School as a Risk Factor for Challenging Behavior (page 3)
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).
The way a school is organized and run (including having clear behavioral expectations and rules that are consistently and fairly applied) also shapes school climate (Gottfredson et al., 2004). But it is a challenge for a school to be safe and caring at the same time. Columbine, Virginia Tech, and other school shootings create an environment of fear, especially for students who are already at risk. Schools across the country rely on police, metal detectors, and video cameras to protect their premises from antisocial behavior, drugs, and weapons (Public Agenda, 2004; DeVoe, Peter, Noonan, Snyder, and Baum, 2005), but these strategies can frighten students, destroy trust, and turn the school into a military camp. Rigid, formal discipline and harsh punishment policies such as zero tolerance have a similar effect. Automatic suspensions and expulsions discourage communication and alienate students (Fletcher, 2002). In the face of these inflexible rules, students don't feel comfortable reporting bullying, harassment, violence, or threats (Newman, 2004), making it extremely difficult to address such activity.
What happens inside the classroom matters, too. A chaotic, disruptive atmosphere has long-term effects on children's behavior (Kellam et al., 1998), but overcontrol is not the solution either. Corporal punishment is still allowed in 22 states, and in 2002-2003, more than 300,000 children were subjected to it ("Corporal punishment," 2005), damaging their self-image and academic achievement and stirring up disruptive and violent behavior (American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on School Health, 2000). Emotional abuse—controlling students through fear and intimidation, bullying, sarcasm, ridicule, or humiliation—is equally harmful and affects every child in the classroom (Hyman and Snook, 1999).
Teachers' expectations have a strong influence on children's behavior (Berk, 2000). In fact, a conflictual relationship with a teacher sets a child up for learning problems (Ladd and Burgess, 2001), poor academic performance (Hamre and Pianta, 2001), misconduct, suspension, and aggressive behavior with peers (Ladd and Burgess, 1999).
The practice of ability tracking, widespread in poor school districts, reinforces feelings of anger, rejection, and disaffection among students (Dahlberg, 1998) and widens both the academic and the behavior gap (Kellam et al., 1998). Because students rarely jump from one track to another, they are stigmatized; and each passing year compounds the problem, creating many classrooms with a persistently aggressive, disruptive atmosphere.
State and local policies and laws such as the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 also have a powerful effect on schools. When the results of a test determine whether a child will move from one grade to the next or whether a school will be taken over by the state, the stakes are very high indeed. To raise their scores on these "high-stakes tests," schools change their priorities and their programs. In the poorest schools in particular (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2004), teachers are spending more time on reading, writing, math, and science (the subjects tested under No Child Left Behind) and cutting back on subjects not tested—arts, gym, social studies, creative writing, computers, foreign languages, recess, and conflict resolution programs (Mathews, 2005; Perkins-Gough, 2004; Tracey, 2005; Wallis, 2003; Wood, 2004). Test preparation is replacing projects, themes, field trips, and hands-on, experiential learning—the ways that children learn best (Ganesh and Surbeck, 2005; Wood, 2004). One consequence of this narrow focus is enormous stress on everyone from the principal on down; another is an increase in behavior problems (Wallis, 2003).
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