Academic Selfperceptions And Mental Health

We have also begun to assess the link between academic self-perceptions and mental health with our CAB (Childhood and Beyond) data. Earlier we summarized the patterns of change across middle childhood in children's academic risk status. We reported that a substantial number of children identified as at-risk in the first grade are doing fine in terms of both their academic self-concepts and their academic performance by the time they reach middle school/junior high school. Now we discuss in more detail both who those children might be and the link between academic outcomes and mental health. First, we looked at was the co-occurrence of academic and mental health risks. As summarized earlier, children identified as at academic risk in both early elementary school and early adolescence also have more mental health problems than their not-at-risk peers.

But more importantly, we found that variations in mental health related to the trajectories of change in risk status. These results were summarized in Figure 14.3. The incliners had significantly higher self-worth than the decliners at Time 2 even though they were performing more poorly in terms of their grades (see Figure 14.4) at that time. Furthermore, when they were adolescents (at Time 4), they still had significantly higher self-worth; in addition, they were more satisfied with their lives and reported higher levels of ego resilience and less anger than the decliner group.

We looked at the issue of co-occurrence in one other way (Roeser & Eccles, 1998). Using only the middle cohort of children in the CAB study (those in Grade 2 at the start of the study), we clustered the children based on indicators of academic motivation (ability self-concept and academic valuing) and mental health (a composite of scores on depressive affect, self-esteem, and anger scales) when they were in Grade 8. Four distinct clusters of approximately equal size emerged: a well functioning group (high on all three indicators), a poor motivation group (low on the motivation indicators but high on mental health), a poor mental health group (low on mental health but high on the motivation indicators), and a multiple risk group (low on all three indicators). These results indicate that these two sets of indicators of social adjustment sometimes co-occur in the same individual and sometimes do not. We then looked at the data for these four groups when they were in Grades 2 and 3 and compared their academic competence beliefs and grade point average.

Several interesting patterns emerged. As one might expect, the well functioning group scored the highest on both indicators. In contrast, there were no differences in academic self-competence among the other three groups at Grade 2. In contrast, by Grade 3 the multiple risk group had the lowest academic ability self-concepts and remained the lowest from that point on. The multiple risk group also had a lower grade point average than the other three groups in Grades 1-3 and 8 and they were the only group to show a decline in academic marks from the fourth to the eighth grade; the other groups showed an increase in marks over this period.

Clearly, these four groups of children had different trajectories of change in both their academic motivation and their mental health over the middle childhood years. We present these findings because they demonstrate the importance of taking a person-centered orientation to studying developmental trajectories. These patterns of individual differences would have gone unnoticed if we had relied only on population-centered and variable-centered analyses. Our next steps will be to identify the psychological, family, school, and peer-group characteristics that distinguish these four groups of children. We will focus on the child's own ability to regulate his or her behavior to the demands of the situation, on the quality of family support for effective problem solving during the preschool years; and on the nature of classroom environments these children must cope with as they pass through elementary school.

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