The importance of families having fun with one another has been highlighted in new research which shows that family cohesion is a vital ingredient for early adolescents having a good life.
The study by researchers from the Australian Council for Educational Research and the University of Western Australia is the first to examine the effects of the school environment and peer relationships on early adolescents' wellbeing after controlling for the influence of family factors.
The report, Family fun: a vital ingredient of early adolescents having a good life is published in the Journal of Family Studies. Lead author Dr Petra Lietz says that the study data drew on responses in the Australian Child Wellbeing Project, which surveyed a representative sample of 5440 Australian students in Years 4, 6 and 8.
Researchers at the University of New South Wales also conducted 80 in-depth interviews and focus groups with the children. It was from these responses that a questionnaire was developed in the form of an online survey.
‘The exciting part about this project was that it actually went from views and interviews with the children themselves,' Lietz says.
The survey included questions across the domains of family, health, friends and school, including about how often students feel they have fun together with their family and whether they believe they're living a good life.
‘It was just, “how often do you have fun within the family?” – however the children in their minds define family. We often ask in our educational surveys “do you have conversations around the table that talk about school or about the environment?” – it's always with a purpose. But this was more like, “do you have fun?”' Lietz explains.
The study identified distinct life satisfaction profiles for students in each of the target year levels.
At Year 4, family cohesion (fun) emerged as the strongest predictor of life satisfaction. More specifically, the proportion of students with higher life satisfaction was larger in the group of students who had fun with their families on a regular basis. The next strongest predictor was school and teacher support.
‘By teacher support we meant or we asked the children whether there was someone in the school, it didn't have to be a teacher, but some other adult, either a teacher or another adult, who believes they can be a success,' Lietz explains. ‘It didn't have to be academic success but basically someone who believes in you – where you get good vibes and you are precious and someone who pays attention to you.'
In contrast to Year 4 students, the variable that differentiated the most between higher and lower life satisfaction for Year 6 respondents was psychosomatic symptoms – like headaches, feeling low or irritable, or not being able to sleep. Students who felt low rarely, never or every month reported higher life satisfaction than students who felt low weekly or every day. For Year 6 students reporting frequently feeling low, regular family fun was associated with an improvement in life satisfaction.
‘The other one that came up in Year 6 was the bullying and that definitely led to feeling less well,' Lietz says. ‘And that was interesting because it hadn't come up in Year 4 and also not as much in the Year 8 data, but definitely in the Year 6 data.'
Similar to the results for Year 4, family cohesion (fun) emerged as the strongest predictor of life satisfaction for Year 8 students, followed by the frequency of feeling low. Bullying also came up as a factor that lowered life satisfaction.
‘Bullying is an issue, but where there are people who the children can talk to and where there are programs in the school, where there is a counsellor or a person they can talk to and where pretty much immediately there is some intervention by an adult … it's less of a problem,' Lietz says.
A unique element which emerged in the profiles was teacher expectations for student success in Year 4. Among students who had fun with their family most days, the likelihood of being in the group with higher life satisfaction was much greater if students also reported that a teacher or another adult at their school believed that they would be a success.
‘The profiles illustrate that adolescents who see schools as a place where they like to go, feel free from bullying and with teachers who believe that students can be a success, report higher life satisfaction,' the report notes.
It also suggests that schools can better support family cohesion by promoting appropriate online resources and items on social media that support family fun and prompt discussion among family members at common meal times.
‘I think it's also this bonding that comes with sharing and trying to mutually understand what it is you find funny or you enjoy, in addition to doing activities that you enjoy together like going to the beach or watching a movie together or playing an old fashioned card or board game or something,' Lietz says.
Lietz, P., Dix, K. L., Tarabashkina, L., O'Grady, E., & Ahmed, S. K. (2018). Family fun: a vital ingredient of early adolescents having a good life. Journal of Family Studies, 1-18.
As an educator, how could you better support cohesion and ‘fun’ amongst the families you work with? What are some of the resources you’re currently using to do this? What impact does this have on student learning?
This research also highlights the fact that students need an adult in their life that believes they can be a success. How do you go about ensuring each student feels this way about you? How do you show them that you care about their learning and about them as a person?