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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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Education professor researches youth risk factors

School children have always faced difficult challenges to succeed in their education, such as substance abuse, aggression and early sexual activity, but one New Mexico State University education professor says that several of the problem behaviors can be prevented simultaneously.

Heejung Chun, an assistant professor in the NMSU College of Education, researches youth risk factors. (NMSU photo by Bryant Million)

Heejung Chun, an assistant professor in the NMSU College of Education, has researched students' involvement in these problem behaviors and found that students who are involved in one of these behaviors are even more likely to be involved in several of them. So it is important to identify the underlying problem behavior construct, or that one particular element found in adolescents who engage in these behaviors, so several of them can be prevented at the same time.

Before earning her doctorate, Chun worked as a clinical psychiatrist in South Korea at a hospital for three years and a mental health center for one year, where she provided both group and individual counseling for teenagers with mild to moderate problems, such as smoking, family discord and violent behavior. During this experience, she realized she wanted to find a way to prevent these problem behaviors rather than just treating them.

Chun decided to study abroad and earn her Ph.D. in school psychology from the University of Missouri, during which she began researching students' involvement in problem behaviors and their influences for her dissertation. The overall intent of her dissertation was to indentify the underlying problem behavior construct, what factors influence it and how the construct can be targeted for prevention.

Based on Richard Jessor's Problem Behavior Theory, the underlying construct was defined as a tendency to depart from societal norms. Therefore, promoting pro-social behaviors in adolescents' environments might be the targeted goal to prevent the occurrence of, or to best intervene with, adolescents at risk.

To prove this theory, Chun used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health for her four-year study. Her results identified the problem behavior construct and show that risk factors, such as social and economic status, family relationships, school climate and the quality of the neighborhood, have influences on the problem behavior construct.

Her research shows that there are high correlations between the problem behaviors of the construct, proving that students involved with one problem behavior are likely involved with several others. Substance usage, such as tobacco, alcohol and marijuana, is the most influential within the problem behavior construct, while aggression and sexual activity also were highly influential. Since these behaviors were correlated together, the problem behavior construct was shown to be a tendency to violate social norms.

In order to find prevention for these behaviors, Chun needed to find what influences the problem behavior construct as well. Overall, she found that the risk factors of family relationships, economic status, school climate and neighborhood quality have very strong relationships with the problem behaviors. Chun's research showed these risk factors explained 25 percent of an adolescent's involvement in the problem behaviors.

Chun said this suggests that more positive social behavior, particularly in school, can decrease an adolescent's involvement in problem behaviors.

"If a student has a sense of school belonging, through participating in things like extracurricular activities, they will develop more pro-social behavior, better relationships with teachers and a feeling of support," Chun said.

Chun wants to continue her research and look at the "sense of school belonging" to find out what factors are related so it can be promoted more in the schools. The more the students feel they belong at their school, the more likely they are to succeed in their education.