The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

Individual and School Risk and Protective Factors Associated with Aggression and Anxiety in Rural Youths

Saturday, January 19, 2013: 3:30 PM
Marina 5 (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
Katie Cotter, MSW, Pre-Doctoral Fellow, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC
Paul R. Smokowski, PhD, Professor and Director, North Carolina Academic Center for Excellence in Youth Violence Prevention, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC
Shenyang Guo, PhD, Professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC
Caroline Robertson, MSW, Pre-Doctoral Fellow, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC
Background and Purpose: Little research has been devoted to aggression and anxiety in rural areas. In a rare longitudinal study of development in rural youth, Witherspoon and Ennett (2011) found that participation in deviant acts increased from 32% in 6th grade to 61% in 12th grade. In a different study, surveys from 1,440 7th and 8th grade students in rural areas across the United States indicated that verbal harassment in the last 30 days was reported by 68% of students (Swain, Henry, & Kell, 2006). There were high rates of verbal and physical aggression reported by rural youth, however, rural levels were lower than in urban areas. Considering these indications that aggressive behavior is a serious concern in rural areas, the objective of this study was to explore the correlates of aggressive behaviors and anxiety in youth residing in a low-income, ethnically diverse county in the rural south. The current research question is: What demographic, social, and school factors are associated with externalizing behaviors and anxiety in rural youth?

Methods: The participants in this study included a sample of 4,321 (3,405 after list-wise deletion) racially and ethnically diverse youth (26.4% Native American, 25.9% White, 24.2% African American, 11.9% Hispanic/Latino, and 9.5% Mixed) from 28 schools. After obtaining parental consent, the School Success Profile-Plus was administered to participants electronically at their respective schools. A binary logistic regression model was created for each dependent variable.

Results: Overall, 39.3% of rural youth participating in this study reported high anxiety and 23.1% reported high externalizing behaviors. Significant risk factors associated with high anxiety included being female, receipt of free or reduced price lunch, parent-child conflict, negative peer relationships, friends’ negative behavior and discrimination experiences, while protective factors included school satisfaction, and ethnic identity. Significant risk factors for externalizing behaviors included being female, parent child-conflict, and negative peer relationships, while school satisfaction was a protective factor. A number of interesting interaction effects emerged. For example, student discrimination experiences moderated the impact of teacher turnover on externalizing behaviors.

Conclusion and Implications: There was a high prevalence of anxiety and externalizing problems in this sample. This study identifies several significant risk and protective factors that exacerbate or mitigate these mental health issues. Results highlight the significant negative impact that family problems and social factors can have on adolescent mental health, thereby identifying areas for intervention. Building school satisfaction and fostering ethnic identity are two protective pathways for prevention scientists to explore in future programming.


Swain, R.C., Henry, K.L., & Kell, K. (2006). Predictors of aggressive behaviors among rural middle school youth. The Journal of Primary Prevention, 27(3), 229-244.

Witherspoon, D., & Ennett, S. (2011). Stability and change in rural youths’ educational outcomes through the middle and high school years. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 40(9), 1077-1090.