Anti-bullying measures alone are not enough to encourage positive mental health for children in schools, suggests a new study from the University of British Columbia.
In a study published recently in the journal Social Science & Medicine, researchers found that children who reported feeling a greater sense of belonging in school tended to be more optimistic, while students who experienced bullying felt less optimistic.
Interestingly, researchers found that lower school-wide bullying levels were not specifically associated with more optimism. School-wide feelings of peer belonging and adult support, on the other hand, were linked to children’s optimism.
The findings suggest that, when it comes to creating nurturing environments, schools need to focus on enhancing positive relationships for students with their peers and teachers.
“The take-home message is that schools need to invest in building healthy social climates,” said Eva Oberle, the study’s lead author and assistant professor in the school of population and public health at UBC. “Many schools have anti-bullying campaigns, which is great. But our findings suggest that we also need initiatives that actively promote a healthy, supportive environment.”
For the study, researchers surveyed 4,393 Grade 4 students across 164 elementary schools in 10 B.C. public school districts. Students completed a survey that assessed optimism, sense of peer belonging, bullying experiences and supportive relationships with adults. Students who did not change schools (1,943 students) were surveyed again in Grade 7 to learn how the school climate influenced their mental health over time.
The researchers found that a sense of belonging to their peer group was the strongest contributor to optimism among Grade 4 students, and was also linked to increased optimism among Grade 7 students. The presence of supportive adults at school was also an important contributor to optimism among the students.
“We chose to study optimism because it reflects positive mental health and has been shown in research to have a protective role in children,” said Oberle. “Historically, mental health research has focused on depression and anxiety, but the absence of depressive symptoms is not enough to indicate positive mental health.”
Fostering a supportive, inclusive atmosphere in schools doesn’t necessarily have to mean investing in specific programs, Oberle added. For example, simple initiatives like a gratitude board where students can pin up messages thanking others in the school community could make a difference.
Oberle said previous research has found that levels of peer acceptance in early adolescence increase when children are prompted to take part in acts of kindness in school.
“This is not about creating additional tasks for teachers,” she said. “It’s really about creating a systemic shift in school environments that supports thriving in children.”
The study was funded by the Hampton Fund Research Grant at UBC.