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May 22, 2013 By:
Lynne Blumberg, JE Feature
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Students with behavioral problems stop striving for their academic potential not because of their behaviors, but because of the social responses to their behaviors, according to a new study in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

Researchers reached this conclusion by first measuring the levels of depression, attention problems, delinquency and substance use for 6,315 adolescent students. About half of the students reported having at least one of the four problems. 

After assessing the academic potential of the students who reported problems, researchers then looked at how each problem actually affected their school performance.

The researchers found that depression had the least effect on academic achievement, and substance use had the greatest effect. However, the researchers also found that almost 40 percent of the students had a combination of at least two of the problems, such as depression and attention problems, or delinquency combined with substance use and depression. 

As would be expected, a combination of problems lowered student grades even more.

The study’s takeaway message is that depression may have less of an effect on academic achievement because quiet, sad students are treated more sympathetically in schools. For example, a teacher doesn’t send a student to detention for not participating enough in class.

The effects of the environment also explain why the researchers measured cigarette smoking to have three times larger an effect on academic achievement than more mind-altering substances like alcohol or marijuana. 

This is because students are more likely to smoke cigarettes at school, and so they get caught and punished for using this substance more often, Dr. Jane D. McLeod, professor of sociology at Indiana University and one of the study’s co-authors, said during a recent interview.

To remedy this situation, McLeod recommends that students with behavior problems be treated more like those with depression, especially since many of them are depressed too. Instead of punitive policies like zero tolerance that kick students out of classes when they act bad, schools should improve student performance by more sympathetic methods.

Dr. Leslie Altman Rescorla, professor of psychology and director of the Child Study Institute at Bryn Mawr College, said she wasn’t surprised that many of the students suffered from multiple problems, and that depression, by itself, had a small effect on school performance.

However, she cautioned that the study based its results on an overall average for thousands of students; an individual student may suffer from a more severe depression and be so depressed that she or he can’t get out of bed and go to school.

Dr. Stephen S. Leff, child clinical psychologist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia,  elaborated on the effects of smoking in school and said that while some students feel bad about being punished, others may want the negative attention.

These students may think getting in trouble at school is “cool” because they have bad role models, hang out with a deviant peer group, or learn in an environment where acting badly is the only way they get attention.

Instead of punitive measures, Leff recommends character education and social skill programs in elementary and high schools. An example is the Friend to Friend Program that Leff and his colleagues at CHOP have been implementing in Phil­adelphia elementary schools. 

The program reduces students’ physical and social aggression by teaching them how to assess accurately the social cues in their environment, understand their own emotions and make better behavior choices. 

For instance, if one student bumps into an aggressive student in the school hallway, instead of assuming that the bump was done on purpose, the aggressive student is taught to look for social cues — does the other student look surprised, and does she say something like, “Oops, sorry” — before reacting.

Leff said that in addition to students, teachers and school counselors participate in the program and get help on reinforcing the right student behaviors. The research on zero tolerance shows it to be an ineffective policy, said Leff. 

However, the preliminary studies for Friends to Friends show that aggressive students are becoming better classmates.

Still, Leff does not rule out the more common assumption that students become distressed because of a learning disability or an emotional disorder, and that these internal problems result in poor student performance.

It’s not always the environment. Leff said, “Both perspectives have merit.”

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