Depression a link between school climate and student learning?

By Greg Austin

About three in ten secondary students in California experience chronic, incapacitating sadness and hopelessness (CHKS data).  A recent study indicates that a school’s social and educational environment is linked to students’ symptoms of depression.  This raises issues about a school’s responsibility for contributing to student well-being and also has implications for understanding how school climate, student mental health, and academic achievement may be related.

The researchers, led by Frédéric Brière, tracked 5,262 teenagers in 71 high schools throughout Quebec, Canada, from 7th grade through 11th grade.   They used student surveys to measure school climate based on four broad categories: fairness and rules, social climate (quality of relationships), safety (security and violence) and learning opportunities (e.g., teacher practice, extracurricular involvement, student decision-making opportunities, academic support).

The researchers found that students in schools with positive school climates in 8th grade had lower depressive symptoms in 10th and 11th grades (the effect was slightly stronger for girls). They also found that individual students who had more positive perceptions of their school climate in 8th grades had lower depressive symptoms in 10th and 11th grades. Both school-level measures of climate and individual perceptions mattered. Other school characteristics considered in the study—like school size or average income levels—did not significantly predict depressive symptoms.

Prior research with adolescents has shown that experiencing symptoms of depression is associated with poor academic outcomes (e.g., Juvonen, Nishina, & Graham, 2000). The Brière research would suggest that one way in which positive school climate may contribute to better student achievement and attendance is by improving their mental health.

Consistent with the findings from Brière, a recent CHKS factsheet showed that students who reported being sad or hopeless were less likely to report having high levels of developmental supports (caring relationships, high expectations, and opportunities for meaningful participation) in their school.  They were also less likely to have high levels of school connectedness. Finally, these students were at elevated risk of educational, health, social, and emotional problems compared to other students, including lower school attendance, performance, and connectedness.

Taken as a whole, these findings suggest that schools have a significant role in students’ mental health. In schools that provide fewer developmental supports, students experience more depressive symptoms. By improving school climate, educators may improve the mental health of their students, which in turn can improve attendance and academic performance.

That such a substantial proportion of California’s secondary students are at risk of depression clearly warrants more attention to the relationship between school climate, student mental health, and academic performance.


See:  Brière, F., et al. (2013.) School environment and adolescent depressive symptoms: A multilevel longitudinal Study. Pediatrics, February 11.

Juvonen, J., Nishina, A., & Graham, S. (2000). Peer harassment, Psychological adjustment, and school functioning in early adolescents. Journal of Educational Psychology, 92(2), 349-359.

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