Protective Factors for Mental Health Concerns in Urban Middle School Students: The Moderating Effect of School Connectedness

Added June 6, 2018

The ASCA National Model (American School Counselor Association, 2012) has advocated the role of school counselors and specified that school counselors should “ensure equitable access to a rigorous education for all students” (p. xii). The promising picture of the ASCA model being used to serve every student can sometimes be challenging for school counselors’ who struggle to meet high demands of caseloads, issues, and responsibilities. One of the critical tasks for school counselors is developing productive strategies and interventions, to maximize their efforts and time (Goodman-Scott, 2013). The growing awareness of how unmet students’ mental health needs impede academic success has especially necessitated a better understanding of the interaction of various protective factors impacting student mental health.

Students in urban schools have been shown to be particularly vulnerable to mental health concerns. Due to several neighborhood/family environmental factors, students are often placed at a disadvantage. Research has also shown that urban, ethnic minority adolescents, who often take up the majority of populations in these schools, are more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, and behavioral problems (Vera et al., 2011). Cholewa & West-Olatunji (2008) propose that in addition to environmental challenges, these students experience a greater level of cultural disconnection between school and home environment.

There is a gap in the literature where most studies have focused on individual, family, or neighborhood characteristics contributing to adolescents’ emotional and behavioral difficulties without considering the school context. It is important for school counselors to focus on the influence of school contexts on students’ mental health concerns, because unlike familial and neighborhood characteristics, school environments are more consistent across students and can therefore be enhanced through prevention and intervention efforts (Eccles & Roeser, 2011).

One of the primary responsibilities for school counselors is helping students develop their social skills, so that they have better school experiences with peers and adults, leading to academic success and career readiness. There have been growing numbers of studies examining the effectiveness of school counseling programs that use data and research to provide powerful advocacy tools (Mason, et. al., 2016). Despite the emphasis on evidence-based, there is scant literature demonstrating the influences of social skills on students’ mental health outcomes.

Also, important is a student’s sense of being connected to the school. School connectedness in this study refers to the “belief by students that adults and peers in the school care about their learning as well as about them as individuals” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/CDC, 2009, p.3). The CDC definition has become one of the most widely accepted definitions of school connectedness (Marraccini & Brier, 2017). School connectedness has emerged as a potential predictor of adolescents’ emotional and behavioral difficulties.

The purpose of this study was to investigate whether school connectedness would moderate the relation between social skills and mental health concerns. Our results indicate that social skills was a significant predictor of both behavioral and emotional difficulties, after controlling for demographic variables of gender, grade, and ethnicity. The results empirically support the importance of interventions for developing social skills as a preventative measure to reduce students’ mental health problems. Our results also support school connectedness as a moderator of the relation between social skills and mental health concerns, suggesting that higher levels of school connectedness could strengthen the connection between better social skills and reduced mental health difficulties. The practical impact is that the more students feel connected to school, the greater the positive impact social skills have on their levels of mental health concerns

We, based on our findings, propose the team-oriented social skills training (Carney & Hazler, 2016) as an example of how school counselors can improve students’ social skills and school connectedness in their school settings. This approach offers maximum opportunities for students to provide and receive positive social interactions, through shared team goals, reciprocal relationships, and decision-making for the team rather than oneself. Students can expand social skills by modeling others’ prosocial behaviors, experiencing trial and error during implementation, and feeling integrated into the school. Feeling that they are part of their team can further help students feel more connected to a larger school team, leading to enhanced school connectedness. This idea is consistent with ASCA Mindsets & Behaviors for Student Success, which emphasizes building a mutually supportive culture through its 35 standards. The ASCA model makes it clear that, to maximize development and growth for all students, knowledge, mindset, and skill objectives for individual students must be supplemented with systemic efforts that support individual wellness and development.

JoLynn V. Carney, Penn State University, University Park, PA; Hyunhee Kim, Penn State University; Richard J. Hazler, Penn State University; Xiuyan Guo, Emory and Henry College, Emory, VA.