School Connectedness

It matters to student health 

Laura MacKay

Reprinted from "Schools" issue of Visions Journal, 2009, 5 (2), pp. 18-19

Children and youth need to feel connected to others in their social environment in order to flourish. For most young people, schools are not just about academics. Schools are where they find their friends, have lunch, socialize, discuss problems and interact with adult role models. Schools are also where young people can talk to the school counsellor, get health and nutrition information and vaccinations, exercise in gym class and participate in after-school sports.



Not surprisingly, these connections influence school success. These connections are also important in supporting better personal health, including decreased substance use and better mental well-being.

What is school connectedness?

School connectedness is a general term to describe a sense of belonging to the school environment. The school environment includes people, places and policies—other students, teachers, staff, administrators, classroom settings, activities and school rules, for example.

Students feel connected when:

  • they feel they are a part of the school

  • they are happy and like school

  • they are engaged at school

  • they feel safe at school

  • they feel accepted and valued

  • they participate in school activities

  • they feel that teachers are fair and care about them

  • they have good relationships with other students

The connection between school connectedness and health outcomes

Connections to school and relationships with teachers are important protective factors in the lives of children and youth. Having good relationships, feeling safe and feeling like they belong at school helps youth to make healthy choices.

Research has consistently shown that youth who feel connected to their school engage in fewer risky behaviours.1-3 For example, in British Columbia, youth in grades seven through 12 who felt connected to their schools were less likely to: 2

  • use cigarettes

  • use marijuana or other illegal drugs

  • drink and drive

  • binge drink (have more than five alcoholic drinks at one time)

  • be involved in aggressive acts such as physical fights or carrying a weapon

  • attempt suicide

Youth who are at greater risk for problems because of abuse or unstable circumstances at home are also protected by school connectedness. A high level of school connectedness felt by at-risk youth in BC reduces the odds that they will attempt suicide, have substance use problems or behave violently.3 Positive outcomes are also increased: vulnerable youth who feel connected are more likely to report good or excellent health, do well in school and want to continue with school past grade 12.3

Although some at-risk youth find it hard to feel connected to school, not all do. For example, many at-risk and high-risk youth in alternate education programs in BC, feel highly connected to their school environment.4 Higher connectedness is related to lower drug use for youth in these supportive school programs.4

A sense of connection to school also influences mental health. Studies have shown that youth who do not have a sense of school belonging are more likely to experience emotional distress, thoughts of suicide and substance use problems.5 Among younger teens, a high level of school connectedness is related to fewer depressive symptoms over time.6 In contrast, students who feel less connected to their school develop more depressive symptoms over time.6

What can schools do to foster school connectedness?

There is no single strategy that will create a greater sense of connectedness. Instead, schools need to implement a variety of approaches so that students feel valued, included, respected, cared about and have someone to turn to in times of need.

Current evidence suggests that to improve school connectedness schools should:7

  • set high expectations for school performance and provide academic support to all students

  • encourage families to also have high expectations for achievement and graduation

  • have fair rules, which students have agreed to, for discipline

  • establish trusting relationships among students, teachers and families

  • help students feel close to at least one adult at school

  • ensure skilled and capable teachers are hired to meet the different learning needs of students

The Healthy Schools Network in BC (www.bced.gov.bc.ca/health/hsnetwork) has an assessment tool that helps schools plan for improved school health and connectedness.

A number of schools in BC have established creative plans to help kids feel more connected to their school environment. For example, the Mount Prevost Middle School in the Cowichan Valley began by creating greater awareness and understanding of school connectedness among students.8 In order to be better connected, students need to understand what that is. The school formed student advisory teams so students can give input and promote school events. A creative board game format is used to introduce students to various resources, issues and possible solutions to problems.

Some students will find it easy to be connected to the school environment; others will find it more difficult. Programs to create greater school connectedness will help those students who find it harder to be connected because of negative school experiences or problems getting along with others. By increasing school connectedness, we can help young people attain better academic success and, perhaps more importantly, better physical and mental health.

 
About the author

Laura is a Post-doctoral Fellow at the University of British Columbia in the School of Nursing. Her research examines the relationships between youth assets such as family and school connectedness, and adolescent health

Footnotes:
  1. Catalano, R.F., Haggerty, K.P., Oesterle, S. et al. (2004). The importance of bonding to school for health development: Findings from the Social Development Research Group. Journal of School Health, 74(7), 252-261.

  2. McCreary Centre Society. (2003). BC Adolescent Health Survey (2003) fact sheet: Connections to school among BC youth. Vancouver: Author.

  3. Saewyc, E., Wang, N., Chittenden, M. et al. (2006). Building resilience in vulnerable youth. Vancouver: McCreary Centre Society.

  4. Smith, A., Peled, M., Albert, M. et al. (2008). Making the grade: A review of alternate education programs in British Columbia. Vancouver: McCreary Centre Society.

  5. Resnick, M.D., Bearman, P.S., Blum, R.W. et al. (1997). Protecting adolescents from harm. Findings from the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health. Journal of the American Medical Association, 287(10), 823–832.

  6. Shochet, I.M., Dadds, M.R., Ham, D. et al. (2006). School connectedness is an underemphasized parameter in adolescent mental health: Results of a community prediction study. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 35(2), 170-179.

  7. [No authors listed]. (2004). Wingspread declaration on school connections. Journal of School Health, 74(7), 233-234.

  8. BC Ministry of Education (2007/08). Network of performance based schools: 2007-08 healthy schools case studies. www.bced.gov.bc.ca/health/hsnetwork/hsn_year_end_case_studies_08.pdf.

 

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