The connection between well-being and healthy behaviors in mentoring Israeli boarding school students

Agmon, M., Zlotnick, C., & Finkelstein, A. (2015). The relationship between mentoring on healthy behaviors and well-being among Israeli youth in boarding schools: A mixed-methods study. BMC Pediatrics, 15(1), 11.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest:

  • There isn’t much research that has been conducted on the well-being of youths in boarding schools, with the exception of mental health research.
  • Agmon, Zlotnick, and Finkelstein (2015) analyze several things: well-being prevalence rates (for instance, school environments, peer relationships, peer relationships, eating habits, and risky behavior avoidance); the bond between youth well-being and youths’ attitudes towards their mentors; as well as, the various youth sub-groups that have increased rates of healthy and precarious behaviors.
  • Mixed methods study
    • Surveyed 158 youths
    • Interviewed 15 boarding school staff
  • The researchers discovered that there were a lot of overlaps in healthy eating behaviors between young children living in boarding schools and with young children from the general population; and that the disparities in eating behaviors might have had to do with the boarding school policies.
  • They also found out that mentors have a significant impact on how well boarding school youths do in school, and that mentors don’t have any impact on healthy behaviors.

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Background: Although 10% of Israeli youth live in boarding schools, few studies, except for those focusing on mental health, have examined the well-being of this population subgroup. Thus, the aims of this study were to explore: (1) the prevalence rates of five aspects of well-being (i.e., healthy habits, avoidance of risky behaviors, peer relationships, adult relationships, and school environment) in youth residing at Israeli boarding schools; (2) the relationships between youth well-being and youth perception of their mentor; and (3) the different subgroups of youth with higher rates of risky and healthy behaviors.

Methods: This study used a mixed-methods approach including a quantitative survey of youth (n = 158) to examine the association between youth behaviors and perception of their mentor; and a qualitative study consisting of interviews (n = 15) with boarding school staff to better understand the context of these findings.

Results: Greater proportions of boarding school youth, who had positive perceptions of their mentor (the significant adult or parent surrogate), believed both that their teachers thought they were good students (p < 0.01), and that they themselves were good students (p < 0.01). This finding is supported by the qualitative interviews with mentors. Youth living in a boarding school had very similar healthy habits compared to other youth living in Israel; however, youth in the general population, compared to those in the boarding schools, were eating more sweets (OR = 1.39, 95% CI = 1.02-1.90) and engaging in higher levels of television use (OR = 2.64, 95% CI = 1.97-3.54).

Conclusions: Mentors, the significant adult for youth living in residential education environments, have a major influence on school performance, the major focus of their work; mentors had no impact on healthy behaviors. Overall, there were many similarities in healthy behaviors between youth at boarding schools and youth in the general population; however, the differences in healthy habits seemed related to policies governing the boarding schools as well as its structural elements.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

The boarding school structure may suggest an explanation for both the similarities and differences found in healthy habits. Foods offered in the boarding school are based on policies instituted by the Ministry of Education. Consequently, boarding school youth have at least as good an access to healthy foods as does the general population of youth. However, as with many youth, food choices may not reflect healthy options. Among youth in the boarding school, more than half were from immigrant families; and so, food choices may differ from the general Israeli population. Similarly, since youth rely on the boarding school diet, they may have less access to candies or sweets. Boarding school limits television use, explaining our finding that boarding school youth had significantly lower weekday television exposure compared to youth from the general population. However, note that this difference evaporates for weekend television exposure when youth may return home.

Mentor relationships were associated mainly with school performance, consistent with qualitative findings from the mentor interviews. Interviews revealed that school performance was described by mentors as being the most important predictor of life success. The mentors explained that they “have to choose their battles” with the youth, meaning that they must prioritize their goals, and so, they focus on school performance rather than on physical activity and other health behaviors. Stressing school performance is consistent with the broader Israeli society’s emphasis on education [42]. In fact, school performance is a strong predictor of future success in later life [51,52]. Interestingly, when the mentors were asked about smoking and alcohol use among the youth, they were acutely aware of its prevalence, and mentioned that they had made it clear to youth that these items must be kept hidden from plain view. In this way, mentors made it clear to youth that smoking and alcohol were not encouraged behaviors, but also that they were not focusing on decreasing its use. Yet, no link between positive/negative perception of mentor and youth’s alcohol use was found, despite the finding that alcohol use was the defining variable differentiating high risk and low risk youth. Conversely, mentors were actively encouraging positive school performance. As noted in the definition [6,8,37], mentors in the boarding schools had a consistent and structured relationship, in which they followed the progress of the students. They met weekly with teachers and actively followed school attendance and achievement. Indeed, in Israeli society, school performance also may influence the unit and activities in the mandatory army service, which confers social status in Israeli society [53].


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