School as a Risk Factor for Challenging Behavior
In the 1970s, researchers began to notice that schools vary greatly in their rates of academic performance and emotional and behavioral problems (Rutter and Maughan, 2002). The reasons behind these differences, they found, lie not only in the proportion of disadvantaged and difficult pupils in the student body but also in the schools themselves. Since then, research has uncovered a number of complex factors that contribute to a school's character, including structural features such as resources and size; social organization and climate; the quality of teaching and teacher-pupil interactions; and federal, state, and local education policies.
A school's resources, which depend in large part on the community and school district, play an enormous role in a school's effectiveness. The wealthiest public schools spend at least 10 times as much as the poorest (Darling-Hammond, 2004), so it's no surprise that children in poor neighborhoods attend schools with larger class sizes and fewer books, computers, libraries, materials, supplies, extracurricular activities, counselors, and highly qualified teachers (Beam, 2004; Darlingmond, 2004). This shortfall affects students' behavior and their academic performance, which are often related (Gottfredson, n.d.). Sheppard H. Kellam and his colleagues (Kellam et al., 1998) found that boys and girls in poor communities were at greater risk of highly aggressive behavior in middle school, regardless of how they behaved in first grade.
A school's size has a profound influence on social organization and climate—and on behavior as well. In big schools (often defined as more than 400 pupils for elementary schools and more than 800 for middle and secondary schools [Cotton, 1996]), students can more easily become disenfranchised and socially isolated. When they feel they don't belong and nobody at school cares about them, they disengage from school life and cease to care about their own aspirations and performance (Gottfredson, n.d.). This disconnectedness, which by high school affects 40 to 60 percent of students (Klem and Connell, 2004), can have a substantial impact, increasing the risk of bullying, fighting, vandalism, and truancy as well as emotional distress, substance use, and early sexual activity (Blum, 2005).
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