 30s, the researchers asked them about whether they had emotional problems or suicidal thoughts or attempts; if they had been the victims of physical violence or committed it themselves; if they had used illicit drugs or abused prescription drugs; if they practiced safe sex, or had been a victim of physical or sexual violence in a relationship.

After the researchers took into account the students’ initial family income and their risky behaviors as adolescents, they found students who had felt strongly connected to school as teenagers grew up to have significantly less emotional distress, suicidal thoughts, and drug use. They were at lower risk of violence, either in general or in intimate relationships, and were less likely to have multiple sex partners or a sexually transmitted disease, than students who had felt little connection in school. Moreover, students who felt connected to either school or family were significantly more likely to complete a four-year college degree.

Students who were deeply connected to both their families and schools had the best outcomes as adults—for example, they were three times as likely to complete a four-year degree as students who were unconnected to school or family. But school engagement significantly protected students against drug use, engaging in risky sex, or being victims of physical violence—even when the students felt very disconnected at home.

“I think the good news here is that school connectedness and family connectedness both had independent impacts,” Ethier said. Though the study does not show how much schools can “make up for” family issues, she said, improving a student’s sense of belonging at school “remains an important tool.”

Based on separate studies of its work with school districts, Ethier said the CDC recommends that schools can boost student engagement by:


  • Providing teachers more training on classroom management, particularly positive behavior management and ways to make classrooms feel inclusive;
  • Including student led-clubs that give students safe spaces and access to supportive adults in the school;
  • Facilitating positive youth development activities including mentoring, and community service learning; and
  • Supporting positive parent engagement, including programs to support honest parent-child discussions and ways to help families connect with their teenagers.

“The responsibility of supporting young people through their formative teenage years can be a shared effort between parents, other family, and school staff,” said Riley Steiner, a CDC health scientist, in a statement on the study. “These individuals and many others in a teen’s life can have a profound impact on the adults they will become.”

The CDC offered a separate report of tips for schools on building student connectedness.


Related:

Do you have a question about education research, or just want to know what the evidence says about that pesky instructional problem? Let me know! Drop me a line at ssparks@epe.org, or

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being Opinion What 9/11 Can Teach Us Today
We can only guess at what weighs on other people. Hurts and wounds are not always visible on the outside.
Pamela Cantor
1 min read
Images shows a stylized artistic landscape with soothing colors.
Getty
Student Well-Being Opinion Educators, Be Future-Ready, But Don’t Ignore the Present
Being ready for what lies ahead is important, but we also need to gain a better understanding of the here and now.
5 min read
shutterstock 226918177
Shutterstock
Student Well-Being Opinion How to Prioritize Student Well-Being This Year
Use the Student Thriving Index to find out where your kids stand. Because you cannot manage what you cannot measure.
2 min read
Images shows a stylized artistic landscape with soothing colors.
Getty
Student Well-Being Spotlight Spotlight on Supporting Teachers & Students
In this Spotlight, evaluate your district and what supports your schools offer, assess attendance policies to avoid burnout, and more