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Study: Bad Behavior In Middle School Could Impact High School Graduation Rates

University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign social work professor Kevin Tan.

University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign social work professor Kevin Tan. L. Brian Stauffer

Bad behavior in middle school could lead to a failure to graduate high school on time, according to a new study co-authored by a University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign professor. 

Social work professor Kevin Tan conducted a longitudinal study that looked at graduation rates for 7th graders who both demonstrated and were victims of problem behaviors, like bullying, school suspension and poor attendance. He found that about half of boys and 46 percent of girls who fell into that category did not graduate high school within 6 years. About 80 percent of boys and 84 percent of girls who exhibited problematic behaviors and were subject to fewer instances of bad behaviors in middle school graduated high school on time, according to Tan’s study. The data used in the in the study was collected from participants in an ongoing survey that began more than two decades ago called the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. 

Students who fight with other students, get suspended or are frequently absent are also often the victims of bad behaviors, like bullying or having something stolen from them while at school, he says. Students who have had those experiences often don’t feel safe at school, and a feeling of fear can impact their social and emotional development as well as their academic performance, Tan says. Compounding the problem is the sometimes challenging transition from middle school to high school, he says. 

The key takeaway from his study, Tan says, is the need for early intervention both on the part of parents and educators. 

All of the children were participants in the ongoing National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which began in 1997 and has collected data from participants 17 times since.

“These students should be early identified so we can provide the necessary support for them,” he says.

Parents should strive to maintain open and supportive lines of communication with their children, Tan says. That could be something as simple as a text message “to show them that mom and dad are here for you, and care for you and if you have any problems feel free to talk to us,” he says.

Educators, and particularly middle school teachers, should view problematic behaviors as red flags, and not as a phase children will inevitably grow out of, he says.

“These are opportunities for us to really screen and understand there are further underlying issues,” Tan says. He also recommends schools implement screenings to identify children who may have been victims of bullying or other forms of bad behavior to identify those who may need extra support.

Tan, a former school social worker, says it’s also crucial for schools to create a culture conducive for children to ask for support when they need it. Educators need to take the lead to erode the stigma around asking for help, he says.

Tan co-authored the study with University of Chicago researchers Yoonsun Choi, Ryan D. Heath and Aditi Das. Their findings are published in the journal of Youth and Society.