Connecting Students to Schools to Support Their Emotional Well-Being and Academic Success

Article excerpt

RESEARCH-BASED PRACTICE

Students' sense of belonging to school communities decreases as they progress through primary and secondary education (Marks, 2000; Ryan 8c Patrick, 2001). In fact, approximately half (4096-60%) of students are chronically disengaged from school by the time they reach high school (Byrk 8c Schneider, 2002; Furrer 8c Skinner, 2003; Klem 8c Connell, 2004). Furthermore, chronic school disengagement contributes to school dropout (Wehlage, Rutter, Smith, Lesko, 8c Fernandez, 1990), which is a significant social problem, as 28% of U.S. students do not graduate from high school (Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, 2011).

Thus, a lack of school engagement negatively affects millions of students, and efforts to connect students to schools should be at the forefront of current initiatives to improve education. However, an earnest discussion on how to make schools more open, welcoming, and nurturing is largely absent from the ongoing dialogue on improving student, teacher, and school performance. Although school connectedness often is overlooked as schools face significant pressures regarding academic performance, academic and lifelong success is related to feeling emotionally engaged and. connected to the school environment. In this regard, school psychologists, who are important members of school communities with advanced knowledge of how to support students' academic performance and emotional well-being, are well positioned to lead efforts to increase school connectedness.

School connectedness subsumes a variety of terms that are used in several disciplines (e.g., medicine, education, and psychology), such as relatedness, school belonging, school attachment, school bonding, school climate, school connection, school engagement, and teacher support (Johnson, 2009; Libbey, 2004). The construct involves "the belief by students that adults in the school care about their learning as well as about them as individuals" (Wingspread Declaration on School Connections, 2004, p. 233). More broadly, definitions of school connectedness also can include distal members of school communities (e.g., community leaders, grandparents) and how these individuals interact with primary caregivers, teachers, and students to effect education (Rowe, Stewart, & Patterson, 2007).

Several theoretical orientations suchas the belongingness hypothesis (e.g., humans have emotional need to be an accepted member of a group) and Maslov/s hierarchy of needs (e.g., basic needs must be met before individuals will strongly desire secondary or higher-level needs) imply that the feelings of belonging and social connectedness are fundamental human needs (Baumeister & Leary, 2000; Maslow, 1943). Therefore, along with efforts to educate and to foster students' healthy academic and intellectual development, the onus is on schools and members of school communities to reach out and connect with students on a social-emotional level.

OUTCOMES ASSOCIATED WITH SCHOOL CONNECTEDNESS

School connectedness was first investigated as an important factor in student retention and dropout prevention (e.g., Wehlage et al., 1990) . However, research on the construct has expanded over the past 2 decades. For example, school connectedness was the strongest protective factor for both girls and boys for decreasing drug and alcohol use, truancy, early sexual behaviors, violence, and risky behavior (e.g., drunk driving) in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which included more than 36,000 middle and high school students (Resnicket al., 1997). Similarly, a study by Dornbusch, Erikson, Laird, and Wong (2001) found a relation between school connectedness and lower use of alcohol, marijuana, and cigarettes in adolescents, and a study by Catalano, Oesterle, Fleming, and Hawkins (2004) found school connectedness to be associated with lower rates of substance use, delinquency, violent behavior, and gang membership. …