Whether or not schoolchildren reveal better behavior in wearing uniforms has been a longstanding area of debate in education. Still, there has been little empirical inquiry into the benefits or drawbacks of school uniform policies.
Despite the belief of many parents and teachers, school uniforms don’t seem to have any effect on young students’ behavior or attendance overall, a new national study found.
The findings came from data on more than 6,000 school-age children.
Arya Ansari conducted the study with Michael Shepard, a graduate student in human sciences at Ohio State, and Michael Gottfried, associate professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania.
Their results were published online recently in the journal Early Childhood Research Quarterly.
“A lot of the core arguments about why school uniforms are good for student behavior don’t hold up in our sample,” said Arya Ansari, lead author of the study and assistant professor of human sciences at The Ohio State University.
“We didn’t see much difference in our behavior measures, regardless of whether the schools had a uniform policy or not.”
About 20% of public schools required uniforms in 2011-12, up from 3% in 1995-96. About 6 out of every 10 private schools required uniforms in 2011-2012.
“There hasn’t been much research done on the value of school uniforms in the past 20 years or so, especially given how much their use has increased,” said Ansari, who is also a faculty associate at Ohio State’s Crane Center for Early Childhood Research and Policy.
Proponents of school uniforms have argued that, among other things, they promote better attendance and a stronger sense of community, which results in less bullying and fighting.
The researchers used data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study to test that, which followed a nationally representative sample of 6,320 students from kindergarten through the end of fifth grade.
Teachers rated each student on three dimensions every academic year:
- Internalizing behavior problems (such as anxiety and social withdrawal)
- Externalizing behavior problems (such as aggression or destruction of property)
- Social skills
Teachers also reported how often each student was absent.
Even after considering a wide range of other factors that could affect students’ behavior, school uniforms did not affect any of the three dimensions of behavior in any grade.
The study did find that low-income students in schools that require uniforms did have slightly better attendance. Still, Ansari said that the difference amounted to less than one day per year.
The researchers also evaluated self-report measures from the same students when they were in fifth grade. Students reported their sense of school belonging, such as their closeness to teachers and classmates. They also shared their experiences of bullying and social anxiety.
School uniforms were not linked to any differences in bullying or social anxiety in the children. But those who had to wear uniforms reported lower school belonging levels than those who attended schools with no uniform requirements.
Ansari said the data in this study couldn’t explain this finding, but there are some plausible reasons why this might be so.
“While uniforms are supposed to build a sense of community, they may have the opposite effect,” he said.
“Fashion is one way that students express themselves, and that may be an important part of the school experience. When students can’t show their individuality, they may not feel like they belong as much.”
The results of this study should caution parents, teachers, and administrators from assuming that school uniforms have positive effects that they may not have, Ansari said.
“School uniforms may not be the most effective way to improve student behavior and engagement.”
- Arya Ansari, Michael Shepard, Michael A. Gottfried; School uniforms and student behavior: is there a link? Early Childhood Research Quarterly. Volume 58, 1st Quarter 2022, Pages 278-286; DOI: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2021.09.012