If we are to solve complex global problems and promote the well-being and happiness of all people, it is important for individuals to develop to their full potential. But what contextual factors allow them to do so?
Socialization takes place in the family, but also at school, where students spend a large fraction of their waking hours from roughly age 6 to age 17. During the school years, young people undergo critical stages in their cognitive and behavioral development that affect their identity development, moral behavior, motivation, attitude toward learning, executive function, and self-regulation. Young people need support throughout these stages, as their development must not be left to chance.
School has a profound impact on students, through diverse curricula and regular interactions with school personnel, who act as role models and provide feedback on academic performance and behavior. Students also interact with classmates from a variety of cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Recognizing the importance of a child’s environment, my colleagues and I are seeking to identify contextual factors that support development and well-being. In a recent study using data from Finland, we found that anti-school attitude increases over the school years, which can be attributed to such factors as puberty, decreased motivation, and fewer close relationships in secondary school relative to elementary school. However, we also discovered that this trend could be buffered by a positive school and class climate, which also has a positive effect on students’ academic and personal development (work in progress).
Analyzing German data on secondary school students, we found that neurotic students (i.e., students with anxiety-related personality traits) exhibited less test anxiety if they perceived their relationships with classmates to be supportive. We also found that ethnically diverse college students in the United States benefit from parental and peer support, which makes them more resilient against perceived discrimination.
In another study using MRI scans, we were able to show that the teacher-student relationship affected students’ stress processing in the amygdala, a brain region responsible for processing emotions and detecting social and self-relevant stimuli.
“School affects students’ brain architecture and well-being, and shapes their perceptions of the world around them and of their cognitive ability.”
In recent work on the association between students’ amygdala volume and class and school climate, we found that the amygdala of students who felt a sense of belonging at school were smaller, while those of students who reported that their classes were competitive were larger (work in progress). A large amygdala indicates greater processing demands of a complex social life, which is the case for a competitive classroom environment. However, studies also show that individuals with a larger amygdala are more prone to experience fearfulness and anxiety, which inhibits information processing, memory functions, and problem solving.
Our work underlines the importance of the school environment for socialization. It affects students’ brain architecture and well-being, and shapes their perceptions of the world around them and of their cognitive ability. The adults who play a role in the socialization of children and youth bear great responsibility, as their behavior toward and relationships with students shape these young people’s ability to think and act as they develop into responsible and fulfilled individuals.
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