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School environments alienate some students.


Students with disabilities (SWDs) are more at risk for being socially rejected and feeling isolated within the school environment. Student alienation has led to dropping out, increased gang activity, poor peer relationships, poor school-student relationships, and poor teacher-student relationships. The focus of the current analysis was to examine the relationship between SWDs and their perceptions of school life. Results indicated that SWDs perceive school life as more alienating than their peers without disabilities. The limitations of the study are discussed.


Sometime in a student's early years in school he or she develops an attitude about school and education in general (Travis, 1995). For some, this attitude may be positive and inclusionary in nature, while for others this attitude may be one of estrangement or isolation. If the latter attitude is adopted by the student, the result could be increased gang membership (Calabrese & Noboa, 1995; Shoho, 1996), destructive behaviors (Ascher, 1982; Staples, 2000), and/or dropping out of school (Davison Aviles, Guerrero, Howarth, & Thomas, 1999). Alienation may be viewed as a result of pervasive social forces beyond school, such as specialization, mobility, bureaucratization, capitalism, or other features of the modern world that fragment human experience (Newmann, 1981). This perception does not, however, excuse school improvement and does not justify abandoning the effort to create less alienating schools. So long as there is a possibility to improve school life for all students, schools, and educators have a moral obligation to do so (Newmann, 1981). In order to create less alienating schools, educators, administrators, and parents must identify the characteristics (e.g., unfair practices, policies, procedures, treatment of students by teachers and other school personnel) within schools and within the students most at risk (e.g., students with disabilities, male students) that exacerbate the feelings of alienation experienced by these students.

There is, however, little research available concerning students with disabilities and alienation. Based upon what is there, it is evident that students with disabilities are at greater risk of becoming socially rejected and alienated within the school setting (Vaughn, 1985). These students not only experience frustration, lower self-concepts, and loneliness (Lovitt, 1987), but are also more alienated than their general education peers (Silverman, Lucas, & Gear, 1970). Research shows that they experience greater total alienation as well as higher levels of alienation in specific domains (e.g., normlessness, isolation, powerlessness). The culmination of these negative experiences for students with disabilities is that they are highly likely to drop out of school (Finn, 1989; Seidel & Vaughn, 1991).

Students with Disabilities

Over the years, students with disabilities have been recognized as having social deficits and being in need of social skills training (Margalit, 1991), yet little research is available that focuses on the feelings of the students concerning their social situation and sense of alienation. A review of the literature revealed four studies that have collected data concerning students with disabilities and alienation. The first study investigated the feelings of loneliness (social isolation) in students with learning disabilities (LDs) in self-contained classes (Margalit, 1991). The second study investigated the differences in the degrees of alienation experienced by students in special education and students in general education classrooms (Silverman et al., 1970). Another study by Vaughn and Elbaum (1996) investigated social loneliness and alienation in SWDs in inclusive classrooms over time. The final study by Shoho and Katims (1997) investigated the alienation perception differences found among high school students with disabilities. SWDs did not fare well in either of the studies.

Margalit (1991) sampled 76 students from seven self-contained classes of students with learning disabilities in order to ascertain the feelings of loneliness in students with LDs in self-contained classrooms. Four questionnaires were individually administered to teachers and students in their schools [e.g., 10-item Aggressive Behavior Scale (Margalit, 1985); 34-item Social Skills rating Scale (Margalit, 1992); The Loneliness Questionnaire (Williams & Asher, 1990); and The Peer Acceptance Scale (Andrasik & Matson, 1985)]. Margalit (1991) used a cluster analysis to group similar individuals over a predefined set of variables (e.g., gender and age). Grouping of similar individuals was based on measures derived from the basic data of the study (ABS, peer acceptance, computer interest, and SSRS scores). A hierarchical multiple regression analysis was conducted on the loneliness measure, with the independent variables entered as follows: gender, age, Aggressive Behavior Scale, peer acceptance, computer interest, and Social Skills Rating Scale scores. Margalit (1991) concluded that four clusters of students existed, including: lonely, aggressive students who were disruptive and viewed themselves as lonely, (2) lonely, nonaggressive students who viewed themselves as very lonely and were rated by their teachers as having low levels of disruptive behaviors, (3) nonaggressive and non-lonely students who did not view themselves as lonely, nor did their teachers rate them as disruptive, and (4) extremely lonely students who emphasized their lonely feelings, but were not rated as disruptive. Results from the Margalit (1991) study indicated that loneliness was significantly predicted by a student's peer acceptance, computer activities, and social skills. All three were negatively related in that the lower the ratings on peer acceptance, computer activities, and social skills, the greater the loneliness scores of a student.

In another study, Silverman et al. (1970) measured the degree of alienation that exists between special education students and their peers without disabilities. Two groups of students (N = 244), 156 with mental retardation and 88 without disabilities, were administered a 87-item opinion-based survey containing seven measures of alienation, including powerlessness, conformity, meaninglessness, hopeful friendliness, psychosocial isolation, normlessness, and theoretical general alienation. After completion of the opinion-based survey, scores were analyzed by means of a 2 x 2 factorial analysis of variance (ANOVA). Results revealed significant differences on all seven of the factors comprising the alienation measure. On six of the seven factors (powerlessness, conformity, meaninglessness, isolation, normlessness, and theoretical general alienation), significant main effects were found for classes (special education and general education) indicating that students in special education classes were more alienated than their peers in general education. Silverman et al. (1970) concluded that the prejudicial roles and role expectations to which students with mental retardation are subjected in our society relate directly to the emergence of negative attitudes and values concerning school in these students.

Vaughn and Elbaum (1996) did not support the findings of Margalit (1991) or Silverman et al. (1970) concerning the social functioning (e.g., degrees of peer acceptance, self-concept, loneliness, and social alienation) of students with disabilities. Vaughn and Elbaum (1996) hypothesized that, over time, students in inclusive settings would demonstrate feelings of social alienation and loneliness that would not differ significantly from those of their peers without disabilities. Sixty-four fourth-grade participants with learning disabilities, receiving instruction in inclusive classrooms participated and were administered four questionnaires/surveys, including a self-concept scale, a Likert-type index of peer acceptance and social status, a 10-item loneliness and social dissatisfaction scale (Williams & Asher, 1990), and a 26-item Social Alienation Scale (Siedel & Vaughn, 1991). Descriptive analyses revealed that students with LDs were less well liked and more frequently rejected than average/high achieving (AHA) students. However, students with LDs did not differ from their peers without LDs on ratings of loneliness. Additionally, Shoho and Katims (1997) investigated the perceptions of alienation among senior high school students with LD in fully inclusive versus resource room placements. Seventy-six special education students (24 female, 52 male) from a rural high school were surveyed using the 24-item, Dean Alienation Scale (DAS) (Dean, 1961) to determine their perceptions of isolation, normlessness, and powerlessness in a school context. A larger number of male subjects/participants is not unusual in that there are typically more males identified as having learning disabilities.

The cumulative score of the three subscales of the DAS made up the students' total alienation score. The possible range of scores for the questionnaire was: total alienation, 0 - 120; powerlessness, 0 - 45; normlessness, 0 - 30; and isolation, 0 - 45. The higher the score on the DAS, the higher the construct being measured. Alienation differences, because of the two learning settings, were assessed using multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) techniques. In the first analysis, all three alienation domains were used as dependent measures. The results did produce four statistically significant findings related to learning settings. The first significant finding was in powerlessness. Students who spent the entire day in general education classes reported significantly lower levels of powerlessness than their peers who were pulled out of the classroom part of the day. The second significant result was in normlessness. Students who were placed in general education classes all day reported significantly lower levels of normlessness than their peers who were pulled out of the classroom for part of the day. The third significant finding illustrated that fully included students reported lower levels of isolation than their peers who were pulled out of the classroom for part of the day. Finally, high school students identified with LDs who were pulled out of the general education classroom for academic remediation and support reported higher levels of alienation than similar students who spent the entire day in the general education classes.

Students with disabilities show a profile of school alienation indicated by low bonding and poor peer self-concepts (Margalit, 1991). Research appears to indicate that students with disabilities, LD and MR specifically, experience more feelings of loneliness and social isolation than their peers without disabilities. The feelings and levels of social alienation and loneliness experienced by these students may depend on classroom placement, type of disability, behavior, age, gender, and the amount of time they spent in inclusive classrooms (Shoho & Katims, 1997; Vaughn & Elbaum, 1996). Vaughn and Elbaum (1996) provide hope that over time students with disabilities in inclusive settings can begin to develop friendships that will decrease their feelings of loneliness and social alienation. However, there is no research concerning the outcomes for those students who do not develop the friendships needed to decrease their levels of alienation. Past research is somewhat contradictory with regard to SWDs and alienation. This study sought to extend the research in the area of students with disabilities and alienation by analyzing alienation differences between students with and without disabilities by offering more recent alienation data. Specifically, this study sought to answer the question, "Are there significant differences in powerlessness, normlessness, meaninglessness, and estrangement between students with and without disabilities?"



The schools studied were both located in a large, urban, metropolitan school district in the southern United States. The first school was located in a low-income area of the city. Three years ago, the school enrolled 912 students in grades 9-12. The ethnic composition of the school predominantly African American (76.8%), followed by Caucasian (20%). The Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, and Native American student populations were all below 2%. Sixty percent of the students at this school received free or reduced price meals. Two special education and three general education classrooms from this school participated. The second school was predominantly Caucasian and located in a middle class neighborhood in the same city. Three years ago there were 1,248 students enrolled in grades 9-12. The ethnic composition was 59.7% Caucasian and 27.4% African American. Approximately 13% of the remaining students were of Asian/Pacific Islander, Hispanic, and/or Native American descent. Only 13% of the students received free or reduced price meals. Three special education and three general education classrooms from this school participated.


The participants in this study (N = 222) were a sample of two schools in a large, urban district. The participants were students without disabilities as well as SWDs receiving services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). SWDs were students receiving instruction in the resource classroom for part of the school day. The participants were 46% male and 51% female and represented multiple ethnic groups (49% African American, 40% Caucasian, 5% Asian/Pacific Islander, 1% Hispanic). The participants were in grades 9-12 and were representative of students with learning disabilities (LDs), mild mental retardation (MMR), and emotional disabilities (EDs), as well as those without disabilities.


All participants volunteered to participate in the study. All questionnaires were administered in person, by the researcher, in the student's natural school environment. Questionnaires were distributed and collected by the researcher. Directions were given as to completing the questionnaire and the participants were instructed to take however much time they needed to complete it. Participants' questions were addressed as they were raised during the administration of the questionnaire. Most students completed the questionnaire in 30 minutes or less. All data were analyzed using SPSS Base10.0 (SPSS inc., 1999) software.


Student Factors Questionnaire (SFQ) (Mau, 1992). The 25-item SFQ was developed to ascertain student levels of alienation from school. At least six items on the questionnaire dealt with each domain (e.g., powerlessness, normlessness, meaninglessness, social isolation/estrangement). The questionnaire allowed the researcher to determine which students were more or less alienated within the school setting. Students selected their responses to each statement from a 4-point Likert scale [e.g., strongly agree (1) to strongly disagree (4) and always (1) to never (4)]. Following are some sample statements from the SFQ.

Sample SFQ Statements

Powerlessness. It is hard to know what is right and wrong because the world is changing so fast. Teachers do not enjoy giving students a hard time.

Normlessness. You like the rules of the school because you know what to expect. Everything is relative and there just aren't any rules to live by.

Meaninglessness. School is teaching you what you want to learn. You try to think of excuses to avoid schoolwork.

Estrangement. You have lots of friends. You do not know anyone that you can confide (tell things) in.

Demographic Survey. A 9-item demographic survey was used to gain personal information (e.g., age, grade level, gender, ethnicity) from students. Four of the items were open-ended and required the student to supply an answer. The remaining five questions provided responses from which the student selected their response.

Data Analyses

Data were analyzed using a MANOVA to ascertain if there were any differences in the four alienation dimensions. All four alienation dimensions were used as the dependent variable (DV) (e.g., powerlessness, normlessness, meaninglessness, estrangement) and student placement was the independent variable (IV) (e.g., special education and general education). The predetermined level of significance was .05 for the MANOVA. Follow-up univariate analyses of variance (ANOVA) were also used. The predetermined level of significance for the ANOVA was set at .0125.


Total Alienation. Shoho and Katims (1997) found that high school students identified with LDs who were pulled from the general education classroom for academic remediation and support reported higher levels of total alienation (powerlessness, normlessness, estrangement) than similar students who remained in the general education environment all day. This finding is supported in the current study. The DVs (powerlessness, normlessness, meaninglessness, estrangement/isolation) were found to be significantly affected by student placement in special education classes. MANOVA results indicated that there were statistically significant differences in the four alienation dimensions [Wilks' Lambda = .840, F (4, 216) = 10.312, with the level of significance set less than .05].

Powerlessness. Silverman et al. (1970) revealed significant differences on all seven alienation dimensions (powerlessness, normlessness, psychosocial isolation, meaninglessness, theoretical general alienation, conformity, meaningless) measured and found significant effects for classes indicating that students in special education classes were more alienated than their general education peers. This study supported Silverman et al's findings. ANOVA results indicated a statistically significant student placement effect on powerlessness [F (1, 220) = 13.356, with the level of significance less than .001]. Mean scores were also higher for SWDs (2.4 vs. 2.1). These findings may indicate that SWDs are feeling that they have little or no control over their learning environment.

Normlessness. Shoho and Katims (1997) found SWDs to experience more normlessness in the school environment. Silverman et al and the present study confirm these findings. ANOVA results from this study reveled that there was a statistically significant student placement effect on normlessness [F (1, 219) = 9.976, with the level of significance less than .005], and higher mean scores for SWDs than for their peers (2.4 and 2.2, respectively). This may indicate that SWDs do not feel that they have the same values and norms as their general education peers.

Estrangement/Isolation. Past research (Margalit, 1991; Shoho & Katims, 1997; Silverman et al., 1970; Vaughn & Elbaum, 1996) revealed that SWD experience higher levels of social isolation/estrangement than their peers without disabilities. These findings are also supported in this study. ANOVA results indicated that there was a statistically significant student placement effect on estrangement [F (1,220) = 21.270, with the level of significance less than .001], and higher mean scores for SWDs than for their peers (2.4 and 2.0, respectively). Higher levels of estrangement in SWDs may indicate that they feel more stigmatized and less connected to school than their general education peers.

Meaninglessness. There are conflicting findings as to whether SWDs experience greater levels of meaninglessness than their general education peers. Silverman et al (1970) found that they did, but research by Shoho and Katims (1997) found otherwise. The findings from this study were not significant [F (1, 220) = .585, with the predetermined level of significance set at less than .0125] and support the findings of Shoho and Katims, indicating that SWDs experience similar or lesser feelings of meaninglessness as their general education peers. In this study, students did know why they engaged in certain school activities and were feeling that school would contribute to future outcomes in their lives.


The findings from this study prove that adolescent alienation is real. All adolescents experience some form of alienation to some degree. Unfortunately, some students (e.g., SWDs) experience alienation to greater degrees than other students. The findings in this study highlight the need for further research that identifies the patterns and degrees of alienation in SWDs. This research must include SWDs in a variety of settings (e.g., inclusive and pullout). Research into alienation and SWDs could assist the schools in their efforts to make schools more welcoming to SWDs. This research could also provide schools with valuable insights into the changes that need to be made so that all students, particularly SWDs, can feel connected to the school and the educational process. Without this much-needed research, society, educators, and family members will witness a generation of students who will become increasingly disengaged from the educational process. This disengagement could lead to students participating in inappropriate behaviors in and out of school (e.g., gang membership, violence, vandalism). Eventually, the students may drop out of school all together.


Before one could generalize the results of this study, it would be important to note the following limitations. First, as with most if not all self-reported data, it is limited in nature because the participants may not be honest with their responses, feeling that they instead need to provide answers that are socially desirable. Second, the study was non-random and therefore not proportionally representative of national ethnic populations. Finally, whether this study is generalizable to adolescents of this century remains to be seen. The constructs/domains used in this study were identified more than 40 years ago and may not be applicable to today's adolescent.


It is clear from past research and this study that SWDs placed in special education classrooms are more susceptible to greater levels of total alienation. They experience greater levels of estrangement/isolation, normlessness, and powerlessness as well as other dimensions of alienation. SWDs are especially likely to experience greater levels of social estrangement and so it is imperative that future research into alienation and SWDs focus on the various aspects of those social difficulties encountered by SWDs while at school and even in their home environments. Additionally, it is important that schools and educators continue to question the social efficacy of separate classrooms (Silverman et al., 1970). In the meantime, educators and school may want to consider the following when implementing programs and strategies aimed at decreasing levels of alienation in SWDs. They include: (1) considering how difficult it is for SWDs to find acceptance within the school environment because they have to leave the general education setting to receive instruction in another classroom, (2) allowing SWDs and other students to discuss openly and in private their feelings concerning the school environment, (3) making sure that educators of SWDs are not somehow communicating, through their actions, their feelings of alienation from general education teachers, to the students, (4) realizing that SWDs may feel powerless because they are excluded from the decision-making processes at school, and (5) recognizing that the attitudes of general education teachers, administrators, and other school personnel make it difficult for the SWDs to feel connected.


Educators and others have viewed alienation as a by-product of modern society. Among the manifestations of student alienation are feelings of powerlessness, meaninglessness, normlessness, and estrangement (Newmann, 1981). Clearly, modern adolescent life is rife with the potential for alienation and our schools are feeling the impact of student alienation. Students list unfair treatment by teachers and other school personnel, lack of parental involvement in students' education, and controlling school environments as contributing to their alienation. Certain subgroups of students (e.g., SWDs, certain gender groups, students from culturally and/or linguistically diverse groups) are not included in the school's decision-making processes and this contributes to their feelings of alienation. Efforts at school improvement can be seen as attempts to reduce the alienation felt by these groups of students, but there still exist evidence that there is a pattern of increased adolescent maladaptive coping behaviors associated with feelings of estrangement, inadequacy, and an inability to deal with problems at school (Fetco, 1985; Wilson, 1989). If school personnel are going to create safe, healthy, and inclusive environments for students with disabilities, they must rid the school environment of all factors that may contribute to their alienation.


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Ascher, C. (1982). Student alienation, student behavior and urban schools. ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education, Box 40, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, NY. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 219 484).

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Margalit, M. (1985). Perceptions of parents' behavior, familial satisfaction, and sense of coherence in hyperactive children. Journal of School Psychology, 23, 355-364.

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Margalit, M. (1992). Promoting classroom adjustment and social skills for students with mental retardation within an experimental/control group design. Exceptionality: A Research Journal, 2(4), 195-204, 231-235.

Mau, R. Y. (1992). The validity and devolution of a concept: Student alienation. Adolescence, 27(107), 731-741.

Newmann, F. M. (1981). Reducing student alienation in high schools: Implications of theory. Harvard Educational Review, 51(4), 546-564.

Seidel, J., & Vaughn, S. (1991). Social alienation and the learning-disabled school dropout. Learning Disability Research & Practice, 6, 152-157.

Shoho, A. R. (1996). The alienation of rural middle school students: Implications for gang membership. Paper Presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association (New York, NY, April 8-12). (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 396 889).

Shoho, A. R., & Katims, D. S. (1997). Perceptions of alienation among students with learning disabilities in inclusive and resource settings. High School Journal, 81(1), 28-36.

Silverman, M., Lucas, M. E., & Gear, B. L. (1970). A comparison of degree of alienation in special education and normal subjects. South Florida University, Tampa. Institute III: Exceptional Children and Adults. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 044 887). SPSS Inc. (1999). SPSS base 10.0 applications soltware. Chicago, IL.

Vaughn, S. (1985). Why teach social skills to learning disabled students. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 18, 588-593.

Vaughn, S., & Elbaum, B. E. 91996). The effects of inclusion on the social functioning of students with learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 29(6), 598-608.

Williams, G. A., & Asher, S. R. (1990). Loneliness among mildly retarded and nonretarded children in elementary school. Paper presented at the AERA Annual Meeting, Boston.

Wilson, R. (1989). Ethnic diversity and differing value systems: A theoretical analysis of educational alienation. Peabody Journal of Education, 66(4), 42-50.

Monica R. Brown, The University of Kansas

Brown, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Special Education. Her research interests include math literacy in secondary students, technology equity, disaffected adolescents, and multicultural/urban special education.
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Author:Brown, Monica R.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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