Staying Positive: How Middle Schoolers’ Attitudes About Themselves Influence Academic and Emotional Outcomes

Despite the diversity of the US across all genders, ethnicities, and demographic backgrounds, it seems that one thing is constant: the middle school years prove to be a difficult time for children. Multiple studies seek to explain the causes of poor academic or mental health outcomes in middle schoolers, usually focusing on environment or socioeconomic status.

Using a different approach, a study out of Stanford University examines a possible link between students’ “implicit theories”—that is, their own attitudes and beliefs about their intelligence and emotional well-being—and subsequent outcomes for those students. The researchers find that students with positive perceptions of their own abilities achieved more and were emotionally better off than those who felt they had no control.

Adolescents face many emerging challenges during their middle school years. Some challenges are academic in nature: the beginning of class rotations between subjects, a greater degree of independence and responsibility with coursework, and increasingly difficult subject matter. Others are emotional challenges, the most prominent of which are brought on by puberty, but still others are challenges arising from the adjustment to a new school, one which does not necessarily offer the same level of support enjoyed in elementary schools. In response, many students begin to struggle—academically, emotionally, or both—around this time, leaving educators and service providers struggling to figure out how to best support their students.

The researchers in this study survey a sample of 115 students at a suburban, public school in California, tracking them from sixth grade through eighth grade. At the outset, students were randomly asked whether or not they had the power to change their own intelligence and whether or not they believe it was possible to change or control their own emotions. The students were then scored based on confidence in their own abilities to influence both academics and emotional well-being.

With this information in hand, the researchers examine what their student sample experienced in middle school. Academically, they focus on both students’ grades and the difficulty level of classes into which students were placed. From an emotional viewpoint, the students were tested for depressive symptoms using the Children’s Depression Inventory short assessment. Well-being was then assessed based on surveys that tracked both negative and positive emotions.

The study finds that students who saw their own intelligence as changeable got better grades, even over time, and they were more likely to opt into more challenging math courses. In regard to emotion, the researchers find a correlation between the belief that one can control one’s own emotions and exhibiting fewer depressive symptoms. Finally, students who believed they had power over their emotions were more likely to see their sense of well-being improve throughout their middle school years.

This research indicates that beliefs about one’s own emotions matter greatly in how adolescents will function emotionally throughout their middle school years, perhaps even more so than previously thought. Additionally, given how pivotal middle school years are for academic outcomes—middle school courses affect high school course placements, which influence college and even career outcomes—interventions at this stage could yield big impacts.

The researchers caution readers that they would like to see similar research undertaken in other schools to confirm the wider applicability of their findings. But these results are encouraging for educators and service providers seeking to better support middle schoolers who are struggling, whether academically or personally. It is easy to design intervention strategies that work to influence and shape middle schoolers’ attitudes about themselves and their abilities, and such interventions would be a straightforward and fiscally prudent mode of support, compared to more intensive and costly programs. Such interventions at this crucial stage of youth development could yield important benefits for middle schoolers, regardless of their background.

Article Source: Romero, C., Master, A., Paunesku, D, Dweck, C.S., & Gross, J.J. (2014, February 10). “Academic and Emotional Functioning in Middle School: The Role of Implicit Theories.” Emotion. Advance online publication. 

Feature Photo: cc/(Jeff Peterson)

mrepka@uchicago.edu'
Matt Repka
Matt Repka is a staff writer for the Chicago Policy Review and is an MPP student at the Harris School of Public Policy. He is interested in education and urban policy. He has also been published in The Tufts Daily.

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