It’s a given that students who feel the most connected to school exhibit the fewest behavior problems—like truancy, violence, and drug use. But figuring out which students feel alienated and how to reach them is another matter.

A new study, published in the November issue of Pediatrics, offers some insight. Dr. Andrea E. Bonny, a specialist in adolescent medicine at the Children’s Hospital Medical Center of Cincinnati, says she has identified some warning signs, including smoking, drinking, and lack of interest in extracurricular activities.

The findings were based on surveys of 3,491 students in the 7th through 12th grades at eight public schools. The researchers chose schools with troubled student populations.

“The identification of students at highest risk for health compromising behaviors is an essential first step in the design of successful school-based intervention programs,” the authors wrote.

According to the study, titled “School Disconnectedness: Identifying Adolescents at Risk,” even little steps by schools to encourage connectedness, such as encouraging participation in activities, could pay off. The study also said nurses should be consulted to see which students are coming to see them with abnormal frequency, another warning sign.

“This study suggests that school connectedness is indeed malleable,” the authors wrote.

Researchers said the surveys indicated that school connectedness seemed to outweigh even feelings of attachment to family in preventing behavior problems. But “further work is needed to better understand the link between these variables and school connectedness,” its authors warn.

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