At times, it might seem like teens want nothing to do with adults. But research from Independent School Health Check (ISHC) shows that the opposite is true. In 2007, we created ISHC, a computer-based survey, to more accurately gauge the experience of adolescents in independent schools. The ISHC assesses students’ perceptions, feelings, and behaviors regarding their schools, families, and friends as well as the risk and protective factors that affect their health and well-being. The survey assesses school attitudes and motivation, school pressure, parental supervision, social and emotional connections to adults and peers, substance use, sexuality, sleep, and diet.
Over the past 11 years, the ISHC has collected data from 80,816 middle and high school students in 102 independent schools; most schools have conducted the survey multiple times. Schools that conduct surveys typically use the data to develop and fine-tune health and wellness programs, to identify areas that need attention, as well as areas of particular strength.
One area of inquiry for the ISHC is a student’s relationship with adults. The survey asks students to rate “the adult(s) who is primarily responsible for caring for [them] on a daily basis” on behaviors such as “expresses interest in my life,” “expects me to ask if I can go out,” and “supports my efforts in sports, music, or other activities.” The survey also asks students to rate their perceptions of teachers including statements such as “teachers at my school pay attention to my personal needs, not just academic performance,” and “my teachers treat me with respect.”
Over the years, we have been impressed by the high level of engagement that so many parents maintain, and by the extent to which so many students feel that their teachers support their personal needs as well as their academic needs.
Not all parents are supportive, however, nor do all students find encouraging adults in schools—perhaps because they were already wary about trusting an adult. Nevertheless, when we track what happens to adolescents without a reliable adult to talk to and depend on, we find that these are young people at greater risk. Conversely, when adolescents have an adult to talk with, there is benefit to both the student and to the school.
The ISHC asks several questions about students’ interactions with the adults in their lives. More than three-quarters say they “have an adult to talk to on a regular basis about what is going on in [their] life.” About 84 percent agree that “if faced with a really important question or serious problem, [they] would talk to an adult.” Mothers are the adults who students talk to the most (81.9 percent), followed by fathers (62.8 percent). Teachers (26 percent), counselors (24.6 percent), and coaches (15.4 percent) are also adults students turn to.
In high-stakes behavior, the absence of adult support is alarming. For those adolescents who think their parents are not interested or supportive, the likelihood of suicidal thoughts triples. Students who think their teachers are not attentive to their needs are twice as likely to report self-harm or suicidal thoughts. These students are also more likely to break school rules and have a much lower sense of belonging.
How Schools Can HelpWhat can schools do to encourage students to have attachments to adults in the community? They can build on the already effective outreach of the adults in the school community by supporting adviser programs. Offer advisers training, support, and accountability to guide them so they are able to productively engage with students and their parents. Schools can enhance their programs by offering training in communication strategies, scheduling regular adviser times, and expecting that advisers maintain contact with their advisees and their parents/guardians.
Building a working connection with families is another important strategy for enhancing students’ perception that adults are available to them. In addition to the standard parent meetings and activities that schools offer, it is important to encourage parents/guardians to reach out to their child’s adviser with any questions or concerns about their child, their family, or the school program. An effective adviser program can function as a safety net for all students when they experience academic, social, or personal problems in school and at home.
To see schools that have participated, surveys available, and more, visit independentschoolhealth.com.
Rosemary Baggish developed Independent School Health Check, a project of BMW Consulting LLC.
Peter Wells developed Independent School Health Check, a project of BMW Consulting LLC.