This blog post focuses on Lessard, Yergeau, Fortin & Poirer’s article School Bonding: Helping At Risk Youth Become Students At-Promise (2007).
The study set out to find out what the differences are between ‘at risk’ and ‘not at risk’ student perceptions of school bonding. Risk factors are identified as family – related, school – related, personal factors that contribute to the probability a student would leave school prematurely. Although the authors acknowledge that children and young people respond in different ways to adversity, they suggest that if a student has multiple ‘risk’ factors (3 or more), they meet the definition of ‘at-risk’.
It is suggested in the study that school bonding is an effective protective factor for at risk students. School bonding comprises of teacher support, academic engagement, peer support, school ethos and discipline / fairness. Thus school bonding can be seen to represent ‘a comprehensive concept involving affective (attachment), cognitive (commitment) and behavioural (involvement) components’.
Overall, the study found that on affective, cognitive and behavioural levels, ‘at-risk’ students perceived school bonding very differently to those deemed not ‘at-risk’.
The study also refers to Fortin, Marcotte, Potvin, Royer and Joly (2006) who identified four subtypes of ‘at risk’ students:
1) the Antisocial Covert Behavior type additional risk behaviours such as stealing, cheating etc, low levels of family cohesion and parental control
2) the Uninterested in School type perform well at school, well liked by teachers but lack motivation
3) the School and Social Adjustment Difficulties type high levels of behavioural issues and lowest academic achievement
4) the Depressive type of at-risk students lowest family function scores, highest depression scores (42% reporting suicidal thoughts)
In addition, all four types of students had significantly raised levels of depression, lower parental emotional support and perceived less order in the classroom than other students.
In the study, Lessard, Yergeau, Fortin & Poirer state that all 4 types of at-risk students show less favourable scores on attachment, commitment and involvement in school than non-risk but there were no differences in school bonding perceptions between at-risk sub groups.
In terms of gender, girls reported stronger bonding to school than boys, both in at-risk and not at-risk students.
In conclusion, at-risk students foster more negative attitudes towards both their teachers and school, they are less affiliated to their peers and show lower levels of engagement in school than do non at-risk students. In addition, boys may be more sensitive to the affective aspect of bonds with peers and teachers. It is suggested that if these students perceive a lack of support in school in addition to adverse personal and family circumstances, they will modify their behaviour negatively in response.
So, what does this mean for teachers? Knowing that students identified by this study may find it harder to become and remain engaged in school means two things, firstly, implementing effective assessment tools to identify these students and then secondly, to develop systems within school to increase these students bond to school. In some ways, this results in both a deficit and a strengths based model – firstly identifying risks and secondly, focussing on the young person’s strengths and develop relationships in school that might negate these risks by becoming protective factors. Identifying the links between cognitive, affective and behavioural aspects of school bonding will also be crucial. For example, identifying that developing a strong relationship with a student will also affect their cognitive development and behaviour means that all three aspects share equal significance in terms of resources, time, planning and assessment. Efforts to develop students self esteem as students is also at the core of developing school bonding – historically, student self development programs have been geared towards motivation, self esteem and so on but not necessarily in the context of their identities as students in the context of school.
This study based its findings on student self report, and to an extent, the findings confirm what we would expect students experiencing greater adversity to report. By taking a systems perspective, it would be necessary to gather data on teacher experience of working with ‘at-risk’ students , support staff, leaders within the school and parent perspectives.It would be interesting to see whether congruence between multiple perspectives varies between ‘at-risk’ and not at risk groups. Finally, two unanswered questions surround students identified as not at risk – would increased efforts to increase school bonding still be helpful to students even those not considered at risk? What can be done to identify and support students facing single or lower levels of risk that could still have a significant impact on school outcomes?