Growing Interest in Schools as Contexts for Mental Health and Risk Behavior

How and why qualities of schools affect the children who attend them have been reigning questions in the field of educational research for the last several decades. Although early reports on school effects on children claimed little or no impact (Coleman et al., 1966), further research into school impacts showed clear school differences in individual achievement and social behavior (Rutter, 1980). The latter view now pervades research on schools as well as public policies and programs designed to increase student achievement through investments in poor or low-performing schools.

Given that the goal of education is to increase students' knowledge as well as their preparedness for jobs and for lives as citizens, it is not surprising that the majority of research into school impacts on children and youth focuses on learning and academic achievement (Coleman et al., 1966; Hedges, Laine, & Greenwald, 1994). Yet there is an incipient push to emphasize the fostering of mental health (Adelman & Taylor, 1998) and of social, ethical, and civic beliefs and behaviors in parallel with encouraging students to meet academic achievement goals (Battistich, Watson, Solomon, Lewis, & Schaps, 1999).

Findings that poor mental health and school misconduct co-occur with poor grades and academic failure emphasize the linked nature of academic and nonacademic outcomes in childhood and adolescence (Roeser, Eccles, & Sameroff, 2000). There is a growing body of research to support the notions that the relations among academic and mental health functioning are reciprocal (Roeser, Eccles, & Strobel, 1998) and that school contexts can impact mental health outcomes in addition to academic outcomes (Astor, 1998; Perry & Weinstein, 1998). Positive mental health has been found to predict positive academic competence beliefs and school grades a year later (Roeser et al., 2000). In addition, negative social and behavioral outcomes in adolescence such as drug use, school drop out, teenage pregnancy, and delinquency, have been predicted by early academic difficulties such as grade retention and low academic motivation (Dryfoos, 1990; Eccles, Lord, Roeser, Barber, & Jozefowicz, 1997).

Although between 5% and 8% of school-aged children in the United States experience social, emotional, or behavioral problems that can interfere with their daily functioning both in and out of school (New Freedom Commission on Mental Health, 2003), few of these children actually receive mental health services either at school or elsewhere (Kataoka, Zhang, & Wells, 2002; Knitzer, Steinberg, & Fleisch, 1991). Emotional or behavioral problems, especially those that go untreated, can inhibit children's ability to learn (Adelman & Taylor, 1998). Both children with internalizing problems (e.g., depression, anxiety) and externalizing problems (e.g., aggression) exhibit lower academic achievement (see Roeser et al., 1998). These problems have long-term consequences, with an estimated 7.2 million Americans prematurely terminating their education because of early-onset psychiatric disorders (Kessler, Foster, Saunders, & Stang, 1995).

One aspect of schools in particular, namely that of school violence, has received scrutiny over the years as a clear risk for students. From the 1950s until the present, school violence has been an increasing concern both for school administrators and the public (Warner, Weist, & Krulak, 1999). It was the Safe Schools Study, conducted by the National Institute of Education (1978) that alerted the public to the extent of violence in schools. This report spurred the addition of a School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey beginning in the 1988-1989 school year (Bastian & Taylor, 1991) and school violence questions present to the National Adolescent Student Health Survey (American School Health Association, 1989). As will be discussed in more detail below, school violence remains a serious problem across the country and continues to pose significant challenges to the mental health, as well as academic achievement, of American students.

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