Does your child’s school support mental health and well-being?

Returning guest contributor Michael Strong is co-founder of the Kọ School + Incubator. He joins us on the blog today to discuss an important but often overlooked factor in adolescent well-being: school connectedness.

I’ve spent most of my life developing small, personalized schools that provide supportive environments for teens. For decades it has been obvious to me that a teen’s connection to a school is one of the most important factors in adolescent well-being. The research community is finally beginning to recognize this.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported in 2009 on the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health:

School connectedness was found to be the strongest protective factor for both boys and girls to decrease substance use, school absenteeism, early sexual initiation, violence, and risk of unintentional injury (e.g., drinking and driving, not wearing seat belts). In this same study, school connectedness was second in importance, after family connectedness, as a protective factor against emotional distress, disordered eating, and suicidal ideation and attempts.

Families are certainly important. But note that school connectedness is even more important than family connectedness with respect to a teen’s propensity to engage in multiple dangerous behaviors (substance abuse, violence, drinking, and driving). Moreover, school connectedness is the second most important factor, after family, to guard against clinical depression, eating disorders, and suicide.

What is “school connectedness”? Teens were asked:

How strongly do you agree or disagree with each of the following statements:
  • I feel close to people at this school.
  • I am happy to be at this school.
  • I feel like I am part of this school.
  • The teachers at this school treat students fairly.
  • I feel safe in my school.

A 2003 analysis of the responses of 36,000 teens discovered remarkable correlations between “school connectedness” and well-being. Summarized as “Improving the Odds: The Untapped Power of Schools to Improve the Health of Teens,” this research led to the CDC’s public position on the importance of school connection and adolescent well-being.

Researchers are only now discovering just how deeply these connections go. For instance, a 2007 article in the Journal of Adolescent Health discovered a direct connection between early teen experiences and mental health. They surveyed a cohort of almost 3,000 teens at grade 8, grade 10, and one year after graduation:

Overall, young people’s experiences of early secondary school and their relationships at school continue to predict their moods, their substance use in later years, and their likelihood of completing secondary school. Students with good school and good social connectedness are less likely to experience subsequent mental health issues and be involved in health risk behaviors, and are more likely to have good educational outcomes.

In a world in which an estimated one third of teens are on prescription medication, and almost half of those are on psychoactive substances (medications addressing depression and hyperactivity), it is important for more parents to realize that school may be a causal factor with respect to their child’s depression.

Another cohort study of 2,000 teens states bluntly in its report title: “School Connectedness Is an Underemphasized Parameter in Adolescent Mental Health.” It explicitly suggests that a lack of school connectedness is a causal factor in mental health issues.

School connectedness also predicted depressive symptoms 1 year later for both boys and girls, anxiety symptoms for girls, and general functioning for boys, even after controlling for prior symptoms. . . . Results suggest a stronger than previously reported association with school connectedness and adolescent depressive symptoms in particular and a predictive link from school connectedness to future mental health problems.

Pharmaceutical companies invest significant marketing dollars into persuading parents and health care practitioners that depression is a biochemical disorder to be corrected by pharmaceuticals. But what if a significant portion of adolescent dysfunction and mental illness is actively caused by a child’s feeling of disconnection from the school community?

A recent dissertation on schools and depression summarizes the scale of the issue:

Depression is a debilitating condition that is increasingly recognized among youth, especially adolescents. Nearly a third of adolescents experience a depressive episode by age 19 and an increasing number of youth experience depressed mood, subsyndromal symptoms, and minor depression. The prevalence of depression is particularly high among female, racial minority and sexual minority youth. . . . major depression and subthreshold depressive symptoms often first appear during the adolescent years. Rates of depression steadily increase from ages 12 to 15. Based on retrospective studies of depressed adults and prospective studies of youth, major depression is most likely to emerge during the mid-adolescent years (ages 13–15). Prospective studies that follow the same children over time reveal a dramatic increase in the prevalence of major depressive episodes after age 11 and again after age 15, with a flattening of rates in young adulthood (Kim-Cohen et al., 2003).

Meanwhile, a Gallup poll finds that only 44 percent of high school students feel engaged at school.

As a lifelong educator who has seen literally hundreds of children improve their well-being by means of transferring to a school at which they felt more connected, these are not merely hypothetical speculations. I believe we have a mental health catastrophe among our teens, and massive disconnection from schooling is a major causal factor in this catastrophe.

The CDC goes on to describe four factors that can improve school connectedness:

1. Adult support: “In the school setting, students feel supported and cared for when they see school staff dedicating their time, interest, attention, and emotional support to them. Students need to feel that adults care about them as individuals as well as about their academic achievement. Smaller schools may encourage more personal relationships among students and staff and allow for personalized learning.”

2. Belonging to a positive peer group: “Students’ health and educational outcomes are influenced by the characteristics of their peers, such as how socially competent peer group members are or whether the peer group supports pro-social behavior. Being part of a stable peer network protects students from being victimized or bullied.”

3. Commitment to education: “It is important that both students and adults are committed to learning and are involved in school activities. Students’ dedication to their own education is associated with the degree to which they perceive that their peers and important adults in their lives 1) believe school is important and 2) act on those beliefs. . . . School staff who are dedicated to the education of their students build school communities that allow students to develop emotionally, socially, and mentally, as well as academically. Committed adults engage students in learning, foster mutual respect and caring, and meet the personal learning needs of each student.”

4. School environment: “A positive school environment, often called school climate, is characterized by caring and supportive interpersonal relationships; opportunities to participate in school activities and decision-making; and shared positive norms, goals, and values. One study found that schools with a higher average sense-of-community score (i.e., composite of students’ perception of caring and supportive interpersonal relationships and their ability to be autonomous and have influence in the classroom) had significantly lower average student drug use and delinquency.”

Is your child experiencing healthy school-connectedness? All parents should take these issues very seriously, before their teens experience much more serious challenges.

Please share this article with your friends so we can begin a national debate on how we can help address our most pressing teen issues—including, according to the CDC, “ . . . substance use, school absenteeism, early sexual initiation, violence, and risk of unintentional injury (e.g., drinking and driving, not wearing seat belts) . . . emotional distress, disordered eating, and suicidal ideation and attempts”—through authentic human relationships rather than pharmaceuticals. It is wonderful that we are now much more attentive about the foods that we put into our children. Now we need to focus on the ways in which they may be supported by their school environments.

Michael Strong