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School Climates and the ‘Weathering’ of Bodies

Study suggests a school’s racial climate is linked to Black students’ health later in life

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That sense of belonging a group feels relative to other groups at school may matter not only for social-emotional wellbeing and for academic outcomes, but also for physical health.”

Edith Chen
IPR health psychologist

 High school student

New research suggests that a school’s racial climate is linked to students' physical health long after they leave the classroom. 

In a recent JAMA Pediatrics study, IPR health psychologist Edith Chen, former IPR graduate research assistant and Carnegie Mellon University professor Phoebe Lam, and their colleagues, show that racial disparities in how accepted and supported students feel at school are associated with their physical health in adulthood. At schools where Black students felt less like they belonged compared to White students, the Black students were at greater risk for developing diabetes and metabolic syndrome—a harbinger of heart disease or stroke—13 years later.

The evidence suggests that efforts to make schools fair, equitable, and inclusive environments can have important and long-term implications for students’ health.

“That sense of belonging a group feels relative to other groups at school may matter not only for social-emotional wellbeing and for academic outcomes, but also for physical health,” Chen said.

Chen and her colleagues say this research highlights the concept of “weathering,” or when the stress from structural inequalities such as living in poverty or experiencing discrimination leads to earlier aging or health issues. The weathering of bodies is believed to be exacerbated by experiencing repeated stressors from institutions that stigmatize or disadvantage certain individuals.

To understand the relationship between school belonging and health, the researchers analyzed baseline data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health between 1994 and 1995, focusing on 4,830 Black and White students between seventh and twelfth grade. Of those students, 46% were Black and 54% were White. The students were asked to answer five questions about their sense of belonging in school, such as “I feel like I am a part of my school” and “I feel close to people at my school.”

The researchers then examined blood samples collected from finger pricks from the same individuals in 2008 when they were between 24 and 32 years old. The research team then tested the connection between the Black-White gap in school belonging from 1994–95, the participant’s race, and the risk for diabetes in 2008.

“Black students who attended a school with a greater gap between Black and White students in school belonging—where Black students felt less like they belonged than White students—were more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes and displayed more risk factors for metabolic syndrome 13 years later,” Chen explained.

The Black-White disparity in school belonging and Black students’ poor health outcomes in adulthood persisted when controlling for a school’s size, the percentage of Black students, and the percentage of Black teachers. White students’ health was not affected by attending a school with a racial gap in belonging. 

This research adds to Chen’s work showing that inclusive school environments are linked to better health outcomes in students. A 2019 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science by former IPR postdoctoral fellow and University of Washington professor Cynthia Levine, Chen, and IPR health psychologist Greg Miller reveals that when students of color attended schools that emphasized diversity they had better health. 

Chen and her co-authors argue that because schools reach so many students, educators have the opportunity to affect the health of a large number of students by creating a welcoming school environment.

“Efforts to create inclusive and welcoming climates for all students would be important,” Chen said about steps educators could take to create an inclusive school. “This could range from greater efforts to include culturally diverse perspectives in the curriculum to more efforts to create spaces for various student groups to connect and supporting their activities.”

Edith Chen is the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of Psychology and an IPR fellow.

Photo credit: iStock

Published: November 3, 2023.