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Helping Teenagers Feel 'Connected' to School Yields Benefits 20 Years Later

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Adolescents can be challenging for educators to keep engaged—but putting in the effort to make them feel connected to school can pay off well into adulthood.

In a study published this morning in the journal Pediatrics, researchers at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracked more than 14,000 middle and high school students over 20 years. They found that students who felt connected to their school and family as adolescents grew up safer and with better mental health than those who were disconnected as teenagers. Connected adolescents were less than half as likely be the victims of physical violence, to use illicit drugs, or to be diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease by their 20s or 30s, a significant decline in risk.

"The work that we do in school—particularly in terms of making [students] feel more connected, feel safer, feel like the adults around them care about them and want to see them succeed—that has impacts well into adulthood," said Kathleen Ethier, the director of the CDC's division of adolescent and school health and a co-author of the study. "And that's exciting to know because it's something we know how to do."

The study comes as districts increasingly look for ways to improve student-teacher relationships and make students from traditionally underrepresented groups feel more welcome in school. 

Separate Family and School Benefits

Researchers used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, which asked students in grades 7 to 12 questions about how they felt about school (such as whether they "feel that your teachers care about you") and family (such as whether they agreed that "people in your family understand you.") When the students were in their 20s and 30s, the researchers asked them about whether they had emotional problems or suicidal thoughts or attempts; if they had been the victims of physical violence or committed it themselves; if they had used illicit drugs or abused prescription drugs; if they practiced safe sex, or had been a victim of physical or sexual violence in a relationship.

After the researchers took into account the students' initial family income and their risky behaviors as adolescents, they found students who had felt strongly connected to school as teenagers grew up to have significantly less emotional distress, suicidal thoughts, and drug use. They were at lower risk of violence, either in general or in intimate relationships, and were less likely to have multiple sex partners or a sexually transmitted disease, than students who had felt little connection in school. Moreover, students who felt connected to either school or family were significantly more likely to complete a four-year college degree.

Students who were deeply connected to both their families and schools had the best outcomes as adults—for example, they were three times as likely to complete a four-year degree as students who were unconnected to school or family. But school engagement significantly protected students against drug use, engaging in risky sex, or being victims of physical violence—even when the students felt very disconnected at home. 

"I think the good news here is that school connectedness and family connectedness both had independent impacts," Ethier said. Though the study does not show how much schools can "make up for" family issues, she said, improving a student's sense of belonging at school "remains an important tool."

Based on separate studies of its work with school districts, Ethier said the CDC recommends that schools can boost student engagement by:

  • Providing teachers more training on classroom management, particularly positive behavior management and ways to make classrooms feel inclusive;
  • Including student led-clubs that give students safe spaces and access to supportive adults in the school;
  • Facilitating positive youth development activities including mentoring, and community service learning; and 
  • Supporting positive parent engagement, including programs to support honest parent-child discussions and ways to help families connect with their teenagers.

"The responsibility of supporting young people through their formative teenage years can be a shared effort between parents, other family, and school staff," said Riley Steiner, a CDC health scientist, in a statement on the study. "These individuals and many others in a teen's life can have a profound impact on the adults they will become."

The CDC offered a separate report of tips for schools on building student connectedness


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