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Looking at Social Status, Social Goals, Misbehavior For Rural Youth

High-achieving rural adolescents generally were less likely to have misbehaved and more likely to have higher social goals than their low-achieving peers, according to a new study.

The study's broad finding was that students' social goals and perceptions of social status had differing implications for whether they misbehaved, and the variation sometimes depended on their academic achievement.

The study, Social Goals, Social Status, and Problem Behavior among Low-Achieving and High-Achieving Adolescents from Rural Schools, looked at how rural adolescent students' social goals and status related to their misbehavior and substance abuse. Alison Bryant Ludden of College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., was the author, and her findings were published in a recent issue of the Journal of Research in Rural Education.

Ludden's study included 683 8th- and 9th-graders from 13 small schools in rural towns in Missouri. About 85 percent of those surveyed were white, and their parents' average education ranged from some college to completed college. All of the rural towns had populations of less than 15,000, and all were at least 20 miles from cities with fewer than 100,000 residents.

Students self-reported their responses on paper surveys with their parents' permission.

Among high achievers (based on their self-reported grades), the social goal of "being popular is important" was associated with a greater likelihood of alcohol use and misbehavior. Low achievers who associated high social status with sports were more likely to report cigarette use and being suspended.

"Rural youth who are at-risk academically may not be served well by small schools that emphasize competition, whether it be in sports or planning for college," according to the research. "They need to connect with the school setting in some way."

And while high achievers had more college plans, when those plans were important to achieve popularity or social status, high achievers were more likely to report misbehaving.

Still, low-achieving adolescents overall were more likely to have used cigarettes, alcohol and marijuana, and more likely to have cut classes, misbehaved in school, and be suspended and expelled than their high-achieving peers, according to the study.

"The current research indicates that adolescents' social goals and their perceptions of what is needed for social status at school do relate to whether or not they engage in problem behavior even after accounting for friends' behaviors," according to the study.

The study suggested further research is needed to see how both high- and low-achieving adolescents make efforts to gain social status among their peers.

Among the study's limitations: many measures were based on students' responses to single items; the research only is based on students' reporting of their attitudes and behaviors; girls were somewhat overrepresented (61.3 percent of respondents); all participants were from small, rural schools where families had similar social class backgrounds; and the study used data collected at one point in time versus over an extended period.

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