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Catholic students have better self-discipline, US study finds

Pupils praying the Rosary. Faith schools may be becoming a ‘red flag’ to Ofsted inspectors

A recent study by the University of California Santa Barbara has found that a Catholic education helps to improve students’ self-discipline.

According to associate professor Michael Gottfried’s and doctoral student Jacob Kirksey’s findings, Catholic schools are better at instilling traits of self-discipline in their students than US public schools and other private schools.

Their study focused on answering two questions. One: Are children in Catholic elementary schools more self-disciplined than comparable students in other schools, as measured by their likelihood to engage in verbal and physical confrontations and control their tempers? And two: Is the relationship between Catholic school attendance and self-discipline stronger in certain subsets of students?

Analysis of nationally representative data collected by two Early Childhood Longitudinal Studies conducted in 1999 and 2011, examining child development, school readiness and early school experiences, uncovered three key findings: Students in Catholic schools are less likely to engage in disruptive behaviour than their peers in other schools; students in Catholic schools displayed greater self-control than other students; and finally, regardless of demographics, students in Catholic schools showed greater self-discipline that students in other private schools.

The study’s data set was drawn from two cohorts, comprising 15,000 – 17,000 kindergarteners who attended public schools and 1,000 – 2,000 who attended non-public schools, of which close to 50 per cent attended a Catholic school.

As part of their process, the authors attempted to construct a plausible control group but were forced to account for the fact that parents often made a conscious decision to send their children to Catholic schools and that, therefore, there may be unobservable differences between Catholic and other private school students which could bias the study.

Despite this, the authors felt confident enough to come to several conclusions. “Since Catholic school doctrine emphasizes the development of self-discipline, it seems likely that Catholic schools devote more time and attention to fostering it,” they wrote. “If other schools took self-discipline as seriously as Catholic schools do, they would likely have to spend less time, energy and political capital on penalizing students for negative behaviours.”

“The most obvious feature that Catholic schools and similar faith-based schools have in common is their focus on religion — including such specifically Judeo-Christian values as humility, obedience, kindness, tolerance, self-sacrifice and perseverance,” the authors added.

“Perhaps students are more likely to internalize such values when they know they are loved not only by their teachers but by their Creator […] Religion can mould hearts and minds in ways that suspensions, restorative justice and Positive Behavioural Intervention and Supports can’t begin to match.”