Fashion faux pas? Uniforms may not be improving behavior in schools

“While uniforms are supposed to build a sense of community, they may have the opposite effect," a researcher notes.
By: | January 5, 2022

School uniforms are not producing the desired improvements in student behavior and may even reduce a sense of belonging for some children, new research has found.

Data on more than 6,000 school-age children showed that uniforms had little impact on behavior despite proponents’ belief that such a dress code can improve attendance and build community and therefore reduce bullying and fighting, says Arya Ansari, lead author of the study and assistant professor of human sciences at The Ohio State University.

“A lot of the core arguments about why school uniforms are good for student behavior don’t hold up in our sample,” says Ansari, who is also a faculty associate at Ohio State’s Crane Center for Early Childhood Research and Policy. “While uniforms are supposed to build a sense of community, they may have the opposite effect.”

In the 2017-18 school year, 20% of public schools required uniforms, according to the latest available data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Uniforms were most prevalent in primary schools and least common in high schools.

Ansari and his research team used data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, which tracked a nationally representative sample of 6,320 students in kindergarten through 5th grade. Teachers rated these students annually on three measures: internalizing behavior problems (such as anxiety and social withdrawal), externalizing behavior problems (such as aggression or destruction of property) and social skills. Teachers also reported how often each student was absent.

Uniforms had no effect on any of the three components of behavior in any grade. However, low-income students in schools that required uniforms showed slightly better attendance, amounting to less than one day per year, Ansari said.

Zeroing in on one group of students, researchers analyzed the self-reporting by 5th graders on school belonging—such as how close they felt to teachers and classmates—and on bullying and social anxiety. While they did not report more bullying or higher anxiety, 5th-graders who had to wear uniforms felt a lesser sense of belonging in their buildings than did children whose schools did not require uniforms.

“Fashion is one way that students express themselves, and that may be an important part of the school experience,” Ansari said. “When students can’t show their individuality, they may not feel like they belong as much.”