School Climate and Aggression among New Zealand High School Students

By Marsh, Louise; McGee, Rob et al. | New Zealand Journal of Psychology, March 2014 | Go to article overview

School Climate and Aggression among New Zealand High School Students


Marsh, Louise, McGee, Rob, Williams, Sheila, New Zealand Journal of Psychology


While the influence of the family on social behaviours continues through adolescence, other contexts become important as children develop their own identity (Currie, Roberts, Morgan, Smith, Settertobulte, Samdel, & Rasmussen, 2004; Research Unit in Health and Behavioural Change, 1998). Adolescents spend much of their lives in activities associated with their school, and the school's social, psychological and learning climate all have a strong impact on the emotional and social development of young people (Currie et al., 2004). Two aspects of adolescents' experience of school are especially salient, namely school climate and school engagement. School climate refers to the atmosphere or ethos of a school, and the nature and quality of the interpersonal relationships and communication patterns within the school (Welsh, 2000). School engagement has been used synonymously with terms such as bonding, attachment, connectedness, involvement and commitment (Kodjo, Auinger, & Ryan, 2003; McNeely & Falci, 2004; Waters, Cross & Runions, 2009; Wilson, 2004; Wright & Fitzpatrick, 2006). Despite researchers not always clearly distinguishing among these terms, Fredericks, Blumenfield and Paris (2004) argue that school engagement is a multidimensional construct comprising behavioural, emotional and cognitive components. Engagement has been linked to markers of school success including academic achievement, but it has been increasingly identified as important in reducing health compromising behaviours as well (Fredericks et al., 2004; McNeely & Falci, 2004; West, Sweeting, & Leyland, 2004). For example, New Zealand (NZ) research has found that students reporting high levels of school engagement, also reported fewer health compromising behaviours such as physical fighting, substance use, suicidal ideation and risky sexual behaviours, and more health promoting behaviours including being physically active, healthy eating, and engaging in safer sex (Carter, McGee, Taylor, & Williams, 2007; McGee, Carter, Williams, & Taylor, 2005).

In this paper, we examine student perceptions of school climate and their engagement with school, and aggressive behaviours and attitudes in the school context. The culture of a school clearly plays a role in shaping students' experience, and research has emphasised the importance of developing a positive school climate in order to reduce school violence (Brookmeyer, Fanti and Henrich, 2006). Students attending schools with a more positive climate and those feeling connected to their schools engage in less violent behaviours (Brookmeyer et al., 2006). Similarly, NZ research has indicated that students reporting a more positive and fair school climate and feeling part of school life, were less likely to report carrying a weapon in the past month (McGee et al., 2005). International studies have similarly found links between school engagement and adolescent involvement in violence (Blum, Ireland, & Blum, 2003; Kodjo et al., 2003; Resnick, Ireland, & Borowsky, 2004).

To achieve positive health outcomes including less violence at school, it is important to identify predictors of both student engagement and school climate. Zimmer-Gembeck, Chipuer, Hanisch, Creed and McGregor (2006) found that student engagement which reflected interest in and working hard at school, mediated the relationship between school climate (which they refer to as "school fit") and individual academic achievement. School climate was predicted by both the perceived quality of teacher-student and especially the quality of student-peer relationships at school. However, this research was based on only two Australian high schools. Waters, Cross and Shaw (2010), with a larger sample of 39 Australian schools, similarly found that higher levels of school connectedness reflected closer relationships with family and teachers, and higher levels of peer support.

The findings of these two Australian studies support previous overseas research. …

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