The first day of school is on the horizon: New teachers, new classes, a return to daily contact with a wider group of friends. Most children start out eager to go to school, but by the time they are teenagers, some children have become disengaged from school. This worries parents and educators because as they progress through school, children and teens learn the social and academic skills and competences that will allow them to be successful students and ultimately successful adults.

Adolescence can be a time for students to build their identities as being academically capable, comfortable in their social lives, and committed to learning. But it can also be a time when motivation decreases, risk-taking behaviors increase, and substance abuse and delinquency flourish. A new study outlines why the stakes for remaining involved in school are so high and some of the factors that can help keep kids involved.

Early behavioral and emotional engagement in school can buffer against participation in problem behavior, including delinquency and substance use.

Studies have shown that if students feel an emotional connection to their school, they are more likely to try to meet society’s expectations of them, and to value and develop positive relationship with teachers and classmates. Being involved in school means that a child or adolescent has less time for bad behavior because of their commitments of time and energy to school-based activities. This can lead to less risk-taking behavior and a likelihood of more positive long-term outcomes.

On the other hand, when the educational setting is unsuccessful in keeping a student engaged, teens begin to skip school, fail their academic subjects, and ultimately drop out of school. They may also become depressed, start to engage in drug use and other problem behaviors and associate with delinquent friends who devalue academic achievement and support truancy, compounding the problem. This begins a vicious cycle of alienation from school and poor psychological and social outcomes which reach into adulthood.

What School Engagement Looks Like

Students engage with their school in three major ways:

  • A student is engaged behaviorally when he or she participates in academic activities and performs the homework, projects or other tasks related to these activities.
  • A student is emotionally engaged when he or she identifies with their school and feels a sense of belonging there, enjoys learning, and values success in school.
  • Finally a student is intellectually or cognitively engaged when he or she has strategies for learning and the ability to self-regulate academic pursuits.
Researchers looked at these types of engagement and wondered what makes them change and what happens when they do. Specifically, they asked, how do adolescents become less engaged with their schools, and what are the causes and consequences of these changes?

Being engaged in school, along with teacher and parent support can motivate children to find positive solutions to challenges they face in school and out of school. So the researchers wanted to understand what behavioral, emotional, and cognitive influences affect students’ choices about delinquent behavior, substance use, and dropping out of school? How can schools and society boost positive engagement and discourage the downward spiral of truancy and failure? And they looked at how the changes in school engagement that accompanied youth problem behavior were related to high school dropout behaviors.

Instead of directing efforts at punishing bad behavior with suspensions, for example, it might be better to increase programs aimed at drawing disengaged children back in. School sports do this for many students.

The researchers interviewed 1272 families four times, when the adolescents were in grades 7, 9, 11, and one year post-high school. To assess a student's engagement in school, they asked questions about school participation such as: How often do you get your homework done? How often do you participate in class activities? They explored emotional engagement with rating statements such as: I feel like I am a real part of the school, I feel happy when I am in school, and cognitive engagement with: How often do you check your homework? How often do you try to relate what you are studying to other things you know about?

To assess problem behaviors, they asked about alcohol, marijuana and cigarette use, and stealing, hitting, beating someone up, and getting in trouble with the police or vandalism.

The researchers found that as the teens' behavioral and emotional engagement declined, their delinquency and substance use increased, as did problem behaviors such as vandalism and violence. Unsurprisingly, they also found that as the behavioral and emotional engagement decreased and problem behaviors increased, the likelihood of dropping out of school also increased. They did not find a similar relationship for changes in cognitive engagement.

Parents should realize that behavioral, emotional, and cognitive engagement all are assets that help students cope with the challenges, stresses, and setbacks that they experience in school, and that each contributes to resilience. The study's authors suggest that when students feel academically successful and a sense of connection to their school, they receive more positive reactions from their teachers and parents. These contribute to ongoing positive outcomes.

The study also supported earlier findings that when teens disengage from school, they are rejected by their school-based peers and tend to seek the companionship of other disengaged youth. They found that lower behavioral and emotional engagement and greater problem behaviors all worked together to predict school dropout rate.

They conclude that “[E]arly behavioral and emotional engagement in school can buffer against participation in problem behavior, including delinquency and substance use...[I]nterventions which aim to improve school engagement may promote positive youth development, including reducing involvement in problem behaviors.”

What Schools Can Do

For school systems and school administrators, the study suggests that programs and strategies to increase students’ participation in academics and school-based activities can be an effective way of strengthening the connection between youth and their schools. Instead of directing efforts at punishing bad behavior with suspensions, for example, it might be better to increase programs aimed at drawing disengaged children in. School sports programs already do this for many students.

The study authors, Ming-Te Wang and Jennifer A. Fredricks of the University of Pittsburgh and Connecticut College respectively, note that dropping out of school is the final outcome of a long process of disengagement and worsening behavior that needs to be addressed and interrupted early on. The current educational emphasis on raising standards may be a deterrent to this. Teaching teachers ways to re-engage discouraged students is also likely to help.

“When students have the ability to cope effectively with academic setbacks and challenges, they are more likely to stay focused on problem solving and academic self-improvement and less likely to fall into a downward spiral of school disengagement leading to substance use and other problem behaviors. Therefore, early educational interventions for low engaging students could be effective in decreasing delinquency and substance use and preventing adolescents from dropping out of high school.”

The study is published online in the journal, Child Development.