Teacher support reduces girls' disengagement in high school

Research shows that students often become more disengaged in high school.

This is problematic because it means that students are also less likely to enjoy school, be less active participants in their learning, and be less interested in their schoolwork. When students are disengaged, their achievement also suffers (Skinner, Furrer, Marchand, & Kindermann, 2008).

Although disengagement is prevalent among both boys and girls, research has tended to focus on disengagement among boys because they tend to disengage in ways that are more obvious – such as through disruptive classroom behavior (Finn, Pannozzo, & Voekl, 1995).

However, disengagement is also a problem for girls in high school who can be ‘quiet underachievers', and so there is a need to better understand how disengagement affects them and what we can do about it.

Because boys and girls tend to disengage from school in different ways, it is important to be able to identify the ways in which girls are disengaging and consider resources that may help them remain engaged during high school. Social support is a potentially effective resource for addressing girls' disengagement (Frydenberg & Lewis, 1993).

Here, we summarise findings from our recent Australian study published in the international journal, Journal of Youth and Adolescence, that examined two forms of social support (from teachers and peers) and their role in reducing adolescent girls' disengagement over three years of high school.

Context of our study

Our study examined 302 Australian high school girls in New South Wales and Victoria. The study began when the girls were in Years 7, 8 and 9, and tracked them over three school years until they were in Years 9, 10 and 11, respectively.

By tracking the girls for three years, we were able to see how social support from teachers and peers impacted girls' disengagement each year, as well as over time. Additionally, because the study included data from each year, we were able to track how their disengagement changed over time.

Disengagement – what is it and how does it appear among girls?

Disengagement refers to the ways in which students withdraw from the classroom and become dissatisfied with school.

Disengagement appears in different ways; among boys, disengagement tends to be more externally-focused, such as disruptive or anti-social behavior. For girls, disengagement tends to be more internally-focused (Finn et al., 1995).

This means that girls' disengagement often goes unnoticed (especially when occurring in the same classroom as disruptive disengagement). Two ‘quiet' ways girls disengage are by self-handicapping and failure-acceptance (Martin, Marsh, & Debus, 2003).

Self-handicapping is when students sabotage their chance of success; this includes procrastinating or working on schoolwork that is unrelated to what they are meant to be doing.

Failure-acceptance occurs when students become uninterested in school and stop actively participating in classroom activities. Because disengagement is linked with many personal and academic challenges for girls, it is important to examine what resources may help reduce disengagement in girls' academic lives.

Social support – how can it help?

Prior research has found that girls tend to rely on social support from teachers and peers during challenging academic periods. Transitioning to high school, for example, is considered a taxing time for most students because of changes in class sizes, academic demands, and social adjustments (Anderson, Jacobs, Schramm, & Spittlgerber, 2000).

The start of high school is also when disengagement can begin to set in. However, not much is known about how social support from teachers and peers may prevent disengagement during this time. It may be that when girls feel more connected to their teachers and peers, they feel more included in the classroom, and as a result, may be less likely to disengage (Shin & Ryan, 2017).

Because of this, it is important to look at whether or not positive social support from teachers and peers can help girls remain engaged as they transition to and move through high school.

What we found in our study

We found that as girls transitioned to and moved through high school, many did indeed become more disengaged over time. This means that self-handicapping and failure-acceptance increased for most girls.

Importantly, however, we found that teacher support played a significant role in reducing this escalation. This means that more support from teachers during the transition to and throughout high school may be an important buffer against disengagement for girls.

Interestingly, we found that beyond the positive effects of teachers, peer support did not play a major role in reducing disengagement at school. This suggests that support from teachers is more important for helping to reduce self-handicapping and failure-acceptance among girls.

What does this mean for teachers?

An encouraging outcome of this study is that it provides direction for how teachers can help address girls' disengagement during high school, namely by improving their social support for girls.

Teachers can consider several strategies for this, including:

  • Providing encouragement and support when girls struggle at school or in schoolwork
  • Showing interest in and asking about girls' hobbies and extra-curricular activities
  • Connecting classroom material to relevant aspects of girls' lives and interests
  • Listening to girls' opinions and ideas in the classroom
  • Dealing with classroom conflict respectfully and democratically
  • Providing girls with clear and supportive improvement-based feedback on their school work
  • Adjusting classroom tasks that optimally match girls' skill sets and skill levels.

Our study has shown that social support from teachers is an important resource that reduces disengagement among girls in high school. This provides important direction for how teachers can better support girls in order to assist their journey through high school and beyond.

The authors of this study found that support from teachers during the transition to and throughout high school may be an important buffer against disengagement for girls.

How do you work to build relationships with the girls in your class so they know they can come to you for support?

How do you ensure that you’re providing girls with clear and supportive feedback on their school work? What impact has this had on their engagement at school?