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By Randi Schmelzer, Illustrations by Jacob Thomas

Published Jan 1, 2011 8:00 AM


Curfews, restrictions, even flat-out bribery: For parents eager to advance their teen's academic success, these techniques are hardly foreign. A recent study, however, suggests such drastic measures may not be necessary.

"In addition to academic climate, the social climate of a school can make a big difference," says UCLA Professor of Psychiatry and senior study author Andrew J. Fuligni. "If the friends [a student] spends time with are tied to the school, that might really help to provoke achievement."

In other words, the more in-school BFFs your student has, the higher his or her GPA is likely to be.

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Conducted by Fuligni and former grad student Melissa R. Witkow M.A. '01, Ph.D. '06, the study followed more than 600 diverse 12th-graders from three Los Angeles-area public schools. After filling out an initial questionnaire, each student kept a diary in which he/she documented experiences such as time spent studying, time spent with family and extracurricular activities.

Among the key findings: Students with more in-school than out-of-school friends had higher grade-point averages (and likewise, those with higher GPAs had more in-school friends).

"The study isn't meant to disparage out-of-school relationships," Fuligni notes. "Rather, it's to say what kinds of social factors might help kids do well in school."

The report finds, for example, that in-school friendships allow teens to more fully engage in the school experience; they create a sense of belonging at school, making attendance more likely. Having close in-school friendships also can make it more tolerable to spend after-school time studying.

Of course, involvement in a school's social scene isn't enough. "Students still need the resources to do well," Fuligni acknowledges. "They need the right books; they need good teachers."

Still, he says, a school's environment can play the essential role of just getting kids there in the morning — and getting them to stay.

"If you're faced with the question of should I skip algebra or not, and all of your friends are in algebra, you're probably less likely to skip that class," he says. "That's a factor we can use to keep students invested."

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