Peer-group influences on school belonging in an ethnically diverse setting

Deborah Rivas-Drake, Ashwin Rambaran, Adam Hoffman, Adriana Umaña-Taylor, Elana McDermott, David Schaefer, Allison Ryan


School belonging – “the extent to which students feel personally accepted, respected, included, and supported by others in the school social environment” (Goodenow & Grady, 1993) – is crucial to academic success and psychosocial well-being in adolescence (Allen et al., 2018). As peers grow in importance during adolescence, they become influential socialization agents to students’ school belonging: it is likely that peers share values and beliefs within social groups, and provide each other social and emotional support that facilitates school belonging (Brechwald & Prinstein, 2011; Ryan & Shin, 2020). Adolescence is also a period in which youth face challenges to identity formation while at the same time navigating peer relations in adaptive ways (manifested in their social competence). Youth more successful in dealing with these issues are likely to have a higher sense of school belonging (Davis, 2012). Moreover, as schools become increasingly diverse, feeling connected to an ethnic-racial group affects one’s identity formation. Less is known about how ethnic-racial identity resolution among peers and peers’ social competence drive socialization processes for school belonging within peer networks and whether these processes operate in similar ways for students from different ethnic backgrounds. This study draws on one large US high school (N=1,622) with students in 9th to 11th grade followed across three time points in one year (April 2017, October 2017, and April 2018). Students were asked to name their ten closest friends at school of any gender and from any grade. Students were also asked about their own connectedness to school on a 5-point scale ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree” (5 items: e.g., “I feel close to people at this school”, alphas: .84-.86); about their own resolution on ethnic-racial identity on a 4-point scale ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree” (3 items: e.g., “I have a clear sense of what my ethnicity means to me”, alphas: .87-.88); and, about their own perceived social competence on a 4-point scale (5 items; each consisting of two parts that were combined, e.g., “Some teenagers find it hard to make friends” (Part A) BUT “Other teenagers find it pretty easy to make friends” (Part B), alphas: .83). To account for the grouping structure in the large school friend network, available demographics (sex, race, and grade) and shared extra-curricular activities were included in all analyses. Preliminary analyses from the longitudinal social network models using RSiena (Snijders et al., 2010) showed that peers influenced students’ school belonging: Students’ school belonging became more similar to their friends’ school belonging over time. There was not an indication that friends’ clarity and understanding of their ethnic-racial identity nor their degree of social competence moderated the peer influence effect on school belonging. There was also not an indication that these effects were different for youth from different ethnic backgrounds. The findings suggest that friends in an ethnically diverse setting influence students’ school belonging regardless of students’ own race/ethnicity. New research should clarify whether the studied processes are similar for friends who belong to the same ethnic group.

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