School Connectedness and the Transition into and out of Health-Risk Behavior among Adolescents: A Comparison of Social Belonging and Teacher Support

Article excerpt

Supportive and caring relations within families promote academic achievement and protect against involvement in health-risk behaviors by adolescents. (1-4) Similarly, supportive and caring relationships within schools (henceforth, school connectedness) promote academic motivation among adolescents. (5-11) Much less is known, however, about the influence of school connectedness on adolescent health-risk behaviors. Previous research generally suffers from two limitations. First, most research is cross-sectional. (12-15) The longitudinal research that does exist does not distinguish between initiation or escalation or reduction of health-risk behaviors. (16,17) Second, school connectedness has generally been treated as a broad construct that combines students' perceptions of safety, support, belonging and engagement. (12,13,16,17) Such a broad conceptualization does not provide clear guidance to policy makers and practitioners on how to increase school connectedness. This paper addresses these limitations by exploring the association between two dimensions of school connectedness--perceived teacher support and social belonging--and the initiation, escalation and reduction of participation in six adolescent health-risk behaviors.

BACKGROUND

Cross-sectional studies show that school connectedness is associated with mental health and lower rates of involvement in multiple health-risk behaviors, including substance use, sexual intercourse, violence, delinquency, and suicidality. (12-15) One quasi-experimental study, the Seattle Social Development Study, evaluated the effects of increasing the school social bond among elementary school students. The intervention group had significantly higher levels of school connectedness than the control group at ages 13 and 18, and was less likely to engage in violence or substance use. (16,17)

Three dimensions of school connectedness are emphasized in educational research: social support, belonging and engagement. (11,18-22) When young people receive empathy, praise, and attention in a clear and consistent fashion, they experience social support. The experience of social support generates a sense of belonging which, in turn, leads to increased engagement and academic motivation. Although this theoretical model, originally laid out by Connell and Wellborn, (11) has been empirically supported for academic outcomes, it has not been tested for health outcomes. Most previous studies linking school connectedness to health-risk behaviors combine the different dimensions of school connectedness into a single measure or explore the effect of a single dimension. Drawing on the theoretical framework of Connell and Wellborn, we hypothesize that teacher support will lead to delayed initiation of health-risk behaviors, less escalation of involvement once the behavior is initiated, and increased cessation of health-risk behaviors, and that the effect of teacher support will be mediated by social belonging.

METHODS

The Sample

Data were drawn from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health), a nationally representative sample of American adolescents in grades 7-12 in 1995. The primary sampling frame for Add Health was US high schools. A stratified sample of 80 high schools was selected with probability proportional to the school's enrollment. A single feeder school was selected for each high school with probability of selection proportional to the percentage of the high school's entering class that came from the feeder school. Add Health includes private, religious, and public schools from communities located in urban, suburban, and rural areas of the country. (23)

All students in the eligible grade range at the participating schools were asked to complete in-school questionnaires during the 1994-1995 academic year. Based on rosters of students from each school and the in-school questionnaires, a representative sample of students was selected for wave 1 in-home data collection. …