The development, implementation and evaluation of interventions to build school connectedness : a pilot study.
Introduction: The Department of Education in South Africa has adopted the concept of whole school development in the delivery of basic education. Social connectedness in the school environment is central to this concept and is protective of mental health wellbeing, promotive of academic motivation and can contribute to reducing high risk behaviour in adolescents. The aim of this study was thus to pilot interventions to build school connectedness. Given the disappointing findings from individual, single focused initiatives in schools and the escalating incidents of high risk behaviours and deviance reported in many South African schools, this study, using the ecological framework, piloted multi-systemic, contextual interventions to enhance school connectedness and improve adolescent’s resilience. Method: This study utilised a mixed methods evaluation research in an intervention and control school, involving three phases. Phase one involved qualitative formative evaluation. Four focus groups with 10-15, Grade 10 learners and four semi-structured interviews with managers and teachers were conducted in the intervention school to inform intervention. Phase two involved the development and implementation of the intervention in the intervention school. Phase three involved evaluation of the outcomes of the pilot intervention using a quasi-experimental design as well as qualitative process evaluation of the intervention piloted. The latter involved four focus group sessions with Grade 10 learners, four key informant interviews with teachers and managers and lesson plan analysis. The outcome evaluation quasi-experimental study used a before and after matched control design. This involved 137 pre-post outcome measures administered in the intervention school and 123 pre-post surveys in the control school. Results: The evaluation results were discussed within the ecological framework that informed the development of the interventions. At the intrapersonal level, the results of the formative evaluation highlighted, inter alia, the need for interventions to strengthen academic motivation. The intervention focused on strengthening ‘inner resources’ in adolescence. Learners were receptive to the self-assessment and self-regulation exercises. The outcome evaluation indicated an improvement in sense of academic motivation in the intervention school compared to the comparison school. Themes from the qualitative process evaluation suggest the usefulness of the interventions at this level for strengthening ‘inner resources’ and promoting a sense of improved future orientation and emotional competence. At the interpersonal and community levels, the need to address anti-social capital groups and promote positive influences in adolescent life as well as strengthen learner teacher connectivity emerged from the formative evaluation. At the interpersonal and community school levels, the outcome evaluation indicated an improvement in learners’ sense of school membership in the intervention school compared to the control school. The qualitative process evaluation suggests that this was aided by improved interpersonal connectivity between learners as well as learners and staff at the interpersonal level. The establishment of a peer mentor programme and learner staff liaison group assisted through providing the space for opening channels of communication between learners as well as learners and teachers/management, enabling a shift in thinking from ‘top-down’ to cyclical and collaborative approaches in school management. Conclusion and Recommendations: This pilot study provides a model for intervening at multiple levels within the school system to promote school connectedness in South Africa. It is recommended that future research explore the role of such a systemic approach in promoting mental health and reducing risk behaviours in adolescents; and how such strategies can be embedded with the whole school approach that is being advocated by the Department of Education. This would be particularly important for schools serving deprived areas, given the role that school social connectedness can play in the promotion of mental health wellbeing and the prevention of high risk and deviant behaviour in adolescents.