Control Theories

Control theorists have also proposed motivational components related to the question "Can I succeed" that are related to other aspects of social development, such as, individual's feelings of efficacy and industry, and general mental health. More specifically, these theorists propose that individuals with a strong sense of internal locus of control will be more likely to engage in, and succeed at, academic tasks and will feel better about themselves more generally. Empirical work has confirmed these predictions (see Weisz, 1984).

Connell and Wellborn (1991) integrated control beliefs into a broader theoretical framework in which they proposed three basic psychological needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness (see also Ryan, 1992). They linked control beliefs to competence needs: Children who believe they can control their achievement outcomes should feel more competent. They hypothesized that the extent to which these three needs are fulfilled is influenced by following characteristics of the contexts: the amount of structure, the degree of autonomy provided, and the level of involvement in the children's activities. Finally, they proposed that the ways in which these needs are fulfilled determine engagement in different activities. When the needs are fulfilled, children will be fully engaged. When one or more of the needs is not fulfilled, children will become disaffected (see Connell, Spencer, & Aber, 1994; Skinner & Belmont, 1993, for supportive evidence). In this way Connell and Wellborn have also linked control beliefs to more general psychological functioning.

Developmental Changes in Control Beliefs

In her discussion of the ontogeny of control beliefs, Skinner (1995) stressed the importance of perceived contingency between individuals' actions and their successes. She also stressed the importance of success itself for developing positive control beliefs. Finally, she discussed how children's understanding of causality and explanations for outcomes likely changes over age with these beliefs becoming more differentiated as children get older. What is similar across all ages is the importance of fulfilling the need for competence.

In their review of studies of children primarily 8-9 years and older, Skinner and Connell (1986) concluded that there is an increase in perceptions of internal control as children get older. In contrast, based on series of studies of children's understanding of skill vs. chance events, Weisz (1984) concluded that the developmental sequence is more complex. The kindergarten children in these studies believed outcomes of chance tasks were due to effort, whereas the oldest groups (eighth graders and college students) believed that such outcomes were due to chance; fourth graders were confused about the distinction. Thus, in this work, the youngest children had strong internal control beliefs- so strong in fact that they believed in internal control over outcomes even when none was possible, suggesting that with age children came to understand better which kinds of events they can control, and which they can't. Perhaps this exaggerated confidence in one's ability to control even chance events helps to explain the high levels of ability self-concepts held by children during their preschool and early elementary school years.

In summary, children's competence beliefs and expectancies for success become more negative as they get older, at least through the early adolescence time period. The negative changes in children's achievement beliefs have been explained in two ways: (1) Because children become much better at understanding, interpreting, and integrating the evaluative feedback they receive, and engage in more social comparison with their peers, many children should become more accurate or realistic in their self-assessments, leading some to become relatively more negative (see Eccles et al., 1998; Nicholls, 1984; Parsons & Ruble, 1977; Stipek & Mac Iver, 1989). (2) Because school environments change in ways that makes evaluation more salient and competition between students more likely, some children's self-assessments will decline as they get older (e.g., see Eccles, Midgley, & Adler, 1984; Eccles & Midg-ley, 1989; Midgley, 2002; Stipek & Daniels, 1988). For example, there has been some speculation that the declines in ability self-concepts between Grade 2 and 4 and again over the transitions into and through secondary school reflect changes in the teachers' grading practices and stress on competition among students at about the third grade. However, evidence regarding these types of changes is just beginning to accumulate (see Eccles et al., 1998; Midgley, 2002).

We also discussed individual differences in these patterns of change. Some children show these declines; others do not. Some start quite low and remain low; others start high and remain quite high throughout their elementary school years. Very little work has been done on identifying the characteristics of children and their social environments that distinguish these groups from each other. More work is badly needed.

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