METHODS: A national sample of youth involved in the child welfare system (N=1179) was used to test the mediating effect of school engagement on maltreatment and delinquency. Data were derived from personal interviews with young people (ages 11 to 18) and caseworkers who participated in the National Survey on Child and Adolescent Well-being (NSCAW). The racial breakdown of participants was 45% White, 30% Black, 15% Hispanic, and 10% other. Measures included youths' self-reported school engagement, delinquency, and background variables as well as case workers' ratings of severity of maltreatment risk. Latent growth curve modeling was used to assess the mediating effect of school disengagement in the relationship between child maltreatment and delinquency.
RESULTS: Model fit was good (χ2=41.3; p=.250). Bootstrap analyses (.003 to .036; p<.05) indicated that maltreatment had a significant indirect effect on delinquency through school engagement (b=.018; SE=.010). Specifically, youth who experienced more severe maltreatment reported significantly lower levels of school engagement which in turn was associated with increased delinquent behavior. Although only a partial mediator, the inclusion of school engagement in the analytical model reduced the effect of maltreatment on delinquency by 21%. Relative to other effects, the direct effect of school engagement on delinquency (B=.37, p<.05) was large, highlighting youths' lack of commitment to school is an important risk factor for delinquent behavior.
CONCLUSIONS AND IMPLICATIONS: Findings indicate that school engagement is an important factor linking maltreatment and delinquency. These results suggest that teachers and practitioners in school and correctional settings should implement strategies that promote young people's interest and commitment to school. Potential school engagement strategies include involving youth in school-based extracurricular activities, one-on-one adult mentoring, and academic tutoring. Social and emotional learning programs that promote behavioral and cognitive skills and increase the strength of social bonds among youth, teachers, parents, and positive peers should also be implemented as a means of increasing engagement. Finally, structured conferences and goal-setting between youth, teachers, and child welfare and juvenile justice staff may also create relationships that are conducive to increasing levels of school engagement.