Mental Health and School Functioning for Girls in the Child Welfare System: the Mediating Role of Future Orientation and School Engagement
Mental Health and School Functioning for Girls in the Child Welfare System: the Mediating Role of Future Orientation and School Engagement
Jennifer M. Threlfall 0 1 2 3
Wendy Auslander 0 1 2 3
Donald Gerke 0 1 2 3
Hollee McGinnis 0 1 2 3
Sarah Myers Tlapek 0 1 2 3
0 George Warren Brown School of Social Work, Washington University in St. Louis , Campus Box 1196, St. Louis, MO 63130 , USA
1 Department of Social Policy and Social Work, University of York , Heslington, York YO10 5DD , UK
2 & Jennifer M. Threlfall
3 School of Social Work, University of Missouri , Columbia, MO 65211 , USA
This study investigated the association between mental health problems and academic and behavioral school functioning for adolescent girls in the child welfare system and determined whether school engagement and future orientation meditated the relationship. Participants were 231 girls aged between 12 and 19 who had been involved with the child welfare system. Results indicated that 39% of girls reported depressive symptoms in the clinical range and 54% reported posttraumatic symptoms in the clinical range. The most common school functioning problems reported were failing a class (41%) and physical fights with other students (35%). Participants reported a mean number of 1.7 school functioning problems. Higher levels of depression and PTSD were significantly associated with more school functioning problems. School engagement fully mediated the relationship between depression and school functioning and between PTSD and school functioning, both models controlling for age, race, and placement stability. Future orientation was not significantly associated with school functioning problems at the bivariate level. Findings suggest that school engagement is a potentially modifiable target for interventions aiming to ameliorate the negative influence of mental health problems on school functioning for adolescent girls with histories of abuse or neglect.
School engagement; Future orientation; Depression; PTSD; Child welfare; Adolescence
A surprisingly high number of students in schools in the
USA are victims of abuse or neglect. Recent prevalence
rates indicated that one in eight children was identified as a
victim of abuse or neglect by the time they were 18, and
girls were more likely to be victims than boys (Wildeman
et al., 2014). Youth who are involved with the child
welfare system due to experiences of abuse or neglect perform
more poorly over a range of school-related domains,
including behavior and academic performance (McMillen,
Auslander, Elze, White, Thompson, 2003; Perfect, Turley,
Carlson, Yohanna, & Saint Gilles, 2016). The poor school
functioning of child welfare-involved youth has been
explained in part by the high rates of mental health
problems in the population, resulting from their histories of
abuse and neglect (Romano, Babchishin, Marquis, &
Fre´chette, 2015). However, the mechanisms by which
mental health problems may affect school outcomes are not
well understood, either in the general population or among
child welfare-involved youth. The current study explored
two potential pathways—future orientation and school
engagement—through which mental health may impact
school functioning for adolescent girls involved in the child
Children and their families usually become involved in
the child welfare system following an investigation of
suspected abuse or neglect. In 2014, investigations in the
USA by child protective services (CPS) identified 702,000
victims [U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
(DHHS), 2016a]. The majority of youth who received child
welfare services following a CPS investigation remained in
their homes; around a fourth received an out-of-home
placement (DHHS, 2016a). In 2015, 45% of youth who had
been removed from their homes were placed in
non-relative foster families and 35% were fostered by their
relatives. Other youth lived in a group home or institution
(14%) or were in a pre-adoptive home (4%) (DHHS,
2016b). Both youth who remain in home and those in
outof-home placements report higher levels of mental health
and school functioning problems than youth in the general
population (Heneghan et al., 2013; Perfect et al., 2016).
Child welfare-involved adolescents are especially
vulnerable to mental health problems such as depression and
posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that may result from
lifetime experiences of abuse or neglect (Heneghan et al.,
2013; Kolko et al., 2010; McMillen et al., 2005; Turner,
Finkelhor, & Ormrod, 2006). Among youth involved in the
child welfare system, girls are more likely to experience
mental health problems than boys. For example, an
analysis of the National Survey on Child and Adolescent
WellBeing (NSCAW) found that around 37% of adolescent
boys and 47% of adolescent girls who were investigated by
CPS reported at least one mental health problem
(Heneghan et al., 2013). Studies of child welfare-involved
adolescents in out-of-home care have reported similarly high
prevalence rates of mental health problems. A study of
older adolescents leaving the foster care system in three
Midwestern states found that 11% of all youth and 14% of
girls were assessed as having experienced major depression
over their lifetime, and 15% of all youth and 22% of girls
met the lifetime criteria for PTSD (Keller, Salazar, &
The high prevalence of mental health problems among
child welfare-involved youth has been associated with
negative outcomes, such as poor academic and behavioral
school functioning (Romano et al., 2015). Youth who are
involved in child welfare have consistently been found to
have lower achievement and more school-related
behavioral problems than the general population, as evidenced
through grade point averages, performance on standardized
tests, and grade retention (Perfect et al., 2016; Romano
et al., 2015). Furthermore, they are more likely to engage in
problematic behaviors such as absenteeism and defiance
and aggression in school (Pears, Kim, Fisher, & Yoerger,
2013; Perfect et al., 2016). Despite this overwhelming
evidence that child welfare-involved youth have high rates
of both mental health problems and poor school
functioning, few studies have examined how these factors may be
related to each other among child welfare-involved youth.
In the general population, however, there is mounting
evidence of the relationship between mental health
problems and poor school functioning.
Mental health problems can affect both academic and
behavioral outcomes. Students with internalizing problems
such as anxiety and depression have demonstrated lower
levels of achievement and attainment (Duchesne, Vitaro,
Larose, & Tremblay, 2008; Fergusson & Woodward,
2002). They are also more likely to engage in problem
behaviors at school such as aggression, bullying, and
truancy (Ek & Eriksson, 2013; Ferguson, San Miguel, &
Hartley, 2009). Posttraumatic symptoms following
exposure to violence have also been found to have a negative
impact on academic performance as indicated by
standardized test scores, grade point averages, and grade
retention (Lipschitz, Rasmusson, Anyan, Cromwell, &
Southwick, 2000; Mathews, Dempsey, & Overstreet,
2009). Similarly, posttraumatic symptoms have been
associated with externalizing behaviors and violence and
aggression in school, as well as more frequent suspensions
(Gellman & DeLucia-Waack, 2006; Lipschitz et al., 2000;
Saigh, Yasik, Oberfield, Halamandaris, & McHugh, 2002).
Despite the growing evidence of the negative impact of
mental health problems on school functioning, little is
known about linkages between the two, either in the
general population or among child welfare-involved youth. To
deepen our understanding of the pathways by which mental
health problems may be linked to poor school functioning,
theory related to developmental assets was examined.
Developmental assets have been defined as resources that
youth possess internally or have access to in their
environments that make successful functioning more likely
(Lerner, Lerner, von Eye, Bowers, & Lewin-Bizan, 2011).
Within the school context, adolescents who are in
possession of the appropriate developmental assets may be
expected to engage in constructive learning and social
behaviors and to experience academic success. A broad
range of assets have been identified that are associated with
positive school functioning, including interpersonal
strengths (e.g., supportive teachers, family, and
community), and individual strengths (e.g., beliefs and values
about schooling and the future) (Li, Lerner, & Lerner,
2010; Scales, Benson, Roehlkepartain, Sesma, & Dulmen,
Previous research has suggested the importance of
developmental assets in promoting positive outcomes
among younger children involved in child welfare. For
example, internal developmental assets such as a
commitment to learning and sense of purpose have been associated
with fewer conduct problems and higher educational
performance in children living in out-of-home care (Bell,
Romano, & Flynn, 2015; Filbert & Flynn, 2010). Less is
known about the role of developmental assets for
adolescents involved in child welfare. Moreover, previous studies
have not examined developmental assets as mediators of
the relationship between mental health problems and
Thus, the focus of the current study was to examine the
role of two developmental assets: school engagement and
future orientation. Adolescents in the child welfare system
may have difficulty functioning in school because the
formation of these developmental assets has been
interrupted. Specifically, the mental health problems often
experienced by children with histories of abuse or neglect
may prevent the formation of positive attitudes to school
and the future that in other circumstances would lead to
school success. In other words, developmental assets, such
as school engagement and future orientation, are
hypothesized to serve as pathways or mediators in the relationship
between mental health problems and school functioning for
adolescent girls in child welfare.
School engagement is a multidimensional concept that
includes behavioral, cognitive, and emotional dimensions.
The focus of the current study is on emotional engagement
which has been defined as the extent to which students
value their schooling, feel that they belong to their school,
and are supported by their peers and teachers (Jimerson,
Campos, & Greif, 2014). Research has demonstrated that
emotional engagement was significantly associated with
academic achievement in adolescents (Goodenow, 1993a;
Wang & Holcombe, 2010) and fewer problem behaviors
such as fighting and absenteeism (Catalano, Oesterle,
Fleming, & Hawkins, 2004; Sa´nchez, Colo´n, & Esparza,
The negative impact of certain mental health on
students’ emotional engagement has been demonstrated in
studies of adolescents in the general population (Wang &
Peck, 2012). Specifically, students who experience
depression are less likely to have a strong sense of
belonging to their school (Johnson, Crosnoe, & Thaden,
2006; Ma, 2003). The relationship between posttraumatic
symptoms and school engagement is less clearly
established. One study found that older adolescents with higher
posttraumatic symptomatology had more negative attitudes
toward their school and teachers (McGill et al., 2014).
Despite the overwhelming evidence that child
welfareinvolved youth face multiple problems with school
functioning, only a few studies have explored school
engagement in this population. In general, abused or neglected
youth have been found to have lower levels of engagement
with school when compared with youth of a similar
socioeconomic background (Pears et al., 2013). Similarly
to the general population, child welfare-involved youth
who are more engaged in school have higher levels of
achievement and have also been found to engage in fewer
problem behaviors, such as fighting (Leonard, Stiles, &
Gudin˜o, 2016; Pears et al., 2013). However, there is very
little knowledge about the relationship between mental
health and school engagement for child welfare-involved
youth, or the role of school engagement as a mediator
between mental health and school functioning.
Likewise, future orientation, defined as an individual’s
expectations about and actions related to the future (Nurmi,
2005; Seginer, 2009), can be also considered as a
developmental asset for adolescents. Youth who are more
oriented toward the future believe that they have a certain
amount of agency over their life trajectory and may make
decisions that will maximize their chances of reaching
goals they have set for themselves (Nurmi, 2005).
Accordingly, higher levels of future orientation have been
associated with greater academic achievement (Adelabu,
2007) and with a decrease in problem behaviors (Chen &
Vazsonyi, 2013; Robbins & Bryan, 2004).
Mental health problems have been shown to have a
negative effect on future orientation. Adolescents who
show more depressive symptoms were less likely to have a
positive orientation to the future (Kagan, MacLeod, &
Pote, 2004). Furthermore, adolescents experiencing
posttraumatic symptoms were more likely to have negative
cognitions about the future (Allwood, Esposito-Smythers,
Swenson, & Spirito, 2014). For example, one study found
that urban youth who had been exposed to trauma and who
had PTSD were more pessimistic about their futures than
traumatized youth with no PTSD symptoms (Rialon, 2011).
These established associations with school functioning and
mental health problems support the possible role of future
orientation as a pathway between the two in the general
A few studies have pointed to the role of future
orientation as a protective factor for problem behaviors and
mental health for children who have been abused or
neglected (Edmond, Auslander, Elze, & Bowland, 2006;
Herrenkohl, Tajima, Whitney, & Huang, 2005), but there
has been little investigation of its relationship with school
functioning. Moreover, some studies have cast doubt on the
positive role of future expectations for child
welfare-involved youth, finding no evidence of differences in risky
behaviors for youth with differing levels of future
orientation (James, Montgomery, Leslie, & Zhang, 2009;
Traube, James, Zhang, & Landsverk, 2012). Because
findings from previous research have been inconsistent,
further research is warranted on the role of future
orientation in promoting positive outcomes for child
welfareinvolved youth and as a potential mediator or pathway
between mental health problems and school functioning.
To deepen our understanding of the developmental
assets of girls involved in the child welfare system, the
following research questions were addressed in the current
study: (1) What are the associations between mental health
problems (depression and PTSD) and school functioning
for adolescent girls involved in the child welfare system?
and (2) do developmental assets, such as school
engagement and future orientation, mediate this relationship in
Participants were 231 adolescent girls who were involved
in the child welfare system and who had been recruited to
take part in a trauma-focused group intervention study.
Baseline data collected for the intervention study were used
for the current analysis. In order to be included in the study,
girls needed to be between 12 and 19 years old and to have
been formally investigated for child abuse or neglect
through the state’s child protective services. Girls were
excluded for the following criteria: if they were unable to
read or write, had been hospitalized for mental health
problems in the last 6 months, were unable to tolerate
discussing abuse or neglect, or if they had behaviors that
would preclude participation in a structured interview or
group treatment. Participants were recruited through
referrals from child protective services, other agencies
providing services to adolescents in the child welfare
system, and from caregivers.
The mean age of participants was 14.8 (SD = 1.6).
Two-thirds of the girls were in high school (25% were
seniors or juniors, and 41% were sophomores or freshmen).
The remaining third were in middle school. Seventy-five
percent of the girls were youth of color, of whom the
majority (70%) identified as African-American and the
others (5%) as Native American, Hispanic, Asian/Asian
American, or ‘‘Other.’’ The remaining 25% of participants
identified as non-Hispanic White. Participants were living
with their biological parent(s) (40%), with another relative
(14%), with a legal adoptive family (7%), with a foster
family (28%), or in a group home or other congregate care
All study procedures were first approved by the Human
Subjects Institutional Review Board of the two
collaborating universities of study personnel. The Research
Committee of the state office of child protective services
also approved the research protocol. Additionally, a
Certificate of Confidentiality was issued by the funding
agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
(CDC), in order to protect the privacy of the study
Following the youth’s referral to the study team and
confirmation of the adolescent’s expressed interest in the
study, written consent was obtained from the legal
custodian. In addition, to the fullest extent possible, written
consent was also secured from all members of the youth’s
family support team (e.g., guardian ad litem, deputy
juvenile officer, child’s current therapist). All adolescents over
the age of 18 provided written consent to participate in the
study, and younger adolescents provided their written
assent. Participants were given a $20 gift card to
compensate them for their time.
Face-to-face interviews were conducted by masters or
doctoral-level social work students. All interviewers
participated in 8 h of training that focused on basic
interviewing skills, confidentiality, procedures for reporting
abuse and for responding in cases where participants
endorsed items relating to suicide, as well as providing
background knowledge about the population. Interviews
lasted for approximately 1 h and were conducted in the
participants’ homes or in community-based mental health
Depressive symptoms over the previous 2 weeks were
measured using the Child Depression Inventory (CDI;
Kovacs, 2003). The CDI includes 27 items that are scored
0–2 and then summed, with higher total scores indicating
more severe symptoms. Previous studies have
demonstrated concurrent validity, distinguishing between
normative and clinical groups (Kovacs, 2003; Saylor, Finch,
Spirito, & Bennett, 1984). Furthermore, good internal
consistency and test–retest reliability have been
demonstrated for a child welfare population (Kolko et al., 2010).
The internal consistency reliability for the current study
was a = .88.
The Child PTSD Symptom Scale (CPSS; Foa, Johnson,
Feeny, & Treadwell, 2001) was used to assess
posttraumatic stress symptoms. Participants rated the frequency of
experiencing symptoms over the past month for 17 items
(e.g., Trying not to think about, talk about, or have feelings
about the trauma; Having trouble falling or staying asleep)
on a four-point scale from not at all (0) to five or more
times a week (3). Previous studies have demonstrated that
the CPSS has convergent validity, correlating highly with
other similar PTSD scales, as well as good internal
consistency and test–retest reliability (Foa et al., 2001). For the
School engagement was measured using seven items from
the Psychological Sense of School Membership (PSSM;
Goodenow, 1993b). The items assess students’ emotional
engagement as indicated by their feelings about their
school and about their relationships with teachers and
peers. The items (e.g., I feel proud of belonging to my
school; People at my school notice when I am good at
something) were scored on a four-point scale from strongly
disagree (1) to strongly agree (4) and then summed to form
a total score. Higher levels of engagement are indicated by
higher total scores. A previous study of foster care youth
found high correlations in the expected direction between
the seven-item scale and measures of achievement (e.g.,
grades and number of classes failed), establishing
convergent validity (White, 2005). Internal consistency reliability
was a = .78.
Future orientation was assessed using a scale that measured
two domains of future orientation. The affective domain
(i.e., hope for the future) was assessed using six items from
the revised version of the Life Orientation Test (LOT-R;
Scheier, Carver, & Bridges, 1994) and the cognitive
domain (i.e., thinking about the future) using four items
from Heimberg’s Future Time Perspective Inventory
(FTPI; Heimberg, 1963). Items were scored on a four-point
scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree and then
summed to form a total scale with a possible range of
10–40. Higher scores indicated a more positive future
orientation. A previous study found significant differences
in the scores of foster care youth and upper middle-class
college-bound youth, thereby establishing the scale’s
concurrent validity (Cabrera, Auslander, & Polgar, 2009). The
alpha coefficient for the 10-item scale used in the current
analysis was a = .71.
School Functioning Problems
The number of school functioning problems adolescents
were experiencing was measured using an index of six
items indicating behavioral or academic difficulties in
school. Participants were asked to indicate whether they
had participated in each of the four behavioral problems in
the past academic year (Yes/No): skipping school, physical
fights with other students, verbal fights with teachers, and
physical fights with teachers. Academic problems were
assessed by two items: ‘‘failed a class in the previous year’’
(Yes/No) and grades they had mostly received in that year
(0 = Mostly A’s, Mostly B’s, and Mostly C’s; 1 = Mostly
D’s, and Mostly F’s). Each problem that the participant
endorsed was scored as one, resulting in an index with a
possible range of 0–6 with higher scores indicating more
school functioning problems.
Potential Control Variables
Several control variables that could potentially affect
school functioning were investigated. These included age,
race (0 = youth of color, 1 = White), placement instability
(a count of the number of different types of placement that
the adolescent had lived in during her lifetime), and school
instability (number of school districts attended since sixth
The potential mediating roles of school engagement and
future orientation were explored to understand the
pathways between mental health problems and school
problems, using the steps outlined by Baron and Kenny (1986).
First, correlations between the predictor, mediator,
outcome, and potential control variables were examined.
Second, where significant correlations were found,
mediation analyses were conducted using the Hayes (2013)
PROCESS SAS macro. The significance of the indirect
effect (the impact of the depression and PTSD on school
problems) through two potential mediators (school
engagement and future orientation) was determined using a
bootstrapping methodology provided by the Hayes macro
(Preacher & Hayes, 2004).
Results of the descriptive analyses, as shown in Table 1,
indicated that the mean depression score of the participants
was 11.71 (SD = 8.25). Based on previous studies of
clinically referred adolescents using a clinical cutoff score
of 13 and above (Kovacs, 2003), 39% of participants in the
present study had depressive symptoms in the clinical
range. Results from the PTSD scale indicated that the mean
PTSD symptom score was 16.72 (SD = 10.83), with 54%
of participants who reported PTSD symptoms in the
clinical range (C15).
The frequencies of participants endorsing each school
functioning problem are shown in Table 2. The most
common school functioning problem reported was failing a
class (40.69%) followed by engaging in physical fights
School functioning problems
N = 231
Table 3 School functioning problems index frequencies
No. of school functioning problems
N = 231
Table 1 Means (M) and standard deviations (SD) of variables
with other students (35.06%). Approximately one quarter
of participants had skipped school (26.41%) and a similar
proportion (25.11%) reported verbal fights with their
teachers. Fewer students reported receiving lower overall
grades (9.09%) or having engaged in physical fights with
teachers (.87%). As shown in Table 3, the majority of
participants (72.73%) reported experiencing at least one
school functioning problem (M = 1.37, SD = 1.20).
Bivariate and Mediation Analyses
Bivariate relationships between the predictor, mediator,
outcome, and control variables are shown in Table 4.
Significant relationships were found between both mental
health variables (depression and PTSD) and school
functioning problems, with girls who reported higher levels of
depression and PTSD symptoms having more school
problems. Likewise, higher levels of depression and PTSD
were significantly associated with lower levels of school
engagement and lower levels of future orientation. Last,
higher levels of school engagement were significantly
associated with school problems; however, no relationship
was found between future orientation and school problems.
Results of the bivariate analyses indicated significant
relationships between the control variables (age, race, and
placement instability) and school functioning problems.
Therefore, these variables were included as covariates in
the mediation models.
Figure 1 displays the results of the mediation models
testing the pathway between depression and school
functioning problems through school engagement, controlling
for age, race, and placement instability. Higher levels of
depression were associated with more school functioning
problems, and this relationship was fully mediated by
school engagement. The bootstrapping analysis confirmed
the mediating role of school engagement, indicating that
the indirect path between depression and school problems
was significant. Similarly, as shown in Fig. 2, the pathway
between PTSD symptoms and school functioning problems
became nonsignificant when school engagement was added
to the model, controlling for age, race, and placement
instability. More severe PTSD symptoms were associated
with more school functioning problems, and the
relationship was fully mediated by school engagement. The
bootstrapping analysis confirmed a significant indirect path
between PTSD symptoms and school functioning problems
when school engagement is in the model. Because there
was no significant bivariate relationship between future
orientation (the other potential mediator) and school
problems, the mediation model testing the indirect effects
of mental health problems on school problems through
future orientation was not tested.
The current study explored two possible pathways (i.e.,
through school engagement and future orientation) by
which mental health problems influence school functioning
for adolescent girls involved in child welfare. The results
indicate that higher levels of depression and PTSD
symptoms are significantly associated with greater school
functioning problems and that school engagement fully
mediated these relationships. The findings confirm our
knowledge of the importance of depression and PTSD as
predictors of school-related problems. Moreover, the
findings identify a significant pathway (i.e., school
engagement) by which mental health problems influence school
functioning in child welfare-involved adolescent girls.
Table 4 Bivariate correlations
between mental health
problems, developmental assets
(school engagement, future
orientation), and school
Fig. 1 Mediating effect of
school engagement on the
relationship between depression
and school functioning
problems. *Significant covariate
1. School functioning
2. Depression 3. PTSD
4. School engagement
5. Future orientation
8. Placement instability
9. School instability 1 –
Indirect Effect = .0144
95% CI [0.0063, 0.0288]
c’ = .0105, N.S.
School engagement was conceptualized in the current
study as a sense of belonging to school, including having
positive relationships with teachers and peers. Findings
suggest that that mental health problems, such as
depression and PTSD, may negatively impact school engagement
which, in turn, disrupts positive school functioning. This is
consistent with previous studies that have shown that
depression is predictive of later erosion in social support
among adolescent girls, possibly because depressed
individuals tend to engage in behaviors such as constantly
seeking reassurance that may lead to peer rejection (Stice,
Ragan, & Randall, 2004). Additionally, depressive
symptoms may lead to a depletion of cognitive and emotional
resources and a subsequent withdrawal from social
relationships (Davis et al., 2016). Similarly, behaviors
associated with PTSD symptoms, such as aggression, may
undermine supportive relationships in school (Kendra,
Bell, & Guimond, 2012). Another explanation is that
mental health problems may also lead to cognitive
distortions about the true nature of social relationships. For
example, depressed youth have been found to have more
negative conceptions of their social status than would be
suggested by their teachers’ observations (Rudolph &
Clark, 2001). Girls participating in the current study may
therefore have underestimated the extent to which they are
supported by their teachers and peers. The negative impact
of diminished school engagement on school functioning in
the current study is also consistent with other research.
Students who do not feel supported by their peers and
teachers and who do not have a strong sense of belonging
to the school are unlikely to be motivated to engage in
behaviors that are valued by that institution or that are
conducive to their own academic success (Appleton,
Christenson, & Furlong, 2008).
Fig. 2 Mediating effect of
school engagement on the
relationship between PTSD and
school functioning problems.
In contrast to some previous research, future orientation
was not significantly related to school functioning at the
bivariate level in the current study. Although many
adolescents involved in child welfare have been found to have
a strong orientation toward the future (Polgar & Auslander,
2009), current findings indicate that positive cognitions
about the future and plans for the future do not always
translate into behaviors that make educational success
more likely. One explanation for this finding might be that
child welfare-involved youth with mental health problems
such as depression and PTSD lack other protective factors
that have proved important for educational success in the
general population. For example, youth who have histories
of unstable home placements may not receive the
consistent support of a caring adult that would enable them to
engage in pro-educational behaviors that would lead to
In interpreting the results of the study, some limitations
should be considered. First, the data used in the analysis are
cross-sectional. It is therefore not possible to draw
conclusions about the causality of the relationships found.
Second, the findings may not be generalizable to all
adolescent girls with histories of abuse and neglect.
Participants were a convenience sample recruited to take part in a
trauma-focused group intervention and may differ from
girls who did not need treatment, who were considered
unable to participate, or who were simply not interested in
group treatment. Third, all the items included in the school
functioning problems index relied on the adolescents’
selfreport of their achievement and behavior. Collateral
information such as academic and disciplinary records
obtained from their schools may have provided a more
objective or valid indicator of school functioning. Although
Indirect Effect = .0053
95% CI [0.0014, 0.0126]
c’ = .0109, N.S.
self-report methodologies are commonly used to assess
school functioning among child welfare-involved youth
(Perfect et al., 2016), little is known about their validity in
this population. Therefore, further research should
incorporate objective indicators to test the accuracy of these
The current study’s findings have important implications
for the practice of professionals working with adolescent
girls involved in child welfare within school settings. In
particular, evidence about the role of school engagement as
a pathway linking mental health problems to school
functioning indicates the importance of considering the wider
school environment in interventions with this population.
Interventions that increase students’ school engagement
may provide a way of interrupting the pathway by which
mental health problems increase the likelihood of poor
school functioning. Such interventions may specifically
target youth who have experienced a trauma, such as abuse
or neglect, or may alternatively be offered to all students in
Interventions that specifically target students with
histories of trauma, such as abuse or neglect, may be adapted
to promote students’ school engagement in addition to
other mental health and school-related outcomes. For
example, interventions may be designed to be delivered by
non-clinical professionals such as teachers and counselors
who are permanently located in the adolescents’ schools.
Students may thereby be given the opportunity to form
positive ongoing relationships with these professionals,
giving them a sense of being cared for and supported by
adults within the school. There is some evidence that
empirically supported trauma-focused treatments may be
effectively implemented in schools by non-clinical
professionals. For example, one intervention, Support for
Students Exposed to Trauma (SSET; Jaycox et al., 2009),
an adaptation of the Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for
Trauma in Schools (CBITS; Jaycox, 2003), has been
effectively delivered by teachers. Additionally, this
intervention has also been implemented with girls involved in
the child welfare system (Auslander et al., 2016).
It is unlikely that all adolescents who have been exposed
to abuse or neglect will be identified for trauma-specific
interventions. School-wide interventions that increase
school engagement may therefore be a valuable means of
supporting positive school functioning for these
unidentified adolescents as well as for other students with
undiagnosed or unaddressed mental health needs. An example
is provided by universal socioemotional learning (SEL)
curricula, which target students’ attachment, engagement,
and commitment to their schools as a key means of
promoting positive school functioning (Zins, Bloodworth,
Weissberg, & Walberg, 2004). To achieve these goals, SEL
programs focus on building supportive learning
environments and strengthening relationships between students,
their families, teachers, and other professionals. Increased
opportunities for students to contribute to their class,
school, and community may also increase their sense of
belonging (Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor, &
Schellinger, 2011). By building school engagement, SEL
programs and other similar interventions may therefore
serve a preventative role in interrupting the pathway
between mental health problems and poor school
functioning for all adolescents, including those with child
The findings of the current study contribute toward our
theoretical understanding of how common sequelae of
abuse and neglect can impact academic and behavioral
outcomes. The major finding of the study that school
engagement fully mediates the relationship between both
depression and PTSD and school functioning for child
welfare-involved girls highlights the need for further
research about this important developmental asset. There is
a critical need to deepen our understanding about how
youth involved in child welfare who have symptoms of
depression and PTSD can develop a sense of belonging to
their schools, and how the school environment might be
best shaped to provide resources and supportive
relationships for these adolescents to promote positive outcomes in
school. The results suggest the need for an educational
system that encourages school engagement and educational
achievement among girls in the child welfare system.
Acknowledgements This research was supported by Grant No. R49
CE001510 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
awarded to Washington University. The authors would like to
acknowledge Children’s Division of Missouri of St. Louis City and
County, and Jefferson County.
Compliance with Ethical Standards
Ethical Approval All procedures performed in studies involving
human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of
the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964
Helsinki Declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical
Informed Consent Informed consent was obtained from all
individual participants included in the study—Mental Health and School
Functioning for Girls in the Child Welfare System: the Mediating
Role of Future Orientation and School Engagement.
Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the
Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (http://crea
tivecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use,
distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give
appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a
link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were
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