At-risk affluence & school culture

Dr. Tara R. Campbell, Senior Manager, Jostens

“Extracurricular activities aren’t fun anymore; it’s just something that we do to get into college.” That statement was shared with my husband and colleague by a high-achieving high school student. Hearing this articulation repeated multiple times from multiple students in multiple countries elicited a journey into understanding how the pressure placed on adolescents affects the culture and climate in schools. Perhaps the most surprising realization from these investigations is that affluent students are now considered ‘at-risk’, a term no longer reserved only for students living in abject poverty. 


First, it’s important to understand that ‘at-risk’ does not mean an inability to achieve academic success, but instead signifies a student is less equipped to be successful which can result from a myriad of factors. In a recent report, The Robert Wood Foundation positioned adolescent wellness as not the absence of problems, but as having voice, thriving, and being socially aware and self-accepting. The report went on to name the top environmental conditions harming adolescent wellness – included in the list alongside poverty, trauma, and discrimination was an excessive pressure to succeed mostly tied to affluence (Geisz & Nakashian, 2018). 


Once we drop the preconceived notion that an abundance of material wealth brings forth wellbeing, it is easy to see how affluent students can be ill-equipped to thrive socially and emotionally. Affluence can bring about isolation, stress, and skewed competitiveness (Osherson, 2017).  Affluent students in environments placing importance on academic excellence experience a lack of connectivity that results in higher rates of mental health and emotional problems (Wallace, 2019).   


The intense expectation to perform and to be the best creates a pressurized environment where students are driven to out-compete their classmates, leading to a school culture ripe with peer envy, anxiety, and depression. The social isolation and self-comparison epidemic bolstered by the prevalence of social media only confounds the problem. Add in other issues present in international and privately-funded schools for affluent children — such as parents who either blatantly or subtly use their wealth to influence school policy, disciplinary reactions, or teacher autonomy; the frequency of student mobility making it difficult for students to forge and maintain lasting and supportive relationships; and the lack of organically grown resilience and self-reliance resulting from exposure to ‘problems’ that cannot be fixed by familial wealth and influence – one can see how school culture could easily become toxic. 


School culture is the shared behaviors, beliefs, and norms within a school or organization. Because school culture shapes the relationships between and among all school stakeholder groups and can affect learning and student wellbeing, school culture is not something that should be dismissed (Johnson et al, 2015; La Salle et al, 2014 


When thinking about school culture, it is important to first assess the current climate on campus. What do your school norms express as valued on your school’s campus? Is that fostering a sense of wellbeing in your students? Numerous studies on school climate have revealed a positive correlation between healthy and supportive school cultures to student motivation, feelings of connectedness, and student self-esteem (Hopson et al, 2014; Hoge et al, 1990). 


In order to foster a supportive and connected school culture, systems should be created that allow for dialogue among students, among faculty, and between students and faculty. Each of these stakeholder groups need to feel as if they have an avenue to express their emotions, concerns, life events, and be able to share coping strategies and dialogue about what affects them.  To help maintain a sense of balance and buffer against stress in high pressure environments, social down time should be built into school operations and schedules (Wallace, 2019).  


To equalize the pressure placed on academic excellence, schools should create formalized systems for recognition and reward for non-academic values such as citizenship, grit, compassion, leadership, advocacy, etc. Additionally, things such as how people are welcomed onto campus, how new faculty and students are embraced into the school community, and how support personnel are treated and respected by school stakeholders, all contribute to the overall sense of connectivity and wellbeing on campus, thereby setting an undertone to the school’s culture. 


Creating and sustaining a positive school culture can seem daunting, but assistance is available. The Educator Services division of Jostens has dedicated the past 36 years to creating resources proven to improve school culture through their Renaissance program. Jostens offers its schools access to over 168 episodes of character education and social emotional video series, titled The Harbor™. Through the Jostens Renaissance Leadership Curriculum, Jostens offers schools more than two years’ worth of classroom leadership curriculum that ties leadership principles to overall school culture and school stakeholder connectivity. Through Jostens’ scientifically validated Pulse survey, schools can capture stakeholder perceptions of student recognition. To assist schools with the professional learning offerings for faculties, The Green Room Professional Learning Series by Jostens provides school administration with professional development content that leads to more connected school cultures. Finally, through Jostens’ Idea Exchange, schools can access a database of best practices for building strong campus cultures, all submitted by other schools from multiple countries. Jostens makes these and other school culture resources available to its partner schools. Schools can contact their Jostens sales representative for access to these complimentary culture building resources. 


Geisz, MB & Nakashian M. (2018). Adolescent Wellness: Current Perspectives and Future Opportunities in Research, Policy, and Practice – A Learning Report. The Robert Wood Foundation. 


Hoge, D. R., Smit, E.K., & Hanson, S.L. (1190). School experiences predicting changes in self-esteem of sixth and seventh-grade students. Journal of Educational Psychology, 82, 117-127. 


Hopson, L.M., Schiller, K.S., & Lawson, H.A. (2014). Exploring linkages between school climate, behavioral norms, social supports, and academic success. Social Work Research, 38(4), 197-209. 


Johnson, S.L., Pas, E., & Bradshaw, C. P. (2015). Understanding the association between school climate and future orientation. Journal of Youth and Adolescence. DOI 10.107/s10964-015-0321-1. 


La Salle, T. P.L., Meyers, J., Varjas, K., & Roach, A. (2015). A cultural-ecological model of school climate. International Journal of School & Educational Psychology, 3(3), 157-166. 


Osherson, Sam (2017). The Influence of Affluence. Independent School, Fall 2017. National Association of Independent Schools. 


Wallace, J B (2019). Students in high-achieving schools are now named an ‘at-risk’ group, study says. The Washington Post, September 26, 2019. 




Dr. Tara R. Campbell is a veteran educator. She started her career as a high school teacher and has since served the field of education as a professional learning and development coordinator, a curriculum designer, an At-Risk Prevention Specialist, and a Career and Technical Education program manager for the Tennessee Department of Education in the United States. Dr. Campbell currently serves as Senior Manager of the Educator Services division of Jostens where she and her team create school culture and climate resources. She is the co-author of the book “Make It Reign: A Collection of Proven Ideas to Fund Renaissance in Your School.” 


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