In Brief

Schools with a positive climate--characterized by such factors as well-managed classrooms and moderate discipline policies--may be a key to reducing adolescents' risks of substance use, emotional distress, deviant behavior, violence and pregnancy, according to University of Minnesota researchers.

Research has already shown that students' connectedness to their school reduces their involvement in risky behaviors. Clea McNeely, DrPH, James Nonnemaker, PhD, and Robert Blum, MD, PhD, sought to find out what factors promote that connectedness. Drawing on data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, they looked at how classroom, school, teacher and student characteristics related to more than 71,000 middle and high school students' reports of school connectedness. They found that school climate was the single biggest predictor of teens feeling connected to their schools.

"It doesn't matter whether you have 20 or 30 kids in a class. It doesn't matter whether the teacher has a graduate degree," says Blum. "What matters is the environment that a student enters when he walks through the classroom door."

Specifically, the researchers found that students' connection to their schools is associated with:

  • School size. The smaller the total school enrollment, the more connected students felt--down to a total school size of 600 students. Although the average number of students per classroom can affect academic performance, it did not predict whether students felt connected to their school. Moreover, school type (public, private or parochial) and school location (urban, suburban or rural) did not predict connectedness.

  • Teachers. Teachers' experience and education level had no effect, but students were more connected to their schools when their teachers managed classrooms well. "This speaks to the ability of teachers to make kids feel like they are important members of the school," Blum explains. "Other research has shown that when teachers are empathetic and consistent, allow students to manage themselves and encourage them to make decisions, the classroom is a better place--and so is the school."

  • Discipline policies. Students in schools with harsh discipline, such as zero-tolerance policies, reported lower school connectedness. However, researchers are unsure if the harsh discipline policies make students feel less connected to school or if some other factor is at play. "Still," Blum notes, "we found that students in schools with [harsh] discipline policies actually report feeling less safe at school--since feeling safe at school was a component of school connectedness--than do students in schools with more moderate policies."

Nearly 40 percent of schools gave out-of-school suspension the first time students are caught smoking, but only 4 percent did the same for a first-time cheating offense.

  • Students' friendships. While specific student demographics, such as race, age and family structure, didn't predict whether teens felt connected to school, the researchers did find better connection when students' social circles included those of different races and gender, instead of only one race or gender. Interestingly, cliques generally became less integrated as the number of minorities rose.

The researchers also found that teens are more connected to school when they have more friends there, and the more socially isolated students are, the less connected they feel. Four percent of students in the study reported having no friends--a finding Blum says is particularly troubling.

The research is published in the Journal of School Health (Vol. 72, No. 4) and a University of Minnesota monograph titled Improving the Odds: The Untapped Power of Schools to Improve the Health of Teens.