5.9 The educational environment: achievements, aspirations and 'school connectedness'

Last updated: August 2019 
Suggested citation:Wood, L., Greenhalgh, EM., & Hanley-Jones, S. 5.9 The educational environment: achievements, aspirations and ‘school connectedness’. In Scollo, MM and Winstanley, MH [editors]. Tobacco in Australia: Facts and issues. Melbourne: Cancer Council Victoria; 2019. Available from: https://www.tobaccoinaustralia.org.au/chapter-5-uptake/5-9-the-educational-environment-achievements-aspir


Smoking in adolescence is associated with lesser academic achievement. 1-4 This relationship may be reciprocal, in that smoking can both precede and follow poor grades. 5 Alternatively, for those who have tried smoking by the start of high school, good academic achievement during the secondary years is protective against future smoking and other problem behaviour. 6 Having higher academic aspirations is also a protective factor against smoking, 3 and students who experience feelings of connectedness and belonging at school are also less likely to smoke. 1 Conversely, students who show low engagement, experience difficulties with their schoolwork, or who experience high school burnout, are more likely to take up smoking. 7, 8

Students who smoke are more likely to feel more negatively towards school, to miss school more often, to perform less well academically, to engage in early school misbehaviour, to drop out of school at an earlier age than non-smokers and be less likely to enrol into post-secondary education. 4, 7, 9

National data from England on secondary school pupils  has shown truancy or exclusion from school (being suspended or expelled) to correlate with regular smoking. 10 Other English research has found that schools which reported lower levels of truancy and achieved better than expected examination results on the basis of their socio-demographic profile had a lower student smoking prevalence. The authors of this study propose that higher degrees of school connectedness may have the potential to break the link between smoking and disadvantage. 11

Similarly, Scottish research found that the social environment of schools, including a focus on caring and inclusiveness and the quality of teacher–student relationships (based on both student and teacher reports) can influence student smoking rates. For boys, school-level characteristics such as affluence had a greater effect than for girls. 12 The potentially protective effect of student–teacher relationships on adolescent smoking behaviour was also observed in a large longitudinal study in Northern Ireland, with students who reported a positive relationship with teachers almost half as likely to report daily smoking as those who reported a negative relationship. 13

Canadian research found that a school focus on prevention and stronger policies restricting tobacco use was associated with lower smoking prevalence among students, while cigarette prices was inversely related to students’ smoking. 14 German research also indicated that school smoking bans and prevention activities were associated with reduced smoking prevalence, while individual student characteristics such as school engagement and peer smoking did not appear to mediate the effects of school policy. 15 See Section 5.29 for further discussion of school smoking policies and adolescent smoking behaviours.

There are three theories that can help explain the correlation between smoking, student aspiration and school involvement. The first is that smoking occurs as a direct result of school-based problems, and is used as a personal coping or compensatory strategy. The second proposes that poor school experiences are a direct result of drug use, which is perhaps more likely to be the case with substances of abuse other than tobacco. The third theory argues that some adolescents have a tendency towards deviancy or problem behaviour, and that both smoking and poor school experience are the result of common underlying social and psychological processes. 4 Further to this, it is proposed by researchers that students who engage in school misbehaviour from an early age are more likely to have reduced school bonding and academic achievement, and a higher likelihood of smoking. Continued alienation from the school environment is likely to lead to further behavioural issues and academic failure. 4 As well as being associated with a greater likelihood of smoking, this negative school trajectory is linked with social, psychological and employment problems in adulthood. 16, 17

Australian research into smoking among young people aged 14 years has shown that, whether assessed by self-report or external standardised measures, smokers have lower levels of achievement than non-smokers, with the association appearing stronger for boys than for girls. 18 Research from New South Wales has also shown that having a negative attitude to school, measured by student perception of school environment and teacher support, is associated with higher levels of smoking. 19 Research published in 2003 found that Victorian school children aged between 12 and 15 years who do not intend to complete Year 12 are about seven times more likely to be committed smokers than students who do expect to complete their schooling. 20

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1. US Department of Health and Human Services. Preventing tobacco use among young people: A report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta, GA: US Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, 2012. Available from:  http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/sgr/2012/

2. Sargent J and DiFranza J. Tobacco control for clinicians who treat adolescents. CA A Cancer Journal for Clinicians 2003;53(2):102-23. Available from: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.3322/canjclin.53.2.102

3. Tyas S and Pederson L. Psychosocial factors related to adolescent smoking: a critical review of the literature. Tobacco Control 1999;7(4):409–20. Available from: http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/7/4/409

4. Bryant AL, Schulenberg JE, Bachman JG, O'Malley PM and Johnston LD. Understanding the links among school misbehavior, academic achievement, and cigarette use: a national panel study of adolescents. Prevention Science 2000;1(2):71–87. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11521961

5. Tucker JS, Martínez JF, Ellickson PL, and Edelen MO. Temporal associations of cigarette smoking with social influences, academic performance, and delinquency: a four-wave longitudinal study from ages 13-23. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 2008; 22(1):1–11. Available from:  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18298226

6. Ellickson PL, Tucker JS and Klein DJ. Reducing early smokers' risk for future smoking and other problem behavior: insights from a five-year longitudinal study. Journal of Adolescent Health 2008;43(4):394–400. Available from: http://www.jahonline.org/article/PIIS1054139X0800164X/fulltext

7. Minkkinen JL, Kinnunen JM, Karvonen S, Hotulainen RH, Lindfors PL, et al. Low schoolwork engagement and schoolwork difficulties predict smoking in adolescence? European Journal of Public Health, 2018. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30189010

8. Kinnunen JM, Lindfors P, Rimpela A, Salmela-Aro K, Rathmann K, et al. Academic well-being and smoking among 14- to 17-year-old schoolchildren in six European cities. Journal of Adolescence, 2016; 50:56–64. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27208481

9. Sabado MD, Haynie D, Gilman SE, Simons-Morton B, and Choi K. High school cigarette smoking and post-secondary education enrollment: Longitudinal findings from the next generation health study. Preventive Medicine, 2017; 105:250–6. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28964853

10. Niblett P. Smoking, drinking and drug use among young people in England - 2016. NHS Digital, England 2017. Available from: https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/smoking-drinking-and-drug-use-among-young-people-in-england/2016.

11. Markham WA, Aveyard P, Bisset SL, Lancashire ER, Bridle C, et al. Value-added education and smoking uptake in schools: A cohort study. Addiction, 2008; 203:155–61. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18081615

12. Henderson M, Ecob R, Wight D, and Abraham C. What explains between-school differences in rates of smoking? BMC Public Health, 2008; 8:218. Available from: http://www.biomedcentral.com/content/pdf/1471-2458-8-218.pdf

13. Perra O, Fletcher A, Bonell C, Higgins K, and McCrystal P. School-related predictors of smoking, drinking and drug use: Evidence from the Belfast youth development study. Journal of Adolescence, 2011; [Epub  ahead of print]. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21907402

14. Lovato C, Pullman A, Halpin P, Zeisser C, Nykiforuk C, et al. The influence of school policies on smoking prevalence among students in grades 5-9, Canada, 2004-2005. Preventing Chronic Disease, 2010; 7(6):A129. Available from: http://www.cdc.gov/pcd/issues/2010/nov/09_0199.htm

15. Piontek D, Buehler A, Donath C, Floeter S, Rudolph U, et al. School context variables and students' smoking. Testing a mediation model through multilevel analysis. European Addiction Research, 2008; 14(1):53–60. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18182773

16. Hibbett A and Fogelman K. Future lives of truants:  Family formation and health related behaviour. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 1990; 60(Pt 2):171–9. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2378807

17. Hibbett A, Fogelman K, and Manor O. Occupational outcomes of truancy. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 1990; 60:23–36. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2344431

18. Conwell L, O'Callaghan M, Andersen M, Bor W, Najman J, et al. Early adolescent smoking and a web of personal and social disadvantage. Journal of Paediatric Child Health, 2003; 39:580–5. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14629522

19. Rissel C, Ward J, and Jorm L. Estimates of smoking and related behaviour in an immigrant Lebanese community: Does survey method matter? Australia and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 1999; 23:534–7. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10575779

20. White V, Hayman J, Wakefield M, and Hill D. Trends in smoking among Victorian secondary school students 1984-2002. CBRC Research Paper Series, Melbourne, Australia: Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer, Cancer Control Research Institute, The Cancer Council Victoria, 2003. Available from: https://www.cancervic.org.au/research/behavioural/research-papers/abstracts_trends_in_smoking.html.