School Connectedness: Acceptance, respect and support
School connectedness is the extent to which a student feels accepted, valued, and supported in their school environment, and has been highlighted as an important protective factor for current and future mental wellbeing and positive adolescent development. The risk of developing depression increases in early adolescence, and young adolescents on the autism spectrum tend to experience the developmental challenges associated with the transition to adolescence as more challenging than do their non-autistic peers.
As there was no research on effective ways of promoting school connectedness for students on the spectrum, this project aimed to:
- Survey the experiences and perspectives of school connectedness in students on the spectrum, their parents and teachers in urban, rural and remote schools in Australia so as to identify the individual, school, community and system factors that contribute to or threaten school connectedness in this population (Focus 1)
- Develop and implement a multi-level School Connectedness Program in South East Queensland schools to support an inclusive school culture and promote wellbeing at an individual student, family and school level (Focus 2)
- Support school connectedness in rural, remote and urban locations (Focus 3).
Focus 1 findings highlighted that important elements within a school community that promote school connectedness and a sense of belonging are universal regardless of geographical location. Findings from the multi-layered, strength-focused School Connectedness Program (RAP-ASD in conjunction with the Index for Inclusion) appear encouraging for promoting mental health in young adolescents on the spectrum and their parents by showing some initial evidence for promoting resilience through enhancing protective factors for adolescents with a diagnosis or traits of autism, their parents, and at the school level. Qualitative feedback gathered during the community based participatory research project (Focus 3), conducted to further inform our understanding of those supporting young adolescents in remote Australia, highlighted that there are very few resources designed to promote the psychosocial wellbeing of Indigenous people with characteristics or a diagnosis of autism, and the psychosocial wellbeing of their caregivers.
The Autism Teen Wellbeing website was developed as part of this project to provide a range of accessible strategies, resources and cultural considerations that communities, schools, teachers, and parents worldwide can use to increase school connectedness for diverse learners in early adolescence.