• By Laura Whybra
  • Posted on Monday 25th November, 2013

Being “at home” at school

strong> In a study of almost 600 Los Angeles teens, the sense of belonging students felt in high school changed over time – at least for the girls. Between the ages of 14 and 15, girls’ school belonging was higher than boys’ overall. But during the course of high school, girls’ sense of belonging declined slightly, while boys’ remained stable. And it matters, argue two California-based psychologists, because the years in which students felt they belonged were also the years when they were most motivated at school.A sense of belonging is important to everyone. However, it is of particular importance for adolescents during their time at school. At this age, adolescents approach a period when education is no longer compulsory. Their sense of belonging in school may dictate if they leave education for good – a decision that has life long economic and social implications. School belonging is believed to be generally high during elementary school, but it declines significantly during adolescence. Perhaps the school environment does not match the student’s developmental needs – especially needs that are not necessarily educational. For instance, adolescents’ need for positive peer relationships increases dramatically during this time, and school may not facilitate this. Similarly, the strict approach of most schools in relation to discipline does not create an environment for positive teacher-student bonding. The concern, of course, is that students who do not feel welcome, happy, and valued at school may be more likely to lose the motivation to engage with school. This is precisely what does happen, according to researchers from the University of California at Los Angeles. And while boys’ sense of belonging was remarkably stable, girls’ declined by about 7% from the first year of high school to the final year. Sense of belonging and gender The recent study, carried out in Los Angeles-area high schools, looked at how school belonging changed across time. The study followed 572 students between the ages of 13 to 18 from European, Asian, and Latin American backgrounds. In each of the four years of high school, the students completed a questionnaire that examined school belonging, academic achievement, the perceived value of school, and the perceived usefulness of school.Girls felt a higher sense of school belonging than did boys at the beginning of high school (ages 13-14), but their level of belonging declined over time. However, the decline was steepest for girls from Latin American backgrounds. Boys’ sense of school belonging remained steady across time, regardless of ethnic background. By the end of the school years, no gender difference was observed. One possible explanation for the gender difference is access to extracurricular activities, the researchers say. Extracurricular activities have been shown to create connections at school, but when extracurriculars focus on sports, they may provide more opportunities for boys to engage with school. Although this was not measured in the current study, it might help to explain why boys’ sense of school belonging was constant across time while girls’ average level declined slightly. Sense of belonging and academic achievement In contrast to previous research, this study found no connection for individuals between school belonging and grades. In other words, years in which a teenager expressed a stronger than usual sense of connection to their school were not necessarily the years in which he or she had higher grades.However, the research did indicate that school belonging was associated with students’ perception of the value of school. That is, during years in which high school students had a strong connection with their school, they were more likely to say that school was enjoyable and useful. The researchers suggest that a strong sense of school belonging may help students to continue to enjoy school, even if they are struggling academically. If this is the case, encouraging school belonging may be a positive route for interventions aimed at reducing school dropout rates.Interestingly, boys’ school belonging rating was particularly strongly related to how useful they thought school to be. A sense of school belonging may therefore be a key factor that motivates boys to stay in education. On average, boys are less likely to graduate from high school than girls, so encouraging a sense of belonging among boys may be particularly helpful in reducing male dropout rates. Despite interesting results, the study does have some limitations. It examined students from only three schools, which is too a small a sample for examining school-level effects. Secondly, the study did not measure school context. It could be that the research found few notable differences in school belonging between ethnic groups because none of the schools in the study had a dominant ethnic majority. Overall, the research draws attention to an aspect of school life that, given the current focus on test scores, is sometimes forgotten. Some students enjoy school more than others; some feel at home there more than others. Perhaps unsurprisingly, helping students feel valued and welcomed may be an important part of what schools can do to help their students. References Gillen-O’Neel, C. & Fuligni, A. (2012). A longitudinal study of school belonging and academic motivation across high school. Child Development. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2012.01862

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