Defining the Problem

By Wassef, Adel; Ingham, Denise et al. | Adolescence, Fall 1995 | Go to article overview

Defining the Problem


Wassef, Adel, Ingham, Denise, Collins, Melissa Lassiter, Mason, Gayle, Adolescence


Early recognition and management of emotional distress and behavioral problems in high school students present a great challenge. This section addresses the prevalence and seriousness of this issue as well as its relationship to dropping out of school. It also addresses how psychosocial stressors impact on students' well-being and ability to function.

To place the issue of emotional distress and behavioral problems in high schools into perspective and devise practical solutions, it is important to evaluate the magnitude of the problem. In a study of 497 adolescents from three high schools in a large metropolitan area in the Midwest, representing a broad socioeconomic spectrum, Offer et al. (1991) noted that 22% suffered from psychosocial distress. Frymier and Gansneder (1989) evaluated the records of 22,018 students and found that one fourth to one third were "At-Risk," meaning that they met six or more of 45 criteria previously identified as having a negative impact on student outcome. The social arrangement in which the students studied/lived was typical of, if not better than, that encountered in an average school. Several of the 45 criteria used can be linked or attributed to societal changes which increased psychosocial pressure on adolescents, e.g., higher divorce rate.

Despite the prevalence of the problems, there is a dearth of long-term studies examining the effect of psychosocial burdens on the future development of adolescents. However, comprehensive, prospective, longitudinal study of health, development, and social adjustment from the age of 4 to 18 years was carried out in Uppsala, Sweden to assess the effect of psychosocial burdens on 1,715 children born in 1965 (Mell-bin et al., 1992b). The analysis showed that 11.8% had a severe psychosocial burden which could hamper their future life as adults.

DuBois (1992), in a two-year longitudinal study, examined the relationship between stressful life events and social supports to psychological distress and school performance among 166 early adolescents (mean age = 13.5 years). Both stress and support variables made significant contributions to the prediction of subsequent psychological distress. Stress also made a significant contribution to the prediction of subsequent school performance. Evidence of reciprocal and interactive linkages also was found, including effects of psychological distress and school performance on subsequent stresses and supports, as well as greater adaptive impact of school-based supportive resources under conditions of heightened risk outside of school. Thus, stress can affect behavior and performance especially at times of increased vulnerability.

Since levels of stress increase as students enter high school, they are forced to cope with these as well as the many simultaneous biological and social definition changes which occur at this stage of their life (Simmons et al., 1987).

Several stressors contribute to one of the most serious behavioral problems - dropping out of school (Phi Delta Kappan, 1989). These include pressures from the family (e.g., family dissolution), peers (e.g., pressure to use drugs or to become sexually active which increases the risk of pregnancy), and culture (e.g., the role expectation of taking care of certain family needs rather than finish school). Also, identity conflict arises between "the adolescent-as-student" and "the adolescent-as-sexual-being" with the latter typically being dominant. The need for a source of income is also an important factor (Phi Delta Kappan, 1989) especially among Hispanics who accounted for over one third of the high school dropout rate in 1991 for those between the ages of 16 and 24. According to Celis (1992), the Hispanic students' dropout rate is four times that of Caucasians.

Each year 700,000 students drop out of school permanently, which has countless devastating effects; for instance, approximately half of the heads of welfare families, two thirds of the prisoners, and 80% of the unwed teenage mothers are school dropouts.

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