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Research-Based Practice

A Little Help From My Friends: Creating Socially Supportive Schools

By Michael L. Sulkowski, Michelle K. Demaray, & Philip J. Lazarus

We all get by with a little help from our friends. We all try with a little help from our friends. Students in our schools are no different. Students who feel socially supported get by a little better, try a little harder, and have better academic and psychosocial outcomes.

The Importance of Social Support

Social support can be defined as “an individual's general support or specific support behaviors (available or enacted upon) from people in the social network, which enhances their functioning and/or may buffer them from adverse outcomes” (Malecki & Demaray, 2002, p. 2). Social support is a broad protective factor that can be subdivided into various subtypes, including emotional, instrumental, appraisal, and informational social support (Tardy, 1985). Emotional support consists of feeling taken care of or valued (e.g., a student feels as if his or her teacher really cares about him or her) and instrumental support involves receiving time and resources (e.g., a peer spends time helping a friend on a project). Appraisal support consists of receiving instructive feedback (e.g., a teacher provides helpful feedback to a student), whereas informational support simply involves providing needed information (e.g., a teacher provides a student with information on how to apply to college; Tardy, 1985). Collectively, these forms of social support undoubtedly benefit children. However, the ways in which support is provided may affect them differently.

Effects of Social Support on Student Outcomes

Teacher support. Students who report feeling supported by important individuals in their social networks generally display higher levels of academic achievement and social–emotional competence when compared to students who do not feel supported (Elias & Haynes, 2008). In particular, teacher social support is associated with better academic outcomes such as higher students' grades and increased academic initiative, interest in subjects, and school engagement (Danielsen, Wiium, Wilhelmsen, & Wold, 2010; Elias & Haynes, 2008; Wentzel, Battle, Russell, & Looney, 2010). Furthermore, the quality of teacher–student relationships (i.e., warmth, trust, low conflict) is related to successful school adjustment and satisfaction with school (Baker, Grant, & Morlock, 2008; Danielsen, Samdal, Hetland, & Wold, 2009). Finally, teacher social support is positively associated with social–emotional outcomes, including students' subjective well-being and self-esteem, and is negatively associated with depression (Colarossi & Eccles, 2003; De Wit, Karioja, Rye, & Shain, 2011).

However, despite these promising findings, research is needed to determine ways that teachers can optimally support students. Malecki and Demaray (2003) found that students reported that their teachers provided significantly more informational and appraisal support than emotional or instrumental support, even though emotional support was most strongly associated with the development of social skills and academic competence in students. Furthermore, students who believe that their teachers are emotionally supportive (e.g., fair and caring) are less likely to display a variety of problematic behaviors such as engaging in substance use, violent behavior, sexual activity, and suicide (McNeely & Falci, 2004). Therefore, the provision of emotional support by teachers and others is critical to fostering positive student outcomes and mitigating risk factors.

Peer support. Similar to teacher support, peer support is also linked to many positive student outcomes. For example, peer support is linked to lower rates of depression, fewer psychosomatic complaints (e.g., headaches, stomachaches), higher levels of self-esteem, fewer emotional problems, as well as increases in self-efficacy, improvements in school climate, better social– emotional adjustment, and increased school engagement (Colarossi & Eccles, 2003; Demaray & Malecki, 2002; Perdue, Manzeske, & Estell, 2009). In addition, peer social support can help buffer against the effects of negative events in students' lives. For example, peer social support mitigates the influence of family conflict or discord on the development of behavior problems in youth (Wasserstein & La Greca, 1996), and peer social support is negatively related to student and parent ratings of anxiety and depression in children who are subjected to physical abuse (Ezzell, Swenson, & Brondino, 2000).

Social support and peer victimization. Peer victimization or bullying (i.e., repetitive harassment or victimization perpetrated by one individual on another) is associated with a range of negative social–emotional, academic, and developmental outcomes that extend well beyond distress experienced in childhood. A study by Dempsey and Storch (2008) found that being victimized by peer aggression in childhood was related to the development of social anxiety and depression in adulthood. Furthermore, a study by Ttofi, Farrington, Lösel, and Loeber (2011) extends these findings. In this study, individuals who were bullied at school were found to be significantly more depressed in adulthood (up to 36 years later) compared to nonvictimized individuals. However, perhaps even more concerning than the long-term effects of bullying is its association with suicidality as victimized youth are significantly more likely to display suicidal behavior than are their nonvictimized peers (Kim & Leventhal, 2008).

Among other factors, the role of social support has been investigated as it relates to bullying and its deleterious effects. A study by Demaray and Malecki (2003) found that victims of bullying and bully-victims reported feeling less socially supported by their peers than did students who were not involved in bullying or bullied by others. In a subsequent investigation, Davidson and Demaray (2007) found that teacher, classmate, and school support for males and parent support for females moderated the relation between peer victimization and the development of internalizing psychopathology. A study by Flaspohler, Elfstrom, Vanderzee, Sink, and Birchmeier (2009) found that teacher and peer social support attenuated the negative effects of bullying on victimized students' quality of life. However, a in a recent study by Rothon, Head, Klineberg, and Stansfeld (2011), peer and family social support did not adequately mitigate the negative effects of bullying on the development of mental health difficulties, even though it protected against poor academic achievement. Collectively, results of these studies highlight the importance of promoting interventions that increase peer and teacher social support as well as improve school climate.

Promoting Social Support in Schools

School systems and school personnel can use a variety of strategies, interventions, and programs to increase social support. Some of these efforts to increase social support have empirical support, others are part of larger efforts to improve school climates, and others are simply promising ideas that have intuitive appeal. In the following, a loose framework is provided that lists various ways that concerned professionals can increase social support in schools.

School-wide interventions. Social–emotional learning (SEL) involves teaching prosocial life skills that help students better manage their emotions and interpersonal relationships. Thus, relationship building is central to SEL, and many parts of SEL curriculums relate to providing social support in schools (Greenberg et al., 2003). A recent meta-analysis found SEL to be associated with improvements in students' academic achievement, social–emotional skills, attitudes about school, and school behavior (e.g., increased prosocial behaviors, reduced conduct problems; Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor, & Schellinger, 2011). To explain these findings, Durlak et al. (2011) suggest that— among other variables—improvements in peer and student–teacher relationships help contribute to students' immediate and long-term behavior changes.

Similar to SEL, other school-wide programs also can increase social support in schools. For example, the Olweus Bullying Prevention program aims to prevent and reduce bullying in schools as well as improve peer relations. Initial investigations suggested that the program was effective at reducing bullying among students while concomitantly improving school social climate (Limber, 2004; Olweus, Limber, & Mihalic, 1999). However, equally strong findings on the efficacy of the program have not yet been found in culturally diverse school systems (e.g., Bauer, Lozano, & Rivara, 2007), which highlights the importance of attending to the impact of cultural and family influences on students' behavior and their adjustment to school climate.

In addition to specific programs or curricula, schools can implement interventions to help support particular groups of at-risk students. For example, schools can develop welcoming committees, peer mentoring programs, and social groups (e.g., circle of friends) for recently transferred students and students who are socially isolated. These interventions should include students who are friendly and popular and are willing to help others connect socially. In the aftermath of a natural disaster, displaced students are particularly at risk. Lazarus (2008) has developed a variety of intervention strategies to help affected students adjust when matriculating into a new school. These interventions are based on a social–ecological model of social support and the assumption that the more personal connections that students have and the stronger the bonds are, the more likely they will be able to recover from a disaster.

Schools also can develop programs to help groups of students who often feel disconnected from the school environment, such as students with limited English proficiency or youth with lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) sexual identities. Regarding the former, as a main component of instruction for English language learning students, Szpara and Ahmad (2007) include the provision of social and cultural support during the process of acculturation; and regarding the latter, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) provides a range of materials for supporting LGBT students, educating students about anti-LGBT bias in society, and improving the school's social climate. One such example is Ready, Set, Respect!, which is a new evidence-based instructional resource to help elementary educators ensure that all students feel safe and respected and develop respectful attitudes and behaviors. This curriculum from GLSEN provides a set of tools to help educators teach elementary school students respect and concern for all students, and it is available for free online (http://www.glsen.org/binary-data/GLSEN_ATTACHMENTS/file/000/002/2028-1.pdf). Similarly, NASP recently released a publication by Dewitt (2012) entitled Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students, which provides professional development ideas and case vignettes to help educators foster caring school environments.

Classroom-wide interventions. School psychologists can work with educators to implement classroom-wide interventions that aim to increase social support. As a promising intervention, positive peer reporting involves reinforcing students for engaging in positive social interactions with others (e.g., complimenting another student on an achievement, letting a peer borrow a needed resource, including another peer in a game or social activity). This research-based intervention allows students to report prosocial behaviors to educators who then reinforce the students who engage in positive behaviors by providing them with various incentives (e.g., stickers, extra computer time). Positive peer reporting has been found to increase the social involvement of withdrawn and socially rejected youth (Moroz & Jones, 2002). Furthermore, positive peer reporting may be a time-efficient intervention that improves peer social support and relationships in general (Smith, Simon, & Bramlett, 2009).

The Jigsaw instructional technique, a cooperative learning technique that encourages listening, social interaction, and peer teaching to involve each group member in an academic activity, has been shown to be associated with more positive perceptions of other students, including students with disabilities and students from different ethnic backgrounds (Roseth, Fang, Johnson, & Johnson, 2006). Jigsaw group members depend on each other to complete an entire lesson and achieve a common goal (e.g., lesson comprehension, teacher praise, a good grade), which can bring them together and set aside differences while they connect socially.

Similar to Jigsaw instruction, think–pair–share is another way that educators can facilitate collaborative learning. Think–pair–share encourages students to think individually about a topic or answer a question that is posed by a teacher and then share their ideas with a partner before synthesizing the information and sharing it with the class. The process of discussing putative answers with a partner helps to increase student participation and to facilitate a problem-solving dialogue between students. Although research on the efficacy of think–pair–share is limited, its close association with effective cooperative learning strategies suggests that it is a promising classroom-based intervention for improving social learning climates (Johnson & Johnson, 2009).

Individual efforts or interventions. Educators and mental health workers in school systems can promote social support by making efforts to connect personally with students (e.g., checking in with them on a daily basis, greeting each student by name when they enter the classroom), encouraging their participation in group activities/practices (e.g., extracurricular activities, clubs, counseling groups), and working with caregivers to increase the amount of quality interactions they have with children. However, youth become increasingly influenced by their peers as they get older and peer social support becomes increasingly important as they age because of the greater premium they place on peer relationships while they differentiate from their primary caregivers (Fuligni & Eccles, 1993). Therefore, it is important to increase opportunities to foster peer social support. In this vein, schools can provide a wide-range of clubs and extracurricular activities so that students with diverse interests and skills can feel welcomed and supported in at least one club, group, or team. Unfortunately, many schools are eliminating such programs because of financial cuts to education despite the benefits that these programs have for fostering supportive school environments, increasing school engagement, and decreasing student drop out (Juvonen, Espinoza, & Knifsend, 2012; Kort-Butler & Hagewen, 2011).

Conclusion

Students get by with a little help from their friends; students try with a little help from their friends. When their social needs are met, students tend to be better adjusted and perform more effectively in school. A strong social network serves to protect students and mitigates the effects of a variety of risk factors. Due to the rich empirical literature that demonstrates the critical importance of social support in the lives of children, school psychologists should support programs and interventions that increase prosocial interactions as well as advocate for the creation of socially supportive schools as one of our nation's highest educational priorities.

References

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Michael L. Sulkowski, PhD, is an assistant professor in the school psychology program at the University of Arizona. Michelle K. Demaray, PhD, is an associate professor of psychology at Northern Illinois University. Philip J. Lazarus, PhD, is the immediate past president of the National Association of School Psychologists and the director of the school psychology training program at Florida International University.