School Belongingness and Mental Health Functioning across the Primary-Secondary Transition in a Mainstream Sample: Multi-Group Cross-Lagged Analyses
et al. (2014) School Belongingness and Mental Health Functioning across the Primary-Secondary
Transition in a Mainstream Sample: Multi-Group Cross-Lagged Analyses. PLoS ONE 9(6): e99576. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0099576
School Belongingness and Mental Health Functioning across the Primary-Secondary Transition in a Mainstream Sample: Multi-Group Cross-Lagged Analyses
Sharmila Vaz 0 1
Marita Falkmer 0 1
Richard Parsons 0 1
Anne Elizabeth Passmore 0 1
Timothy Parkin 0 1
Torbjo rn Falkmer 0 1
Kenji Hashimoto, Chiba University Center for Forensic Mental Health, Japan
0 1 School of Occupational Therapy and Social Work, Centre for Research into Disability and Society, Curtin Health Innovation Research Institute, Curtin University , Perth, Western Australia , Australia , 2 School of Occupational Therapy and Social Work, Curtin Health Innovation Research Institute, Curtin University , Perth, Western Australia , Australia , 3 School of Education and Communication, CHILD programme, Institution of Disability Research Jo nko ping University, Jo nko ping, Sweden, 4 School of Occupational Therapy and Social Work, and School of Pharmacy, Curtin Health Innovation Research Institute, Curtin University , Perth, Western Australia , Australia , 5 School of Occupational Therapy, La Trobe University , Melbourne, Vic. , Australia , 6 Rehabilitation Medicine, Department of Medicine and Health Sciences (IMH), Faculty of Health Sciences, Linko ping University and Pain and Rehabilitation Centre, UHL, County Council , Linko ping , Sweden
1 School Belongingness and Mental Health in Youth
The relationship between school belongingness and mental health functioning before and after the primary-secondary school transition has not been previously investigated in students with and without disabilities. This study used a prospective longitudinal design to test the bi-directional relationships between these constructs, by surveying 266 students with and without disabilities and their parents, 6-months before and after the transition to secondary school. Cross-lagged multi-group analyses found student perception of belongingness in the final year of primary school to contribute to change in their mental health functioning a year later. The beneficial longitudinal effects of school belongingness on subsequent mental health functioning were evident in all student subgroups; even after accounting for prior mental health scores and the cross-time stability in mental health functioning and school belongingness scores. Findings of the current study substantiate the role of school contextual influences on early adolescent mental health functioning. They highlight the importance for primary and secondary schools to assess students' school belongingness and mental health functioning and transfer these records as part of the transition process, so that appropriate scaffolds are in place to support those in need. Longer term longitudinal studies are needed to increase the understanding of the temporal sequencing between school belongingness and mental health functioning of all mainstream students.
Funding: This project was funded by a Doctoral scholarship provided by the Centre for Research into Disability and Society and the School of Occupational
Therapy and Social Work, Curtin University, Perth, Australia. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or
preparation of the manuscript.
Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.
Mental Health Problems in Adolescence
Worldwide estimates of mental health problems in children and
youth range from 1020% . Australian figures report a 14%
prevalence in a national sample of 412 year olds, which rises to
19% in the 1317 year old category  and 27% in the 1824
year old group . These figures suggest that approximately one
in four to five young Australians have a mental health problem .
Mental health functioning of children and youth has been shown
to vary due to gender, presence of disability and household
socioeconomic standing (SES). For example, conduct disorder is the
most common psychiatric disorder in childhood, with three times
as many boys as girls being affected . During adolescence, girls
have a higher prevalence of depression and eating disorders, and
engage more in suicidal ideation and suicide attempts than boys,
who are more prone to engage in high risk behaviours and commit
suicide more frequently [6,7]. Young people with an intellectual
disability manifest behaviours and experiences which may be
indicative of mental health or psychological impairment three to
four times more often than their typically developing peers; with
psychiatric disorders in young people with a disability often
undiagnosed and untreated . Household-SES influences
physical and mental health across the lifespan, with socially and
economically disadvantaged children and adults found to be an
increased risk for both physical and mental health problems [9
12]. Thus, it is imperative that research studies account for within
group variability in mental health functioning of children and
Of concern is the growing evidence on the stability of mental
health problems in children and adolescents [13,14] and its
longitudinal effects on mental health disorders, delinquency,
crime, unemployment, homelessness and suicidal behaviour in
adulthood . Mental health problems in children and
adolescents could be antecedents of chronic, complex, disabling
and expensive complications in adult life. For these reasons, early
detection of clinical and subclinical mental health issues is
important. Most mental health disorders that are likely to persist
into adult life emerge between ages 12 and 25 [23,24]. While early
intervention is more economical and cost-effective than later
action , its effectiveness in some cases is modest [26,27] or fails
to reach the majority of those most in need . Australian data
suggest that only one in four youth who need professional help
actually get the help they need . These facts, underscore the
need to gain a deeper understanding of pathways in and out of
childhood mental health problems [15,2830]. Schools are an
ideal setting for efficiently detecting children and adolescents with
unidentified mental health problems because they offer the
opportunity to reach large numbers of students [2,30,31].
School belongingness and overall mental health
functioning across primary-secondary school transition
In recent years, school belongingness, referring to students
beliefs of being personally accepted, respected, included, and
supported by others in the school social environment , has
emerged as an important factor associated with positive health
outcomes [33,34]. Cross-sectional studies document moderate
associations between school belongingness and emotional distress
and depression in typically developing adolescents , before
and after accounting for personal and contextual factors, such as
family-parent-belongingness, self-esteem and grade point average
[36,37]. Short term longitudinal studies present mixed findings on
the directional relationships between these constructs. In some
studies [39,40] a unidirectional relationship has been documented;
with school belongingness predicting selective prospective mental
health components, depending on gender. For example, Shocket
and colleagues  found that early adolescents perception of
school belongingness predicted future depressive symptoms in boys
and girls; anxiety in girls; and conduct problems in boys. Other
studies suggest bidirectional relationships between these
constructs, which vary depending on the type of mental health domain
being measured . Loukas and colleagues  presented
evidence of a bidirectional loop between school belongingness and
conduct problems, but not depressive symptoms in 1014 year old
typically developing youth . Also, the positive effects of school
belongingness have been found to extend to students home lives;
concomitantly buffer the effects of family disadvantage on
functioning ; and prospectively protect them from
involvement in risk behaviours [43,44]. Consequently, a growing body of
evidence with typically developing youth supports the
interrelationship between school belongingness and positive mental health
Conspicuous in the above cited investigations on school
belongingness and mental health functioning, is the exclusion of
students with disabilities in the study samples, despite their
presence in the regular school system for several decades.
Additional research is needed to authenticate the role of school
belongingness in the disability subgroup. Preliminary findings are
hopeful, showing school belongingness to be negatively associated
with emotional stress, suicide attempts, and violence amongst
students with learning disabilities . Yet another gap is the
absence of evidence on the prospective benefits of fostering
belongingness in primary school on overall mental health
functioning of all students after the transition to secondary school,
or whether there are student subgroups, based on gender,
disability status, or household-SES, that need additional support.
Students in western societies, including Australia, negotiate the
primary-secondary school transition at a time in development
when they are striving to gain independence from their parents,
establish their unique identity [46,47], and gain approval and
support from peers . As a result of this school transition,
students experience a disruption of the secure peer network forged
in primary school and a remixing of friendship networks and social
hierarchies. It is likely that students are forced to redefine their
sense of school belongingness after they transition to secondary
school. Whether poorer mental health functioning before the
transition is associated with poorer school belongingness thereafter
remains mainly unexplored.
Aim and Objectives
The current study extends the existing knowledge base on
primary-secondary school transition by explicitly examining the
temporal relationships between school belongingness and overall
mental health functioning after one year, by tracking a cohort with
and without disability, enrolled in the regular school system in
Western Australia (WA). We also tested the equivalence of these
relationships across gender, disability and household-SES. It was
direct relationships would exist between concurrent
perception of school belongingness and overall mental health
functioning, before and after the transition; and
primary school belongingness would be related to overall
mental health functioning in early secondary school, even
after accounting for prior mental health scores.
No hypothesis was made regarding the predictive role of mental
health in primary school on school belongingness a year later, due
to the inconsistent empirical evidence on this issue.
A cohort study using a prospective, longitudinal design with two
data collection points was used [Primary school = Wave 1, and
Secondary school = Wave 2]. Students enrolled in the final year
of primary school in WA (class 6 or 7), in the academic years
commencing January 2006 or 2007, and due to transition to either
middle or secondary school in January 2007 or 2008, were
considered for inclusion in the study. Inclusion was limited to
regular schools in the educational districts of metropolitan Perth or
other major city centres of Western Australia (WA). Several
recruitment strategies were used to maximize reach and
representativeness. The current study is part of a larger study on the
factors associated with student academic, social-emotional and
participatory adjustment across the primary-secondary school
transition . Details on the study design, recruitment and data
collection have been published elsewhere . For the ease of
readership, a brief overview is described below.
Wave 1 data collection occurred six months prior to the
transition to either middle or secondary school, with data collected
from students (with and without disabilities) and a primary
caregiver (parent or guardian). Wave 2 data were collected 6
months after the transition, using the same procedure and sample
as Wave 1.
Information was collected via survey questionnaires, primarily
paper and pencil format. Informed written consent was obtained
from school principals, parents, teachers, and written assent was
obtained from students to participate in this study. In situations
where the student declined to participate, even with parental
consent, they were not included. All participants were made aware
that they were not obliged to participate, and were free to
withdraw from the study at any time without justification or
prejudice. Ethics approval was obtained from Curtin University
Health Research Ethics Committee, in Western Australia (WA)
(Reference number HR 194/2005).
At Wave 1, data were collected from 395 students from 75
primary schools across the Perth metropolitan area and major city
centres across WA. An attrition rate of 32.7% resulted in a Wave 2
sample of 266 participants from 52 primary schools and
152 secondary schools. Chi-square and paired sample t-tests
showed that the participants who continued to be involved in
the study at Wave 2 did not differ from those who discontinued
involvement, on gender, disability, household SES-level, school
belongingness, and mental health functioning scores. The current
study uses data from the 266 students that answered both Wave 1
and 2 questionnaires. Access to the complete dataset can be
obtained by contacting the first author.
The mean age of students sample at Wave 1 was 11.89 years
(SD = 0.45 years, median = 12 years), and that at Wave 2 was 12.9
years (SD = 0.57 years, median = 13 years). Boys constituted
46.6% (n = 124) of the sample; and 25.9% (n = 69) were reported
by a parent or primary caregiver to have a disability. The
predominant disabilities included asthma (18.8%), auditory
disability (15.9%), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder/
Attention Deficit Disorders (14.5%), learning disability (11.6%),
Autism Spectrum Disorders (10.1%), and cerebral palsy (8.7%).
The majority of the sample came from mid-range households, and
reported a weekly income of $6001,999 (58.3%, n = 154) .
Under one-third of the sample (33%, n = 87) came from high-SES
households ($ 2000+/week) and 8.7%, n = 23 were from low-SES
groupings ($ 1599 per week).
The sample represented 52 different primary schools and 77
different classes distributed across metropolitan Perth and other
city centres of WA. Based on the Commonwealth Department of
Education, Employment, and Workplace Relations measure of
relative socio-economic advantage and disadvantage , 21.4%
(n = 57) of the sample came from schools located in the most
affluent areas across Australia (10th decide), 44% (n = 117) came
from the 9th decile; 17.7% (n = 47) were from the 78th decide and
16.9% (n = 45) came from more disadvantaged areas (16th
decide). Forty-seven percent of the sample (n = 125) were enrolled
in the public schools, 29% (n = 77) in Catholic schools, and the
remaining 24% (n = 64) in independent/private schools. There
was a movement out of government schools into Catholic and
independent schools for secondary education; with 11.2% of
students (n = 14) moving into Catholic schools and 28.8% (n = 36)
moving into independent schools for their secondary education.
Data collection instruments
Mental health functioning. The 25-item parent version of
the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) was used to
measure student overall functioning across hyperactivity,
emotional health, conduct problem and peer problem domains .
This version has moderate to high internal consistency scores
(a = .7080) , and is reported to be more sensitive than the
Child Behaviour Check List  in detecting inattention and
hyperactivity, and equally effective in detecting internalising and
externalising problems in children and adolescents .
Established reliability and validity of the SDQ makes it a useful brief
screening measure of adjustment and psychopathology in children
and adolescents [53,5557]. Higher SDQ scores indicate poorer
mental health functioning.
School belongingness. The 18-item, Psychological Sense of
School Membership scale (PSSM) was used to assess students
perceptions of belongingness in school . The PSSM has
satisfactory internal consistency (a = .803) . Test-retest
reliability indices of .78 (4-week interval) , and .56 and .60 for
boys and girls respectively (12-month interval) have been
documented in early adolescent samples . The total PSSM
scores correlate positively with school success [32,59], lower levels
of depression , and lower levels of anxiety . Higher PSSM
scores indicate better perceived school belongingness.
Family demographics and school contextual
characteristics. Items were drawn from the Indicators of
Social and Family Functioning Instrument Version-1 (ISAFF)
 and Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS, 2001) surveys, and
used to provide family demographic information. Parents reported
details on the family demographic characteristics, residence post
code, and their childs disability. Information on the school sector,
post code number of students enrolled in each school, and
organisational structure at each school was obtained from
Department of Education and Training, WA records. The sample
was categorised into three-income groups as per the median
income distribution based on the Australian Bureau of Statistics
Data were managed and analysed using the SPSS Version 20.0
and SAS Version 9.2 software packages. Only 1.82.5% of data
were missing at scale levels. The estimation maximization
algorithm and Littles chi-square statistic revealed that the data
were missing completely at random [61,62]. Missing data
replacement was undertaken using guidelines recommended by
the SDQ tool developers (http://www.sdqinfo.org/c1.html). In
the case of the school belongingness questionnaire, individual
mean score substitution was used . The validity of the data
substitution techniques used was substantiated using sensitivity
In the present study, the bidirectional associations between
school belongingness and mental health functioning over one year
were estimated by cross-lagged analyses, using the structural
equation modelling program, AMOS 5.0. A critical preliminary
step in the analysis was to investigate if data met the normality
assumption. With regard to the normality assumptions of the Full
Information Maximum Likelihood estimation procedure, the
normality of each variable was investigated in terms of its kurtosis
and skewness . Box-cox transformations were undertaken to
normalise the PSSM and SDQ scores. In order to provide
clinically relevant information, standardized Beta values from
multiple linear regression analyses have also been presented, using
the original data.
Characteristics of the sample
Descriptive statistics were used to summarise the profile of
Testing for the effects of nesting of students on mental
health and school belongingness
In order to test for the effect of clustering of students, i.e.,
nesting of students in classes within schools on their school
belongingness (PSSM) and mental health functioning (SDQ)
scores, a Hierarchical Linear Model was fitted using the mixed
procedure in SAS. The class-level Intra Class Correlation
Coefficients (ICC) for PSSM and SDQ were obtained, after
adjustment for gender, disability, and household-SES.
Interrelationship between school belongingness (PSSM) and
mental health functioning scores (SDQ). Pearson correlation
coefficients were used to identify associations between the SDQ
and PSSM scores at and between each wave. A two-factor analysis
of variance with and without interaction terms was run to test the
within-group variability in SDQ due to gender, disability, and
Testing the hypothesized model of the relationship between
school belongingness and mental health functioning.
Autoregressive cross-lagged panel analysis was performed to study the
reciprocal relationship between school belongingness and mental
health functioning across the primary-secondary school transition.
The path-diagram of the autoregressive cross-lagged model used in
this study is presented in Figure 1.
Cross-lagged panel analysis allows examination of the
crosslagged paths while controlling for cross-time stability of each of the
variables. In each of the models, the exogenous variables of Wave
1, which included school belongingness (PSSM) and mental health
functioning (SDQ), were freely correlated. The residuals (error
variances) of all Wave 2 variables were also correlated, due to
auto-correlation effects. Stability paths from each of the Wave 1
constructs to their respective Wave 2 outcomes were included to
partial out the effects of baseline adjustment problems. The
inclusion of stability paths provides a stringent test of the Wave 1
influences and results in the examination of change in the variable
of interest. To test the contribution of prior school belongingness
(PSSM) to future mental health functioning (SDQ), paths from
Wave 1-PSSM to Wave 2-SDQ were included. The opposite
direction of associations, path from Wave 1-SDQ to Wave
2PSSM was also simultaneously estimated, but not presented in
Multi-group invariance (equivalence) of the baseline
model (Model 1). To examine the equivalence of the
hypothesized model across subgroups, namely, gender, disability and
household-SES, parameters were simultaneously estimated for
each subgroup, respectively. The fit of this simultaneously
estimated unconstrained model provides the baseline value for
each subgroup against which all subsequently specified models are
compared. A fully constrained model, in which all parameters
(factor variances, factor covariances, and error covariances) were
constrained or specified to be equivalent across subgroups, was
then calculated. x2 difference tests were used to determine
significant differences between the unconstrained and constrained
models of each subgroup.
Model Evaluation Criteria. To determine the fit of the
models, criteria were adopted from several sources. Because x2 is
influenced by sample size, we examined the x2/degrees of freedom
(df) ratio (x2/df) rather than the significance of the x2 alone .
Furthermore, we also used the Non-Normed Fit Index (NNFI)
. Additionally, fit was evaluated by one absolute fit index (the
Root Mean Square Error of Approximation, RMSEA) and one
incremental fit index (the Comparative Fit Index, CFI). An
absolute fit index assesses how well a model reproduces the sample
data without comparison to a reference model whereas an
incremental fit index compares the target model to a more
restricted baseline model . Both these indexes take into
account model complexity, which is an important property for
comparing several alternative models with different degrees of
complexity. According to criteria outlined by Hu and Bentler ,
a good fitting model has NNFI values of .95 or greater, RMSEA
values smaller than .06, and a CFI greater than or equal to .95. In
reporting on evidence of invariance, two criteria were used. Firstly,
the multi-group model must exhibit an adequate fit to the data.
Secondly, the determination of multi-group invariance is based on
delta CFI; that is, when the differences in CFI values between
models are less than .01 .
Testing for the effects of nesting of students on mental
health and school belongingness
A total of 52 different schools, and 77 different classes were
involved in Wave 1. In order to test for the effect of clustering of
students, i.e., nesting of students in classes within schools, a
Hierarchical Linear Model was fitted using the mixed procedure
in SAS. The class-level Intra Class Correlation Coefficients (ICC)
for school belongingness and mental health functioning scores
were obtained (after adjustment for the demographic data: gender,
disability, and household-SES). The ICC for each model was low,
ranging from 012%, showing that the contribution of the
clustering to the overall variance was small, and therefore the
clustering appeared to have minimal effect on the relationships
between the student-level variables and school belongingness and
mental health functioning scores. Hence, further analyses were
undertaken at the level of the individual student.
Characteristics of the sample: Within-group variability in
mental health functioning
The mental health functioning scores (SDQ) of the students
involved in the current study was better than those found in an
Australian community sample for this age range [53,69].
Withingroup variability interactions were not statistically significant;
hence only the main effects were included in the final models. In
the case of Wave 2-SDQ scores, significant differences due to
gender, F (1,256) = 4.30, p = 0.04, disability, F (1,256) = 49.95,
p = ,.001, and household-SES, F (2,254) = 3.77, p = 0.02 were
found. Boys (M = 8.88, SE = .45) had worse Wave2-SDQ scores
than girls (M = 7.65, SE = .44); and students with disability had
worse scores (M = 10.61, SE = .58) than those without disability
(M = 5.91, SE = .35). Students from low-SES households
(M = 8.90, SE = 1.18) had significantly poorer Wave2-SDQ scores
than their peers from high-SES (M = 7.12, SE = .55, p = .05), but
not mid-SES households (M = 7.52, SE = .420, p..05).
Interrelationship between school belongingness (PSSM)
and mental health functioning scores (SDQ)
The means, standard deviations and correlation matrix for all
study variables without adjustment for gender, disability and
household-SES are presented in Table 1. School belongingness
(PSSM) was concurrently and longitudinally associated with
mental health functioning (SDQ) at both waves of the study.
Early adolescents reporting higher levels of school belongingness
(higher PSSM) also reported better mental health functioning
(lower SDQ). Examination of the cross-time stability of the
variables indicated that the magnitude of the correlations was
moderate for students perceptions of school belongingness (PSSM,
r = .49), and larger for mental health functioning (SDQ, r = .77).
Testing the hypothesized model of the relationship
between school belongingness and mental health
functioning (Figure 1)
Figure 2 presents the most parsimonious baseline model that
best fitted the data [x2 (1, n = 266) = .716, n.s.; CFI = 1.00;
RMSEA = .000; AIC = 26.716]. As shown in Fig. 2, the stability
paths were positive and significant, and inter-correlations among
the two exogenous variables were significant. The error variance
between the endogenous variables was significant and in the
expected direction. Regarding the cross-lagged paths, Wave
1PSSM was associated with lower levels of Wave 1-SDQ, even after
controlling for baseline levels of all variables and for their
crosstime stability. Clinically, this means that even after accounting for
past mental health functioning (SDQ), a unit increase of Wave 1
school belongingness (PSSM) is associated with a corresponding
0.11 standard unit deviation (Beta) reduction in Wave 2-SDQ
(based on multiple regression analyses). These results suggest that
promoting school belongingness before the transition to secondary
school has a beneficial effect on post-transition mental health
functioning. The pathway from Wave 1-mental health (SDQ) to
Wave 2-belongingness (PSSM) was not significant, as expected.
Step 2: Multi-group invariance (equivalence) of the
baseline model (Model 1)
Several additional models were examined to determine the
equivalence of Figure 2 across gender (Table 2), disability (Table 3),
and household-SES (Table 4). The fit of the unconstrained model
in each analysis was compared to the fit of a fully constrained
model. Imposing the equality constraints did not significantly
deteriorate the fit of the model. Both models represented an
excellent fit to the data. x2 difference tests found no significant
differences between the unconstrained and constrained models of
each subgroup, suggesting invariance of the baseline model
(Figure 2) across gender, disability and household-SES.
The present study extends existing research by providing
evidence that students ratings of belongingness in the final year
of primary school contributes to change in their mental health
functioning a year later. The beneficial effect of primary school
belongingness on subsequent mental health functioning was
evident for the entire population of mainstream students, even
after accounting for their prior mental health scores and the
crosstime stability in mental health functioning and school
Findings of the current study corroborate a large body of
evidence on the significance of boosting school belongingness as a
mental health promotion strategy not only in typically developing
students [36,39,40,70,71], but also students with disabilities. These
results are of significance given current estimates that psychiatric
disorders in young people with disabilities are often undiagnosed
and untreated, despite the fact that these students manifest
behaviours and experiences indicative of mental illness or
psychological impairment three to four times more often than
their typically developing peers . Several theoretical
underpinnings may explain the results. Students who sense a bonding in
school are more likely to forge supportive relationships with
teachers [32,72], associate with pro-social peer groups  and
are more likely to have better mental health functioning .
Students with social attachment to the school could be expected to
feel committed to its goals, norms, and morals . Hence,
they are more likely to be involved in activities that enhance school
belongingness. For this reason, they show fewer mental health
problems than their counterparts who are not participating to the
same extent. The positive effect of school belongingness on mental
health may also represent the degree to which schools are meeting
the developmental needs of their students [78,79]. The
associations between school belongingness and subsequent mental health
functioning found in the current study suggest that both primary
and secondary schools have a responsibility to foster school
belongingness of all students from an early age, to safeguard future
Our results are consistent with the work of Shochet and
colleagues  who reported significant relationships between
prior school belongingness and future mental health symptoms in
a large community sample (N = 2,200) of 1214 year old
Australian high school students. Shocket et al.,  however used
hierarchical linear modeling to test the relationship between the
study variables, independently for boys and girls. The current
Wave 1 -SDQ
Wave 1 -PSSM
**Correlation is significant at the 0.01 level (2-tailed).
Note that higher SDQ indicate worse mental health functioning; higher PSSM indicate better school belongingness.
Figure 2. Cross-lagged relationship between PSSM and SDQ across the primary-secondary school transition, using data from the
study extends Shocket and colleagues work  in two ways.
Firstly, it explicitly tested the role of gender, disability and
household-SES as a moderator of the associations between school
belongingness and early adolescent mental health functioning.
Secondly, it applied multi-group cross-lagged panel analysis and
took into account the commonly reported co-variation between
school belongingness and mental health, at all points in time, along
with the cross-lagged and cross-time stability of the variables. In
doing so, confidence that the obtained associations reflect the
unique contributions of the relationship between the study
The current studys findings are however contrary to those
reported by Loukas et al., , who in a US sample of 914 year
old youth, reported bidirectional relationships between school
belongingness and conduct problems. One possible explanation
for the absence of the significant cross-lagged association between
prior mental health functioning and future school belongingness in
the current study could be the highly stable level of mental health
functioning across time. Alternative possible explanation for the
null finding may be that other variables not examined in this study,
such as grade point average, motivational variables, teachers
classroom management strategy, etc. are better predictors of
change in early adolescents school belongingness [80,81]. Albeit,
the high co-variations between Wave 1 measures could suggest
that baseline reports of school belongingness contribute to initial
levels of mental health functioning, which then remain stable
across time. This could mean that failure to connect to the school
during the early school years year may contribute to concurrent
levels of mental health functioning, which are maintained across
time. However, a parallel possibility is that initial of mental health
functioning may influence initial perceptions of school
belongingness, which are then maintained across time and re-enforce future
mental health, cannot be ignored. For example, earlier studies
have shown students with externalizing mental health problems to
be more likely to experience peer rejection , higher levels of
studentteacher conflict, and decreased levels of closeness .
The two-point study design precluded studying the longitudinal
relationship between these constructs. Longer term time series
analyses are desirable to parcel out these contributions and identify
time-snaps that are ideal to intervene.
The high stability of students mental health functioning over
time, noticed in our study and past research, highlights the need
for primary and secondary schools to transfer students mental
health functioning details as part of the transition transfer process,
and factor them into their Individual Education Plans. The
12month school belongingness stability correlation was slightly lower
than previously documented in Australian community samples
. This could be attributed to the school sector change noted in
the current study, i.e., shift from government to independent
schooling for secondary education. Nonetheless, unlike previous
studies that report significant declines in mean school
belongingness scores as students progress through the secondary years of
school [43,84,85], there was no significant between-group change,
or within-subject change in school belongingness scores across the
transition in the current study (Please contact first author for
detailed results). Taken together, these findings highlight the need
for schools to assess all students perceptions of school
belongingness and mental health functioning before the transition, and
ensure that student records are transferred as part of their
Individualised Education Plan, so that appropriate scaffolds are in
place to support those in need.
Detailed limitations of the current study have been discussed in
an earlier publication . Key points are hereafter discussed. For
example, the current studys population was drawn from
metropolitan and other major city centres across WA, and did
not involve other rural and regional populations, or major
metropolitan cities in Australia; thus limiting generalizability.
Despite several recruitment efforts, 70% of the schools declined to
participate in the study, which may have introduced a possible
bias. The studys cohort was different to the profile of all schools in
WA. The number of students in the lower SES subgroup was
relatively small for sub-group differences to be identified.
Furthermore, the criterion for inclusion into the disability category
(i.e., limiting inclusion to those with a medical diagnosis who
attended regular school for 80% of school hours) could have
resulted in the exclusion of students with more disability related
physical, cognitive, social, and emotional restrictions .
Furthermore, parents were asked to report on their childs
disability and overall mental functioning. Additional studies that
involves multisource data from students, parents, teachers, and
possibly validation using clinical interviews, medical and school
records, are warranted to validate the findings . The two-point
longitudinal study design did not permit the study of the
longerterm effect of transition on school belongingness and mental health
functioning. Future research into the relationship between
covariates (gender, disability and household-SES) in the
crosslagged model is desirable. The small size of the sub-group samples,
together with the absence of any significant interactions between
the covariates, precluded the need for those analyses in the present
study. Longer term longitudinal studies that track students along
the educational continuum are desirable to increase our
understanding of how and when risk is expressed as disorder; to
determine the ideal time to intervene; and the relevance of
intervention on student outcomes.
The current study adds to the growing body of research
examining the role of school contextual influences in early
adolescent mental health functioning. Adolescent experiences of
belonging to, and closeness with, others at the school may buffer or
offset the subsequent negative mental health functioning, above
and beyond prior mental health functioning. The current studys
findings highlight the importance for both primary and secondary
schools to assess the belongingness and mental health needs of all
their students. Such assessments could allow schools to pay special
attention to those with poorer mental health functioning and
school belongingness scores, as these are more likely to continue to
be disadvantaged over time.
Conceived and designed the experiments: SV AEP RP. Performed the
experiments: SV RP. Analyzed the data: TP SV RP. Contributed
reagents/materials/analysis tools: SV RP AEP. Wrote the paper: SV TF
MF RP AEP TP. Critical review: TF MF RP.
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