Summary

We had two goals in this chapter: (1) to describe the developmental pathways associated with academic motivation and school engagement during middle childhood, and (2) to explore the link between academic adjustment and mental health during this same developmental period.

With regard to our second goal, the picture varies somewhat depending on whether one takes a population- and/or variable-centered approach or an individual difference or person-centered approach. At the population level, there is clearly a link between psychological functioning in the domain of school and general mental health. At the individual differences level, there is a strong relation between these two domains of functioning in some children and no relation (or only a very weak relation) in other children. Additional work is badly needed before we can understand these individual variations.

The findings regarding our first goal also yield somewhat different conclusions depending on whether one adopts a variable- versus a person-centered approach. Evidence for change at the population level points fairly consistently to declines in children's academic motivation and school attachment/engagement during the elementary school years. On average, children begin elementary school quite confident of their own abilities and quite enthusiastic about school; and, on average, both of these sets of beliefs decline over the elementary school years, particularly between Grades 2 and 4. Both psychological and situational causes for these patterns were discussed.

A different picture emerges when one conducts person-centered analyses. There are clear and consistent patterns of individual differences in these trajectories. Although it is the case that the vast majority of children do start elementary school with very high estimates of their own abilities, not all of these children evidence declines over the elementary school years, and the rate of decline varies in systematic ways across children with different psychological resources (assessed primarily in terms of self-esteem in the studies reported in this chapter).

The CAB results we discussed in detail identified two pathways to diminished academic and social-emotional functioning in early adolescence—the straight path of chronic academic difficulties, and the less common path of declining academic performance and feelings of competence over time. Although these pathways suggest the possibility of different underlying mechanisms, one common characteristic of both of these groups of children is clear: Somewhere between the upper elementary years and the transition to middle school, these youth experience a serious decline in their academic motivation. It could be that children who are vulnerable in terms of academic motivation and achievement, either due to long term problems or some other factor during childhood, are most susceptible to the stresses involved with bio-psycho-social transitions during early adolescence (e.g., Eccles & Midgley, 1989, Simmons & Blyth, 1987). Although speculative, these data certainly suggest a disruption between the late elementary and middle school years in the two groups of children who ended up academically at-risk during early adolescence. In support of this suggestion, in our Michigan Study of Adolescent Life Transitions we found that children with high performance anxiety, low confidence in their academic, social and/or athletic abilities and troubled relationships with their parents were most susceptible psychologically to the negative effects of the junior high school transition (Lord, Eccles, & McCarthy, 1994).

The "decliner" group certainly seemed to be a group of children who were capable, but seemed to have difficulties that went largely unnoticed in their elementary school years when they still appeared to be engaged in school. It could be that these children manifested their distress in an internalizing way that was not picked up on by their early teachers (e.g., Loeber et al., 1990; Lord et al., 1994), or that the problems they experienced later during adolescence resulted from events occurring during the later elementary school years or the transition into secondary school. Whatever the case, it is clear that these children, despite their ability to do well in school, end up very disengaged from academics by the seventh or eighth grade—so much so that they were already entertaining the notion that they might drop out of school before finishing.

The findings from these analyses also documented two pathways toward positive academic and social-emotional adjustment during early adolescence. The majority of children in the CAB study evidenced positive academic and social emotional adjustment over time. This is as one might expect. However, we also identified a group of "academically resilient" children who, despite early difficulties, went on to achieve at a fairly high level during early adolescence. Despite their lower academic marks, less favorable teacher beliefs concerning their abilities, and slightly lower intelligence scores early in elementary school, these children showed a positive profile of academic competence, value, and self-esteem beliefs all the way from childhood to early adolescence. These findings suggest that the optimism these children felt when they entered school protected them from the negative effects of lower academic performance and lower teacher expectations. We plan to investigate exactly which social and personal resources and contextual experiences distinguished these resilient youth from their less resilient peers.

The results presented in this chapter also raise several interesting issues regarding how children compensate for difficulties they experience in the academic domain. This question is important given the fact that the academic realm is a central sphere of experience and "work" for the child and adolescent, and competence and achievement is thus centrally relevant to a child's self-esteem (e.g., Eccles [Parsons] et al., 1983; Erikson, 1959; Harter, 1985). What happens when youth do not feel that they are academically competent? One the one hand, the findings presented earlier, as well as other work by Roeser and his colleagues (e.g., Roeser & Eccles, 1998; Roeser et al., 1995), suggest some of them will experience diminished self-esteem and general well-being. On the other hand, our findings also provide evidence of at least one mechanism of compensation: Youth who ended up feeling less academically competent and received lower performance marks also devalued academics the most. Beginning with William James, several self theorists have suggested that one way to maintain self-esteem in the face of relative incompetence in an achievement domain is to devalue that domain (Covington, 1992; Eccles [Parsons] et al., 1983; Harter, 1985; Wigfield & Eccles, 1992). This may be one explanation of what occurred with the children in the "stable difficulties" and "decliner" groups. That is, youth who experience more and more difficulties in school may adjust their perceptions of the importance, usefulness, and interest value of their academic subjects by the time they reach seventh or eighth grade. This is particularly distressing given that "not liking school" is one of the major reason youth give for why they drop out of school.

Another possible mechanism of compensation children might use is to increase their valuing of, and engagement, in achievement-related activities in other relevant life domains, domains in which they feel more competent and socially supported. Although there are several "culturally mandated" dimensions of self that are likely central to esteem, including academics (e.g., Stein, Roeser, & Markus,

Markus & Roeser, 1998), some children may be able to compensate for difficulties in one area by achievement in another. For instance, in the Eccles et al. expectancy-value formulation of achievement motivation, Eccles [Parsons] et al. (1983) suggested that competence and valuing of any number of achievement domains, including the performing and fine arts, sports, and the social sphere, can serve as relevant sources of esteem. Furthermore, in this model, self-perceptions of relative incompetence in one area are assumed to relate to children's feelings of competence and value in other domains: those children with very low academic competence beliefs may develop other strengths and competencies to compensate for their relative lack of success at school. If successful, this strategy can provide the children with another ecological niche in which to develop a sense of efficacy. Unfortunately, given that children must attend school until they are 16, this strategy is also likely to lead them to feel quite disaffected from the setting in which they must spend most of their time.

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Joy Of Modern Parenting Collection

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