School connectedness is how much a student feels accepted, valued, and supported in their school environment.
In early adolescence, the risk of developing depression increases. Extensive research has found a high level of school connectedness is one of the most important protective factors for current and future mental wellbeing and positive adolescent development
Adolescents on the autism spectrum tend to experience greater developmental challenges associated with adolescence than their neurotypical peers. The characteristics of autism (including challenges with social skills, communication, emotion regulation, optimism, self-esteem, and transitions) can reduce those adolescents’ ability to feel connected to their school.
This three-phase project addressed a significant gap in the research and investigated the promotion of school connectedness for students on the spectrum.
The project’s three phases aimed to:
- identify key themes related to perceptions of school connectedness for students on the spectrum. Findings emphasise the essential role that teachers play in developing an inclusive culture in the classroom where a supportive peer group is established, and the needs and strengths of all students are recognised and supported
- develop and implement a school connectedness program at the individual student, family, and school level. Results showed an increase in school connectedness and improved mental wellbeing, and in line with previous research, showed that teachers are well positioned to promote school connectedness as an integral part of the curriculum
- support school connectedness in rural, remote, and urban locations. This final phase developed an online resource for communities, schools, teachers, and parents worldwide to promote school connectedness for diverse, early adolescent students.
Adolescent students who are connected to their school are more likely to:
- enjoy academic success
- demonstrate prosocial behaviour through an increased sense of direction and purpose
- experience increased self-esteem
- feel optimistic
- have increased peer and teacher support
- have higher academic motivation and achievement
- intervene to prevent acts of peer-to-peer violence, such as bullying
- be resilient
- experience high levels of wellbeing in subsequent years.
These students are also less likely to:
- experience depressive symptoms
- engage in antisocial behaviours, such as stealing, violence, and gang membership
- engage in behaviours that risk their health, such as cigarette smoking, alcohol, and other substance use.
School connectedness benefits teachers by:
- making it easier for them to manage classes
- giving them opportunities for more meaningful contact
- making students more responsive and warmer towards them
- enabling them to be themselves, which in turn reduces complaining from students and increases classroom cooperation
- making their job more enjoyable and satisfying.
There are two main components to fostering school connectedness:
Validation and respect
Validation is making people feel that what they have to say or contribute is meaningful and important.
Sense of belonging
A sense of belonging stems from acceptance and being included for all those involved in the school, including teachers, students, and administrators.
Students are more likely to experience school connectedness when they:
- have close friends who are connected to the school and who offer social and academic support
- attend school regularly
- feel motivated to learn and to succeed at school
- participate in extracurricular activities.
Positive school connectedness is fostered by teachers who:
- are perceived by students as supportive and caring
- promote mutual respect
- expect students to do their best
- scaffold learning with proactive classroom management, interactive teaching, and cooperative learning
- praise good behaviour and academic effort.
At the school level, factors that promote school connectedness include:
- supportive school leadership
- positive relationships between teachers and other staff members
- a physically and emotionally safe school environment
- fair and consistent disciplinary policies
- high academic standards
- the availability of school groups, clubs, and extracurricular activities for students to join.
Several different theories support the role that school connectedness plays in supporting prosocial behaviour, academic success, emotional wellbeing, and resilience for adolescent students.
According to the Belonging Hypothesis, humans have an innate psychological drive to belong to social groups.
Forming social connections is a particularly important task during adolescent development because those connections form the foundation for long-lasting interpersonal bonds, enable adolescents to internalise values endorsed by significant others, and contribute to developing a sense of identity.
In line with the need to belong, Sociometer Theory emphasises the importance of how students perceive the value of their relationships and suggests that all students have an innate psychological apparatus, the sociometer, which continuously scans the environment for interpersonal signals to inform their perception of their level of social acceptance or rejection in a group, i.e. perceived belongingness.
Self-esteem can be thought of as the fuel gauge of relational valuing, i.e. when an individual believes their relationships are of low value, they consciously experience feelings of social disapproval and rejection that diminish self-esteem and contribute to the development of depressive symptoms, even without real rejection or actual reduced acceptance.
A thwarted sense of belonging is the immediate precursor of a depressive response in several interpersonal theories of depression. These theories propose that depression is maintained by reciprocal interpersonal transactions. Perceiving the value of a relationship from others is a sign that the relationship is low value. This results in further perceptions of diminished self-esteem, which trigger an increased need for validation, giving rise to behaviours aimed at securing confirmation of an intact relational bond.
Such behaviours include excessive reassurance seeking and self-denigration that are strongly disliked by others and in turn elicit criticism, rejection, and non-genuine support. Furthermore, depressive symptoms, lower self-esteem, diminished optimism, and greater paranoid tendencies can hinder approaching others with openness and trust, perpetuating a threat-focused cycle and reducing chances for social connectedness that could lead to social withdrawal and loneliness.
The first focus of the project was to explore and identify key themes about the experiences and perspectives of school connectedness in students on the autism spectrum across geographical areas.
What did the team do?
The team conducted an online/paper-based survey about the experiences and perspectives of school connectedness in students on the spectrum. Follow-up interviews were also conducted. In total, 44 teachers, 21 students, and 24 parents participated.
Where was the research conducted?
The research was conducted in rural, remote, regional, and urban school communities in:
- New South Wales
- Western Australia
- Northern Territory.
What did the team find?
The team found that an inclusive culture and community, a supportive peer group, family and staff involvement, and implementing appropriate supports that address the specific needs were important.
These findings emphasise the essential role teachers play in developing an inclusive culture in the classroom where a supportive peer group is established, and the needs and strengths of all students are recognised and supported.
The second focus of the project was to develop and implement a school connectedness program at the student, family, and school levels.
What did the team do?
One part of the project was conducted in six participating schools in Brisbane, Queensland. At each school, the team:
- discussed the project rationale and details with the heads of special education and their teams
- delivered a 60-minute presentation to school staff about the theory, research, and application of school connectedness and how applicable it was for students on the spectrum
- delivered a two-hour workshop to all interested teachers. The team then discussed and practised strategies with teachers to improve school connectedness and manage their own stress
- formed a School Connectedness Committee consisting of principals, deputy principals, special education heads and teachers, teachers, school captains, vice-captains, student leaders, project researchers, and parents/carers, which identified and implemented a project to increase school connectedness. The Committee also worked with the students to implement and evaluate the project.
Across the six schools, the team recruited 30 adolescents (24 male, 6 female) aged 11–14 who:
- were enrolled in the first two years of secondary school
- had a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, autistic disorder, Asperger’s disorder, or PDD-NOS
- did not have intellectual impairment, severe behavioural difficulties, or psychosis.
The team also recruited:
- 31 parents/caregivers of the participating students
- 16 teachers who were closely involved with the students.
- Each adolescent attended 11 one-on-one, weekly, two-hour sessions of the Resourceful Adolescent Program adapted for adolescents on the autism spectrum (RAP-A-ASD).
- All parents/carers of adolescents participating in RAP-A-ASD were invited to a series of four two-and-a-half-hour resilience-building workshops for parents (RAP-P-ASD). In total, 31 parents/carers attended these workshops.
The team collected quantitative data:
- before taking part in the support program
- immediately after the support program
- three months after the support program
- six months after the support program
- 12 months after taking part in the support program.
The team used standardised questionnaires to collect data from students and their families about several of the adolescents' challenges and needs including:
- depressive symptoms
- anxiety levels
- sense of school connectedness
- behavioural and emotional difficulties
- prosocial behaviours
- confidence to use coping behaviours in times of stress
- emotional, social, and psychological wellbeing
- the structural, organisational, and transactional characteristics of how their family functioned.
The team gathered data from teachers about the students’ challenges and needs including:
- depressive symptoms
- behavioural and emotional difficulties
- prosocial behaviours.
In addition, semi-structured interviews were conducted with adolescents who participated in RAP-A-ASD and with parents/carers who had attended RAP-P-ASD to explore the value of adding a strength-focused parenting support program to a depression prevention support program for adolescents on the spectrum.
What did the team find?
Teachers are well positioned for implementing a wide-spread approach to promoting school connectedness as an integral part of the curriculum. This approach has the potential to positively influence the academic, social, emotional, and behavioural development of adolescent diverse learners.
For the adolescents who participated in RAP-A-ASD, results showed an increase in school connectedness and improved mental wellbeing that was maintained 12 months after implementation.
Parents/carers who participated in RAP-P-ASD reported that feeling isolated and unsupported by existing services motivated their participation, and that they valued interacting with other participating parents. They also reported that the program enhanced wellbeing and parenting efficacy, reduced isolation, increased their ability to parent calmly, and improved parent–adolescent relationships.
This framework can support a whole-school approach to build a sense of community that supports students to feel more connected to their school.
In another part of the project in Bourke, New South Wales, the team undertook collaboration with a remote Indigenous community.
In this community, the team aimed to:
- build capacity for community workers to support parents/carers and to promote the wellbeing of Indigenous adolescents
- raise awareness of autism in the community and of adolescents on the spectrum.
The team gained greater understanding of the particular challenges faced by the remote Indigenous community to identify and support adolescents on the spectrum.
The third focus of the project was to support school connectedness in early adolescent diverse students living in rural, remote, regional, and urban locations.
What did the team do?
The team developed a website that provides a range of strategies that schools, teachers, and parents/carers worldwide can use to increase the school connectedness of students on the spectrum.
Professor Suzanne Carrington
Ms Vicki Gibbs
Dr Trevor Mazzucchelli
Jayne A. Orr
Ms Astrid Wurfl
Dr Beth Saggers
Professor Ian Shochet
All researcher details including names, honorifics (for example ‘Dr’), and organisational affiliations are correct at the time of the project.
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