Singing the same school song

Students who identify with their school are less likely to be aggressive and disruptive in class, according to new research.

The study, by Kate Reynolds, Boris Bizumic and Emina Subasic, shows that having strong ties with a school and a sense of belonging are related to lower instances of depression, anxiety, stress and disruptive behaviour in the classroom.

The research, on 693 students and 113 teachers at two Canberra high schools, forms part of a three-year program funded under the Australian Research Council’s (ARC) Linkage Project scheme. The project is aimed at identifying ways to improve academic performance and psychological well-being while curbing anti-social behaviour in schools. At a more general level, it promises to answer big questions in psychology about the way in which organisations, communities, and groups can affect the behaviour of their individual members.

High school students completed a questionnaire assessing their perceptions of school functioning (such as clarity and fairness of rules, sense of shared mission and attitudes to decision-making), their degree of identification with the school, and aggressive behaviour and victimisation. Another questionnaire was tailored to teachers, who were also asked to rate student aggression to provide a more objective measure of in-class behaviour.

In contrast to much previous studies, the research also included clinical psychological indices of depression, stress, anxiety and loss of emotional control. The results, accepted for publication in the journal Applied Psychology: An International Review confirmed that school-level factors were related to individual mental health and behaviour. However, it showed that psychological identification with the school was a key factor in explaining this relationship.

“Social identification as a member of the school emerges in this research as a central and significant variable in explaining individual psychological well-being,” says Reynolds. “The work indicates that those schools that are able to engender a sense of identification and belonging will benefit in these kinds of ways.”

With funding from the ARC, ANU and the ACT Department of Education, including $420,000 cash and $415,000 in kind contributions, the team will extend the project to include another two Canberra schools. The focus will be on helping schools develop and manage school-wide interventions that serve to build stronger school ties among staff and students.