School connectedness is a leading protective factor against youth engagement in risky behaviors such as alcohol and drug use, violence and negative sexual behaviors. (1) Similar to self-esteem, positive school connectedness--commonly defined as a feeling that one fits in and belongs--tends to protect youth from engagement in risky health behaviors. (1-3) Positive social and emotional connections can decrease risk-taking behaviors by providing youth with prosocial and empowering opportunities at home, in school, and in the community. (1,3) Within the school setting, youth who feel supported and cared for by their teachers, school staff and peers report feeling more efficacious in making positive, informed decisions and displaying resiliency to life stressors. (4)
Students who feel they fit in at school and who perceive school staff as caring are more likely to choose healthy behaviors and less likely to engage in risky behaviors. Research suggests that students report lower levels of school connectedness in schools that temporarily expel students for relatively minor infractions. (1) Schools with high levels of positive school climate increase the likelihood that their students will positively connect to peers, teachers, and the school as a whole, which are important determinants of academic success. (2) A positive school climate is associated with increased academic achievement and reduced problem behaviors at school.
School connectedness is comprised of warm and caring relationships to adults at school including teachers, administrators and other staff. (5) At the classroom level, teachers emphasizing the importance of social and emotional learning in addition to academic skills have students who report higher levels of school connectedness and school climate. (6) Certain teaching strategies, such as setting high expectations for students, using student engagement techniques, praising students, and linking learning with "real life" are all methods of increasing student connectedness to the school. In addition, teachers employing social and emotional teaching techniques can assist in increasing levels of school connectedness and positive school climate. Teachers can emphasize constructive discipline, effective classroom management, and peaceful resolution of problems, which may result in increased student connection to school. (7)
While the protective effects of school connectedness are well documented, a comprehensive review of the literature found no published study that examined elementary and middle school teachers' use of school connectedness strategies. The present study was therefore conducted to fill such research gaps. The purpose of this study was to examine Ohio elementary and middle school teachers' use of school connectedness strategies and to determine whether their use differed based on teacher/ school factors. Specifically, the following research questions were investigated: (1) To what extent do teachers report using school connectedness strategies?; (2) What are the most commonly used strategies by teachers to connect students to school?; (3) Does use of school connectedness strategies differ based on teacher factors including teachers' grade level, previous connectedness training, perceived role in building positive connections, perceived connectedness to students and other demographic variables?; and (4) Does use of school connectedness strategies differ based on school factors including administration encouragement, presence of a school committee to build connectedness, school priority in getting students positively connected to school and emotional climate of the school?
The participants of the present study were current Ohio elementary and middle school teachers. A sample of teachers' names and email addresses was obtained via electronic teacher databases. An a priori power analysis indicated that a sample size of 382 teachers was needed to result in a representative sample of elementary and middle school teachers for the state. Assuming a response rate of 50%, a total of 764 teachers were required to be sampled. Teachers were asked to voluntarily participate in the study. No incentives were offered to participants. Confidentiality and anonymity were ensured.
Based on a comprehensive review of the literature and Bandura's self-efficacy model, (8) a web-based, electronic survey was developed to examine elementary and middle school teachers' use of school connectedness strategies. The Use of School Connectedness Strategies subscale (28 items) requested teachers to rate how often they used specific school connectedness strategies via a five-point scale (1 = Never, 2 = Less than once a month, 3 = Once a month or more, 4 = Once a week or more, 5 = Everyday). Teachers' perceived role in connecting students to school was assessed via one item that required participants to respond by using a five-point Likert-type scale (1 = Strongly disagree, 5 = Strongly agree) to the following statement, "I feel it is the role of the teacher to try to positively connect with each of his/her students." Teacher factors that were measured included grades taught, whether teachers ever received training during college on how to connect with students (yes/ no), whether teachers ever received training (outside of college) on how to connect with students (yes/no), and whether they felt positively connected to their students (yes/no). School factors that were measured included whether teachers were at a school with administrator encouragement to connect with students (yes/no), a school-based committee to connect students to school (yes/no), and whether their school placed getting students connected as a leading priority (yes/no). Emotional climate of the school was assessed by one item that required participants to rate their school climate using a four-point scale (1 = Extremely warm and positive, 2 = Warm and positive, 3 = Cold and negative, 4 = Extremely cold and negative). The demographics section of the survey (8 items) requested participants to provide information on their sex, race/ethnicity, grade level taught, years as a teacher, years as a teacher at current school, subjects taught, school location (urban/suburban/rural), and highest degree obtained.
To establish face validity, the survey was developed based on a comprehensive review of the professional literature, previous survey instruments and individual discussions with elementary/middle school teachers, school health researchers, and elementary/ middle school students. To establish content validity, the survey was distributed to a panel of six experts: one middle school teacher, one elementary school teacher, two school health professionals, and two survey research experts. Each expert was emailed a copy of the survey and requested to complete the survey and offer comments and suggestions regarding the instrument and its potential effectiveness in addressing the research questions. Experts reviewed both the online version of the survey and the paper version. Suggested revisions were discussed with the research team and those deemed appropriate were incorporated into the final instrument.
Stability reliability was established using test-retest procedures. A convenience sample of teachers (N = 24) from one local school completed the survey on two separate occasions one week apart. Pearson correlation coefficients were subsequently computed and yielded .832 for continuous items or interval response. Kendall's tau-b correlation coefficients were calculated to determine test-retest reliability for categorical response items resulting in .898. Cronbach alphas were computed to assess internal consistency reliability for the parametric Use of Connection-Building Strategies subscale and resulted in [alpha]=.840.
Consent was granted to conduct this research study prior to study implementation by the University Institutional Review Board. This study involved distributing surveys to a random sample of teachers in elementary and middle schools throughout the state of Ohio. Ohio school districts were randomly selected and online school district directories were subsequently obtained which included teachers' names, schools, school locations, and email addresses. Teachers in grades 1 - 8 were randomly selected to participate. In the spring of 2009, each selected school teacher was emailed a research information sheet that informed the teachers of the study purpose and voluntary nature of the study and requested their participation. An email message from the primary investigator was sent to all potential participants with the subject line "Teacher Survey on …