university and occupational therapy

Social support, students, and OT (Part one)


Students and social participation

When asked, students say that socialization on campus is their #1 concern. While this is not necessarily what you would expect, it has been found that students who have difficulty with social participation in university are more likely to be lonely, depressed, and anxious.1 And, if they are lonely and depressed, they are more likely to drop out of school.1

So, it is really important that students develop a satisfying, integrated social network.2 Adjusting well socially during university or college also helps with identity formation, another integral part of emerging adulthood.3

What influences social adjustment?

Personal characteristics

  • First-generation students. First-generation students have lower social adjustment scores than their non-“first-gen” peers.4  It is believed that first-gen students do not have parental support to help with “college culture”. In response, they have more difficulty integrating into campus life.
  • Race. Latino and African-American students do not adjust quite as well socially as their white counterparts. Interestingly, social adjustment was found to be predictive of academic retention in African-American students more than academic performance.6 In general, minority students who are more skilled in navigating ethnically diverse settings are more successful at social adjustment.5
  • Social anxiety. Social anxiety can be a persistent, hidden disability among undergraduate students that influences academic success.7 Social anxiety reinforces avoidance of not only social situations but academic situations as well.

Individual behaviors

  • Making connections.  Students who are able to develop meaningful connections and establish relationships (create “social capital”) in university or college are most likely to be successful at school.8 Social capital is the accumulation of resources brought about by one’s social circle.  Both real and perceived social capital impact social and academic success.9
  • Loneliness. Not only do relationships matter for success, loneliness independently impacts academic adjustment.10 Loneliness has been found to influence cognitive capacity11 and how someone uses coping mechanisms.  People who are lonely tend to adopt negative coping mechanisms (ie denying, yielding, escaping). While others use more positive coping mechanism (ie restructuring problems, seeking help).12 
  • Use of social media. Social media networks are important to communicate with others, to share information, and to join academic groups. Some studies suggest that social media has a positive influence on social adjustment.13 Others have found that time spent on social media can negatively impact student social adjustment.14 Those who use social media in constructive ways to connect and gather information likely derive the most benefit.  Austin-McCain (2017) found that students who used social media wisely had improvements in healthy lifestyle habits, such as relaxation, leisure, and social participation activities.15   
  • Choice of intimate friends.  Emerging adults who feel supported in their choices by a best friend have better commitment to educational identity. This leads to less troublesome and crisis-like experiences during identity formation.  Finding an intimate friend with high balanced relatedness is associated with less depression and anxiety16 and may influence retention in higher education. 


Looking for an assessment tool that measures social adjustment or social participation? Here are a few that I found. Most are self-report about feelings related to social connectedness as opposed to measuring specific skills or abilities in social participation, but may be helpful!

Student Adjustment to College Questionnaire (SACQ) – This is a 67 item questionnaire that measures multiple dimensions of post-secondary adjustment, including social adjustment.  Each item is scored on a 9-point Likert scale.  Higher scores indicate better adjustment.  I used the SACQ in a recent study that was published in OTJR. In that research, occupational performance satisfaction was related to personal-emotional adjustment and academic adjustment on the SACQ.17

McGill Friendship Questionnaire– Contains two measures that look at the qualities of current friendships in emerging adults:  positive feelings for a friend and satisfaction with the friendship.  Six factors define satisfaction:  stimulating companionship, help, intimacy, reliable alliance, self-validation, and emotional security. The items are all measured on a 9-point Likert scale.

Balanced relatedness scale – This tool measures the extent to which seven items characterize their best friend (ie “my best friend respects my decisions”) on a 4-point scale from 1 (absolutely disagree) to 4 (absolutely agree) on balanced relatedness helping a student determine the “fit” of the friendship in assisting with their life choices.  


  1. Mounts, N. S., Valentiner, D. P., Anderson, K. L., & Boswell, M. K. (2006). Shyness, sociability, and parental support for the college transition: Relation to adolescents’ adjustment. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 35, 71–80.
  2. Jones, W. A. (2010). The impact of social integration on subsequent institutional commitment conditional on gender. Research in Higher Education, 51, 687–700.
  3. Arnett, J. J. (2000). Emerging adulthood: a theory of development from the late teens through the twenties. American Psychologist, 55, 469–480.
  4. Hertel, J. B. (2002). College student generational status: similarities, differences, and factors in college adjustment. The Psychological Record, 52, 3–18.
  5. Guiffrida, D. A., & Douthit, K. Z. (2010). The black student experience at predominately White colleges: implications for school and college counselors. Journal of Counseling & Development, 88, 311–318.
  6. Nuñez, A.-M. (2009). Latino students’ transitions to college: a social and intercultural capital perspective. Harvard Educational Review, 79, 22–48.
  7. Russell, G. & Topham, P. (2012).  The impact of social anxiety on student learning and well-being in higher education.  Journal of Mental Health 21(4), 375-385.  doi:10.3109/09638237.2012.694505
  8. Coleman, J. S. (1988). Social capital in the creation of human capital. The American Journal of Sociology, 94, 95–120.
  9. Hays, R. B., & Oxley, D. (1986). Social network development and functioning during a life transition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 305–313.
  10. Hasnain, S. F., & Fatima, I. (2012). Perfectionism, loneliness and life satisfaction in engineering students. Journal of Behavioural Sciences, 22, 33-48.
  11. Dong, X., Simon, M. A., Gorbien, M., Percak, J., & Golden, R. (2007). Loneliness in older Chinese adults: A risk factor for elder mistreatment. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 55, 1831-1835.
  12. Quan, L., Zhen, R., & Yao, B. (2014).  The effects of loneliness and coping style on academic adjustment among college freshmen.  Social Behavior and Personality, 42(6), 969-978.  Doi:10.2224/sbp.2014.42.6.969
  13. Alloway, T. P., Horton, J., Alloway, R. G., & Dawson, C. (2013). Social networking sites and cognitive abilities: Do they make you smarter? Computers & Education, 63, 10e16
  14. Paul, J. A., Baker, H. M., & Cochran, J. D. (2012). Effect of online social networking on student academic performance. Computers in Human Behavior, 28(6), 2117-2127. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2012.06.016.
  15. Austin-McCain, M. (2017).  An examination of association of social media use with the satisfaction with daily routines and health lifestyle habits for undergraduate and graduate students.  The Open Journal of Occupational Therapy, 5(4), 13 pages. doi: 10.15453/2168-6408.1327
  16. Van Doeselaar, L., Meeus, W., Koot, H. M., & Branje, S. (2016).  The role of best friends in educational identity formation in adolescence.  Journal of Adolescence, 47, 28-37. 
  17. Keptner, K. M. (online).  Relationship between occupational performance measures and adjustment in a sample of university students.  Journal of Occupational Science.  doi:10.1080/14427591.2018.1539409.

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