Study of school 'connectedness' identifies adolescents at risk

November 05, 2000

CINCINNATI -- A physician at Children's Hospital Medical Center of Cincinnati has for the first time identified common characteristics in young people who feel "disconnected" from their school environments, a situation that places them at great risk of unsafe behavior and poor health.

Fortunately, several of these factors are potentially modifiable and may help school health providers target youth in need of assistance, according to lead author Andrea Bonny, M.D., a physician in Cincinnati Children's division of Adolescent Medicine. The study is published in the November issue of the journal Pediatrics.

"The extent to which students feel 'connected' to their school environment is an important factor protecting them from unsafe behaviors, such as violence and substance abuse, and poor emotional and physical health," says Dr. Bonny.

"We found that decreasing school connectedness is associated with four potentially changeable factors: declining health status, cigarette use, increasing school nurse visits, and lack of extracurricular involvement. Identifying these factors is the first step toward developing school-based prevention strategies that are targeted correctly to those at the highest behavioral and health risk."

Dr. Bonny surveyed nearly 2,000 students in eight public schools attending grades 7 through 12. The schools were chosen for their high rates of adverse outcomes, such as school failure, teen pregnancy, and child abuse. The survey included more than 100 questions, and a school connectedness score (SCS) was derived from five survey items.

These items are:In addition to the four potentially modifiable factors, black race, female gender, and urban schools were also associated with a lower SCS.

The researchers defined school connectedness as an adolescent's experience of caring at school and sense of closeness to school personnel and environment.

"School violence has focused national attention on identifying youth who feel alienated, disconnected or stigmatized," says Dr. Bonny. "Connectedness has also emerged as a new concept in the literature on adolescent risk behavior."

For example, studies have shown that high school students with high connectedness have lower rates of emotional distress, tendencies toward suicide, violence, substance abuse, and early sexual initiation. School connectedness is more protective than any other factor -- including family connectedness -- against absenteeism, delinquency, multiple drug use, and pregnancy, according to Dr. Bonny.

"The association of school connectedness with health suggests a new strategy for the identification of, and intervention with, young people at highest risk for adverse outcomes," says Dr. Bonny. "School nurses may be an excellent resource for identifying disconnected youth, and school health providers could use these variables as markers of adolescents in need of assistance."

The study was conducted in conjunction with the evaluation of the Children First plan, a project of the Hamilton County Family and Children First Council.

Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center

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