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Mindset and connectedness: keys to the good life for adolescents

By Chris Wenz

In my time as a high school teacher, I worked with my fair share of teenagers who engaged in…challenging behavior. But the students that concerned me the most were those who did not have at least one trusting, positive relationship with some adult in school. In these scenarios, my fear stemmed from how little we know about the emotional state of our students at such a vulnerable part of their development. It was too easy to miss signs of serious distress and even easier to miss crucial opportunities to help them expand their abilities or sense of possibilities. Their classwork and their grades could maybe tell us what, or if, they were learning; but we had few answers to the most essential question: how are they handling the critical challenges of adolescence? That so many of us have a story about a teacher (or some other caring adult) who played a critical role in guiding us through adolescence is a testament to the power and importance of the connections we should strive to make with our students.

One way that scholars have investigated the importance of these connections is by measuring the construct of “school connectedness.” I’ve been mildly obsessed with the research on school connectedness for years, mainly because the conclusions we’ve reached after decades of research are so wonderfully obvious: the teenagers who feel like they belong in their school, and form attachments with the adults who run it, are healthier, happier and perform better academically. They are less likely to be violent, harm themselves, drop out of school, abuse drugs, and engage in risky sexual behavior. It’s shocking, I know. The other amazing thing about school connectedness? It can be reliably measured with a simple instrument in which adolescents rate their level of agreement with five simple statements (McNeely et al, 2002):

  • I feel close to people at this school.
  • I feel like I am part of this school.
  • I am happy to be at this school.
  • The teachers at this school treat students fairly.
  • I feel safe in my school.

Of course, knowing that school connection matters, and that it can be easily and reliably measured, is not the hard part. To get at the real challenge, we have to ask a few far more challenging questions: 1) Why do some students feel more connected to schools than others? 2) How do we help all teenagers feel that crucial sense of belonging?

There are no easy answers. However, I have been intrigued by two recent studies that I think do move us closer to satisfying answers.

Kim, Furlong and Dowdy (2019) investigated (among other things) the relationship between personality, positive mindset, school connectedness and quality of life& in a large and diverse sample of high school students (n=1,867). In one part of their study they built a structural equation model to test whether school connectedness mediates the relationship between a positive mindset and quality of life. In other words, their model tested whether teenagers with more positive mindsets would also feel more connected to school and report higher overall life satisfaction. Their model also allowed them to test whether positive mindset has a greater influence on life satisfaction than a measure of the big-five personality traits. The inclusion of a personality measure (Rammstedt & John, 2007) in their model helps answer an important question: does school connectedness depend on personality? Despite recent evidence to the contrary, we tend to think of personality as unmalleable: essentially, we are who we are, and introverts (for example) will always be introverted (e.g. Yeager et al, 2014). In education, this is a pretty dangerous idea that can lead to a dangerous thought: “That’s just how this student is, and we can’t change that.”

Fortunately, the model built by Kim and colleagues indicates that positive mindsets are stronger indicators of school connectedness and life satisfaction than personality. Essentially, their hypothesis was correct: when students have more positive mindsets, they are also more connected to school and report higher life satisfaction. The weak relationship between personality and school connectedness in their data makes it somewhat safe to infer that personality doesn’t explain school connection. Kim and colleagues state: “These findings suggest that personality traits are not maximally effective indicators of school connectedness among adolescents.” In other words, students of all personality types can (and do!) report feeling connected to their school. Too often mental health services in schools hyper-focus on negative indicators of mental health (some of which can be revealed through personality tests) and do so after a student has already engaged in problematic behavior. This hyper-focus and reactivity can leave the protective effects of school connectedness underexplored and underdeveloped in educational systems. Kim and colleagues suggest in very clear terms: “Educators and researchers should pay attention not only to fostering positive psychological orientations of individual students, but also to cultivating positive institutions.”

Their suggestion is another wonderfully obvious statement. Luckily, there is plenty of evidence that school-based programs can have a powerful effect on the development of positive mindsets and don't necessarily require significant resources to do so. For example, Jessica Schleider, director of the Lab for Scalable Mental Health, has explored the efficacy and effectiveness of single-session mental health interventions for children and adolescents (Schleider & Weisz, 2017). In a 2018 study, Schleider and Weisz tested the effect of a single 30-minute growth mindset intervention on 96 at-risk adolescents. In a nine-month follow up, the adolescents who received the mindset intervention showed improvements over the control group in depression, anxiety and emotional control.

It is encouraging that the development and delivery of programs and practices that foster positive psychological orientations may not require a burdensome amount of resources. I do not find the same encouragement in thinking about the challenges of “cultivating positive institutions.” Another of my favorite recent papers has helped me think through our big question above: how do we help all teenagers feel that crucial sense of belonging. In a conceptual paper from 2016, Allen and colleagues introduced a socio-ecological framework that serves as an excellent guide for exploring and designing systems that promote a sense of belonging for adolescents. Their framework doesn’t provide all the answers, but it does clearly identify evidence-based practices that schools can build into effective systems of support.

As a final note, I think it is important to consider that in the study by Kim and colleagues, belief in others (BIO) had the strongest relationship with both school connectedness and overall life satisfaction. BIO is theorized domain of social emotional health that captures perceived support from peers, family and school. Kim and colleagues used the Social Emotional Health Survey — Secondary (SEHS-S) to measure belief in others and all of the other positive orientations of interest in their study (Furlong, You et al., 2014). To measure the perceived teacher support component of BIO, the SEHS-S asks adolescents to respond to the following statements by choosing “not true at all,” “a little true,” “pretty much true,” or “very true.”

  • At my school there is a teacher or some other adult who:
    • always wants me to do my best
    • believes that I will be a success
    • listens to me when I have something to say

There is a lot about the lives of adolescents that schools cannot control or influence; however, we absolutely can influence whether the students we see every day read these statements and say, “very true.”

References

Allen, K. A., Vella-Brodrick, D., & Waters, L. (2016). Fostering school belonging in secondary schools using a socio-ecological framework. The Educational and Developmental Psychologist, 33(1), 97 – 121. Click for full text.

Kim, E. K., Furlong, M. J., & Dowdy, E. (2019). Adolescents’ Personality Traits and Positive Psychological Orientations: Relations with Emotional Distress and Life Satisfaction Mediated by School Connectedness. Child Indicators Research, 1 – 19.

Furlong, M. J., You, S., Shishim, M., & Dowdy, E. (2017). Development and validation of the social emotional health survey – higher education version. Applied research in Quality of Life, 12(2), 343 – 367. Click to access the full version of the SEHS-S.

McNeely, C. A., Nonnemaker, J. M., & Blum, R. W. (2002). Promoting school connectedness: Evidence from the national longitudinal study of adolescent health. Journal of school health, 72(4), 138 – 146. Click for full text.

Rammstedt, B., & John, O. P. (2007). Measuring personality in one minute or less: A 10-item short version of the Big Five Inventory in English and German. Journal of research in Personality, 41(1), 203 – 212.

Schleider, J.L., & Weisz, J.R. (2017). Little treatments, promising effects? Meta-analysis of single-session interventions for youth psychiatric problems. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 56, 107 – 115. Click for full text.

Schleider, J., & Weisz, J. (2018). A single-session growth mindset intervention for adolescent anxiety and depression: 9-month outcomes of a randomized trial. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 59(2), 160 – 170. Click for full text.

Yeager, D. S., Johnson, R., Spitzer, B. J., Trzesniewski, K. H., Powers, J., & Dweck, C. S. (2014). The far-reaching effects of believing people can change: Implicit theories of personality shape stress, health, and achievement during adolescence. Journal of personality and social psychology, 106(6), 867. Click for full text.

 

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