08 SES 11, School Climate and Collaboration for Youth Health Promotion
School is an important environment for children and adolescents and a supportive school climate, conceptualised as teacher and classmate support has been linked with positive health outcomes. Teacher support is related to better mental health (e.g. García-Moya et al. 2015; Tennant et al. 2015) and lower levels of risk behaviours, like alcohol use (McCarty et al. 2012) and daily smoking (Perra et al. 2012). Classmate support, which refers to the perceived acceptance and assistance offered to adolescents by their classmates, is also associated with mental health (Torsheim et al. 2001). In addition to social support, a safe school environment is essential for the overall well-being of children and adolescents.
However, children and adolescents perceive school differently, and for some of them the social environment at school can cause daily feelings of loneliness (van Roekel et al. 2015). Loneliness is defined as a hurtful subjective experience of lacking desired social relationships (Weiss 1973), and it is a common human experience which affects most people at some point in their lives (Rokach 2004, Weiss 1973). Excessive loneliness, however, can be painful and devastating. Research has shown that approximately one tenth of school-aged children experience social isolation, peer rejection and loneliness commonly (Galanaki 2004, Junttila & Vauras 2009). The heightened complexity of the social world of young people in combination with their higher expectancies of peer relations and increased concern about their social status, could explain why loneliness is particularly present in adolescence (Heinrich & Gullone, 2006; Qualter et al., 2013). The high prevalence of loneliness during adolescence is especially concerning because we know that loneliness can have severe consequences for physical and mental health and wellbeing (Hawkley & Caccioppo 2010; Heinrich & Gullone 2006).
The existing research shows that about ten percentages of children are in the grey zone of loneliness as they feel lonely very often (Junttila & Vauras 2009; Lyyra et al. 2016). However, we know less about i) what is the strength of the association between loneliness and school related support and bullying, and ii) do lonely students feel that school is a safe place to be?
A representative sample of 5925 Finnish children and adolescents from grades five (mean age 11.8 years), seven (13.8) and nine (15.8) completed the Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC), a WHO Collaborative survey. Schools were chosen from the Finnish school register using a cluster sampling method that took into consideration provinces, the type of municipality (urban, semi-urban, rural) and the size of the schools. The participating class inside of each school was randomly selected. Pupils responded voluntarily and anonymously to a standardized questionnaire during one lesson, and they were informed about confidentiality of the study and that only group-level results would be reported. Perceived loneliness was assessed using a single question on global loneliness: Do you ever feel lonely? ( yes, very often; yes, quite often; yes, sometimes; no). Social support from teachers and classmates (Torsheim et al., 2000) were measured as follows, teacher support by five items, e.g. I feel that my teachers accept me as I am; and, I feel a lot of trust in my teachers. And, classmate support by three items, e.g. Other students accept me as I am; and, The students in my class(es) are kind and helpful. Besides, different aspects of a safe school environment were measured by three items like, I feel safe in my school; and, I feel I’m part of my school. All school items were rated on a five-point Likert type scale ranging from 1 (strongly agree) to 5 (strongly disagree). Bullying has been defined as negative physical or verbal actions that have hostile intent, cause distress to victims, are repeated over time, and involve a power differential between bullies and their victims (Olweus & Dan 1997), including intention to inflict harm, power imbalance and the repeated nature of the actions. The repeated aggression can be either direct (e.g., name calling, beating) or relational, that is, with the intent to damage relationships (e.g., spreading rumors) (Wolke et. al 2000). Pupils were asked if they had been bullied during the last couple of months (not at all, once or twice; 2 or 3 times a month; about once a week; several times a week). Descriptive statistics were used to examine the prevalence of loneliness and other factors. Structural equation modelling was used to test how strongly loneliness was associated with pupil and teacher related social support and acceptance and perceived bullying. Perceived school safety was also included into the model.
Preliminary results showed that feeling lonely was very common among adolescents, 57% of them reported to feel lonely at least sometimes. Eight percent of adolescents felt lonely quite often and four percent very often. Girls were more often lonely than boys, and loneliness became more prevalent with increasing age. Lonely pupils reported less social support and acceptance from their classmates and teachers than other pupils. It was also evident that lonely pupils perceived social environment in school less safe compared to pupils who felt lonely less frequently. The experience of being bullied was a significant threat to perceived safety at school. There are lonely pupils at every school, maybe in every class. From health perspective this is a significant result as school is an essential part of young people’s lives. According to van Roekel et al. (2015) adolescents may feel even more lonely at school as they do elsewhere because in school they are exposed to other young people’s friendships and peer relations, and in this context their own situation may seem very undesirable. School as a major meeting point of young people can diminish pupils’ experiences of loneliness by developing school culture to be more inclusive and by teaching social skills and emotional sensitivity of the staff as well as the pupils’.
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