|Overview | General Aims | Procedures | Specific Aims | Significant Features | Constructs|
In the following, I describe the central features of the large-scale project that our group conducted between Fall of 1999 and Fall of 2000 (three assessments separated by 6 month intervals). The overarching goal of the project was to examine self-regulatory aspects of adolescents' academic and social development. The project’s central focus is on the role of personal agency as a predictor of successful transitions and positive adaptations during adolescence and as a resilience factor in the prevention of adverse outcomes such as depression, substance abuse, and antisocial behaviors.
In our framework, personal agency refers to the intersection of central self-regulatory processes (e.g., motives, beliefs, and behaviors; see Little, in press, and Little, Hawley, Henrich, & Marsland, in press, for detailed theoretical discussions of personal agency). The purpose of this overview is to describe our three-wave assessment of 1,505 U.S. adolescents (grades 6-9): October, 1999, April, 1999, and October, 2000.
The project was supported by grants from the Smith Richardson Foundation ($35K), Yale College ($10K), and the Graustein Foundation ($5K). During this project we have enjoyed the enthusiastic support of the Hamden School District and the School's administrators. As a result, the sample of approximately 1,500 students reflects an active consent participation rate of about 75% from the district's 9 elementary schools (grade 6), 1 middle school (grades 7 & 8), and 1 high school (grade 9).
Hamden reflects a diverse urban setting with approximately 70% of the sample comprised of European-American participants, 25% African-American, and 5% of mixed ethnic origin. Although the SES in Hamden is variable, it is predominantly lower-middle class. Our initial analyses indicate that the sample is representative of the city’s population characteristics. Because of the involvement and support of the Hamden schools. Over the course of the study, we had low and non-selective attrition (Little, Lindenberger, & Maier, 2000).
The focus of this overview is on the longitudinal investigation of the U.S. sample (we have also collected cross-cultural data in Germany and Moscow on many of the constructs described herein). The cross-time follow-ups are extremely critical for this project because they allow us to examine the antecedents, consequents, and reciprocal influences of personal agency in development, particularly during the inherent transitions captured in our study design (e.g., the dramatic transition from 6th grade elementary school to 7th grade middle school). A significant advantage of the intensive (twice yearly as opposed to once yearly) longitudinal data is that we can examine and contrast changes that occur within the school year with those that occur over the summer recess. Moreover, we can more accurately track important (and rapidly changing) influences such as pubertal development and patterns of peer association during the course of the study.
The general aim of this project has been to clarify how adolescents' self-regulatory systems (personal agency) influence successful outcomes in various facets of their lives, spanning schoolwork, friendships, and peer relationships (cliques, crowds, & social networks) as well as substance use, mental health, and aggression-victimization. To do so, we designed a protocol that includes a broad set of self-related constructs and commenced with a longitudinal investigation in an effort to isolate potential mechanisms of influence.
A primary aim of the project is to identify and accurately model the mechanisms by which personal agency regulates behavior across both the academic and social domains. A significant feature of this study is that we bring together three theoretical perspectives on personal agency: self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, in press), resource-control theory (Hawley, 1999c) and action-control theory (Little, 1998). These three perspectives share a common meta-theoretical base that allows us to unite their central constructs into a common framework (see Little et al., in press). The core of our protocol contains measures of motivational orientation (intrinsic to extrinsic), resource control strategies (e.g., prosocial, coercive), and action-control beliefs (means-ends, agency, and control-expectancy beliefs) in both the academic and social domains.
With our unified framework among these three views on the agentic self, we seek to understand how agency both directly and indirectly influences important outcomes such as academic achievement, friendship quality, peer integration, and personal well-being. A central feature of personal agency is the action-control belief profile that one can call upon during challenging situations. Action-control beliefs are self-perceptions about the means and competencies one has to reach one's goals. Our research program focuses on three kinds of beliefs that are related to goal achievement (for overviews see Little, 1998; Little et al., in press): (a) judgments about which specific means are most effective for reaching one's goals ('means-ends beliefs'), (b) beliefs about whether these means are personally available for use ('agency beliefs') and (c), perceptions of the degree to which a person feels that s/he can generally attain his/her goals ('control-expectancy beliefs').
Agentic beliefs about one's own potential are particularly important because they can energize one toward successful outcomes and help one to avoid potentially harmful influences. In other words, these beliefs are central influences on developmental outcomes because they guide one's actions and behaviors (Little et al., in press; Skinner, 1996). In general, people who feel that they have very little personal agency often do not even try to achieve their goals, have low personal standards to which they aspire, and are at-risk for various negative developmental outcomes (e.g., alienation, drug use, violence, ill-being, etc.).
If one lacks a sense of personal agency, goals are harder to reach and further failures can undermine trust in one's own capabilities which, in many cases, can lead to feelings of depression and helplessness as well as delinquent behavior (Bandura, 1997; Seligman, 1975; Skinner, 1995). On the other hand, those who have a sense of agency both try and persist in their goal pursuits. Highly agentic persons are able to reach their goals more easily, and, in turn, their successes strengthen their feelings of personal agency and well-being.
The development of these beliefs is strongly influenced by contextualized experiences, especially in school settings. For example, in an earlier study (Little et al., 1995b), we found striking differences between U.S. and European samples in the link between achievement and beliefs in one’s ability and effort. Namely, U.S. children showed much weaker correspondence between the beliefs and performance (rs around .30) than did European children (rs as high as .75). However, the mean-levels of these beliefs in the U.S. sample were the highest among the various cultures we tested. These differences emerged even though the means-ends beliefs, which are a reflection of one’s naïve theory of how successful outcomes are attained, were remarkably similar across the various school contexts. Little et al. (1995b) identified a number of contextual factors such as classroom structure and type of feedback as possible mechanisms shaping the characteristic profiles of the U.S. sample (i.e., high levels of belief but low correspondence between beliefs and actual performance). Their conclusions, however, were only tentative because of the cross-sectional nature of the data. One important contribution of the proposed study will be a test of whether the mechanisms identified by Little et al. do, in fact, shape the link between beliefs and performance.
To better understand the role of these self-regulatory processes in development, our design not only is longitudinal in nature but also it explicitly compares and contrasts the functioning of the regulatory processes across two life-goal domains: academics and social relations. Spanning both of these critical life domains allows us to explicitly test the generality of the links among motivations, behaviors, beliefs, and performance as well as test the cross-domain relationships that affect learning and adjustment during adolescence. In other words, we adopt a systems view of psychological development wherein the functioning of one system is assumed to influence the functioning of another (Gottleib, 1997; Magnusson & Cairns, 1996). One goal of this study, then, is to examine the interactions among sub-systems (e.g., across the social and academic domains) and to model how they contribute to successful developmental outcomes during the transitions of adolescence.
In addition, because we have incorporated other theoretically important constructs in our protocols, we can place our action-regulatory constructs within the context of the larger self system. For example, we measure social and academic self-concept (Harter, 1988), general personality (McCrae & John, 1992), and intellective skill ('QuickRaven'; Little, Wanner, & Mauch, 1999). Within the social domain, we have measures of peer status (Newcomb, Bukowski, & Pattee, 1993; Rubin, Bukowski, & Parker, 1997), aggression-victimization (Crick & Grotpeter, 1995; Dodge, 1989; Little, Jones, Henrich, & Hawley, 2000; Olweus, 1993; Perry, Kusel, & Perry, 1988), clique and crowd membership (Henrich, Kuperminc, Sack, Blatt, & Leadbeater, in press), and reciprocal best friendships (Krappmann, 1996).
Important questions that we will address include: to what degree are action-control processes unique predictors above and beyond general self-concept? To what degree do action-control processes function similarly across the two life domains? To what degree does personality and/or intellective skill moderate one's action-control profile? In other words, because we bring together a broad yet theoretically integrated set of constructs into a single encompassing study (see Table 1), we can examine and test numerous critical hypotheses about (a) the interrelations among the constructs, (b) the developmental changes that underlie them, and (c) their role and importance in successful development during the challenging transitions of the adolescent period (see specific aims, below). In addition, we will thoroughly examine both gender and ethnic moderation of the relationships among the various constructs. Given the longitudinal nature of the design and the breadth of the measured constructs, our study should provide rich and detailed information about the role of personal agency as a unique and powerful influence contributing to both positive adjustment and adaptive pathways of development during adolescence.
An additional strength of the study is the explicit attention we have paid to the reliability and validity of all measured constructs. Through rigorous pilot testing and years of actual usage in diverse sociocultural settings, the measurement properties of the constructs have been finely tuned and their validity has been very well supported (Brendgen, Little, & Krappmann, 2000; Lopez & Little, 1996; Little et al., 1995b; Little, Oettingen, & Baltes, 1995a; Little, Brendgen, Wanner, & Krappmann, 1999; Little & Wanner, 1998; Stetsenko, Little, Oettingen, & Baltes, 1995; Stetsenko, Little, Gordeeva, Grasshof, & Oettingen, 2000). The precision and quality of our measures allow us make very aggressive tests of competing models of how the various self-regulatory processes function in development: for example, whether one dimension (motives, beliefs, or behaviors) mediates another, how a dimension may moderate a set of relationships, and the conditions under which a particular dimension has a direct or indirect effect on adjustment and well-being outcomes. Although such questions can be difficult to address, our team is quite experienced with the analytic techniques needed to perform such tests (Hawley & Little, in press, 1999; Little, 1997; Little, Lindenberger, & Nesselroade, 1999; Little, Lindenberger, & Maier, 2000; Little, Schnabel, & Baumert, 2000).
Aside from answers to basic questions about the role and functioning of personal agency in development, the study's results should assist educators, social workers, and policy makers to better understanding how such beliefs are shaped during adolescence (i.e., the mechanisms by which such beliefs naturally evolve), how they affect various performance and well-being outcomes (both academically and socially), and, ultimately, how they can be effectively improved. With such knowledge, interventions can be developed that optimally bolster the development of adolescents' beliefs about their own personal agency which, in turn, bolsters successes in negotiating life's challenges.
Before turning to specific aims and questions, we present the procedures and instruments.
The Hamden schools are organized around a middle-school model (grades 7 and 8). 9 elementary schools feed into 1 middle school which in turn feeds into 1 high school. The middle school is organized around 10 teams. Incoming students are randomly assigned to one of five teams with approximately 100 students per team. Staying with the same team for two years, the youth spend much of their academic and free time within teams. The study design focuses on the transition from elementary-school to the middle-school, adjustment in the middle-school, the transition from the middle-school to the high school, and adjustment in the high school. Participants were followed into the next grade level (grades 7-10 in year 2, 8-11 in year 3, and 9-12 in year 4) and assessed once during the Fall of the school year.
For each wave of data collection,we assembled our instruments into three packets which were administered three to five days apart. The packets included four comprehensive batteries: (a) the Multi-CAM: Social Domain, (b) the Multi-CAM: School Domain, (c) the About Me and My Life inventory, and (d) the Friendship/I Feel inventory.
In the teacher’s absence, one to two trained assistants proctor a survey during a standard 40-minute class period. Our preliminary analyses of the 1st wave data indicate that all constructs are valid and reliable in this sample.
Multi-CAM: Social Domain and Multi-CAM: School Domain. The two Multi-CAM surveys measure the three kinds of action-control beliefs (described above) with regard to (a) friendships and (b) learning in school. They also include questions on (a) the behavioral coping strategies used to resolve problems within both domains (Lopez & Little, 1996; Little & Wanner, 1997; Little, Lopez, & Wanner, 2001), (b) the intrinsic and extrinsic motivations for goal pursuit in each domain (based on Deci & Ryan, 1985) and (c) the general resource-control strategies of the participants (Hawley, 1999a, 1999b, 1999c).
The About Me and My Life inventory. This inventory assesses numerous self-perceptions of general personal characteristics such as personality, social influence, leadership, aggression, self-concept, identity, and basic problem-solving ability ('QuickRaven'; Little, Wanner, & Mauch, 1999). We expect these general attributes to influence both the choice and the degree of engagement that the adolescents have in pursuing their academic and relationship goals. We also expect these attributes (or their absence) to influence the tendency toward ill-being (e.g., depressive feelings and feelings of loneliness) and externalizing behaviors. Moreover, because we assess many of these constructs in the Friendship inventory (see below) and with sociometric ratings, we can explicitly contrast the self-perceptions of one's social positioning with one’s friends’ assessments as well as the peer world's assessments. We expect the different rater's perspectives would reflect unique views that, together, offer a complete picture of adjustment.
The Friendship/ I FEEL inventories. In the Friendship inventory, the adolescents are asked to name all the classmates (within the same grade-level) with whom they are friends and to rate these friends on general features (e.g., how close they are). With this information we are able to identify clique affiliations among the participants as well as their social networks. The second part of the inventory assesses the quality of the relationships that the children have with their three closest friends (see Brendgen et al., 2000; Little, Brendgen et al., 1999). The Friendship inventory also allows assessment of the quality of a friendship from both friends' perspectives (i.e., reciprocal friendship dyads; see Gonzalez & Griffin, 1997; Little, Brendgen et al., 1999).
Included in this battery is the Inventory of Felt Emotion and Energy in Life (I FEEL; Little, Ryan, & Wanner, 1997). The I FEEL measures the general positive and negative moods during the previous two-week period. It also assesses feelings of loneliness, isolation, connectedness, depression, and anxiety; all of which are central outcome variables in our study.
Additional measured constructs. Also embedded in our protocol is an extensive set of sociometric measures (both traditional and newly developed) that allow us to assess the peer relationships of the adolescents. Participants write down the names of others who match a statement such as “Who do you like the most” "Who is hung out with" "Who is very shy?", "Who is a leader?" "Who often gets into fights?", "Who do you like to spend time with?", and so on. Up to 10 names per question can be nominated. Names are selected from lists of all persons in the same grade at the school (for grades 6 and high school) or lists of all persons within the same team.
We include a set of questions regarding drug, alcohol, and tobacco use. This self-report inventory is used to identify adolescents who engage in risk behaviors. One important strength of our study is that we can examine the extensive array of relationships between such risk behaviors and the motivational and self-regulatory processes contained within our larger protocol as well as the peer influences that can affect such behavior (e.g., the use patterns of one's friends and the various cliques with which one associates).
Given that our target sample is an adolescent group of significant ethnic diversity, we also measure pubertal development using multiple methods, including health records provided by the schools, ratings conducted by the school’s health provider, and self-report measures. Ethnic background and ethnic identity is assessed by school records, parent-report, and self-report.
School performance and behavior. As indicators of actual school performance, we use the grades in language, mathematics, and the other subjects that are assigned by the teacher for the preceding and current school year as well as each additional data wave. We will also collect the scores on the students' standardized achievement tests. To assess school behavior and adjustment, we collect all relevant information from the school records such as disciplinary actions, absenteeism, reports and referrals for conduct problems, and the like.
Constructs in the data collection protocol: U.S. longitudinal sample
Teacher and Parent Questionnaires. In addition to the adolescents’ surveys, we ask the teachers and the parents to fill out parallel sets of questions regarding characteristics of the children in relation to their school performance and their friendships. We also ask the teachers about the relationships among the children in order to contrast the teachers' judgments and the peer world's judgments with the adolescents' own judgments. Teacher's are also asked to rate general classroom climate and how they behave in relation to each student (e.g., autonomy support, feedback). In the middle school, the students within a team are randomly assigned to one of the team's principal instructors (5 to 7 instructors per team). In the high school, students were randomly assigned to one of the six instructors of the required freshman English course.
We ask parents to assess their child's skills in interacting with peers. We also ask parents about their sociodemographic statuses, attitudes toward parenting, and parenting practices (e.g., involvement, autonomy support, structure, etc.; see Table 1).
Aims across the Different Areas of Investigation
Given the multi-disciplinary nature of the data collection protocol, our research team will investigate a number of theoretically driven hypotheses both within and between sub-domains of inquiry. Three general sub-areas of specific aims and hypotheses are presented.
The Role of Agency in Successful Development
We adopt an organismic approach to understanding the developing individual (Hawley, 1999c; Little et al., in press; Ryan, Sheldon, Kasser, & Deci, 1996). From this perspective, the individual is viewed as an integrated organism that both influences and is influenced by the contexts in which s/he acts and develops. This perspective presumes that individuals are active agents in their own development. This premise is the basis of the three primary theories that we utilize for understanding the agentic self in context: self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, in press), resource-control theory (Hawley, 1999a, 1999c), and action-control theory (Little, 1998). Self-determination theory posits central mechanisms of human agency that stem from the ontogenetic advantages of satisfying basic psychological needs for relatedness, competence, and autonomy. Resource-control theory posits central mechanisms of human agency that stem from an evolutionary perspective, emphasizing the advantages afforded individuals who are the beneficiaries of the finite resources of an environment (i.e., biologic needs). Action-control theory posits central mechanisms of human agency that stem from episodes of motivated activity.
As each adolescent continues to discover who
s/he is and what s/he is capable of, the evolving competence system gives
rise to a sense of personal agency. The resulting system of motivational
orientation, control strategies, and action-control beliefs provides a
personal foundation that is called upon to negotiate various developmental
tasks and challenges throughout the life course. In facing these challenges,
an agentic individual has, for example, high aspirations, perseveres in
the face of obstacles, sees more and varied options, learns from failures,
and has a greater sense of personal empowerment and well-being. On the
other hand, a non-agentic individual has low aspirations, is hindered
with problem-solving blinders, and often feels helpless and unempowered
(Little et al., in press;
Ryan & Deci, in press; Skinner, 1995; Weisz, 1990).
Significant and Unique Features of the Overall Design
Theoretically based and integrative. A number of theoretical models have been integrated to provide a united perspective that drives the central questions of this study. These models include the action-theory model of perceived control (Skinner, Chapman, & Baltes, 1988), the self-determination model of motivation (Deci & Ryan, 1985), and the resource-control model of peer interactions (Hawley, 1999c). In addition, we have carefully selected features and constructs of other theoretical perspectives and integrated them into our guiding framework. These theoretical models include the 5-factor model of personality (Caspi, 1998), a multi-dimensional action-theory model of coping (Lopez & Little, 1996; Little, Lopez, & Wanner, 2001), and a unification action-theory model of aggression (see Little, Jones et al., 2000).
Comprehensive coverage of constructs. The data collection protocol was designed to be a thorough and integrated compilation of theoretically related constructs. Our goal is to fully understand the inter-relations among the self-related motives, beliefs, and behaviors that comprise the agentic self (see Little et al., in press; and see Table 1). Clearly, not all constructs related to the self have been included, however, the list reflects a comprehensive selection of theoretically interconnected constructs. In addition, the constructs in our protocol have been well validated and possess satisfactory to excellent psychometric properties (see discussion above).
A contextual approach. We have taken a deliberated contextual view on the development of the agentic self. Generally speaking, contexts reflect a specific constellation of features (i.e., where intra- inter- and extra-personal features converge). These features provide a quasi-experimental manipulation of many of the potential mechanisms that can shape and mold individual development. Because contextual designs vary the features in which development occurs, they can uncover fundamental mechanisms that influence development and dramatically increase our universe of generalization (see e.g., Little, 1998).
In particular, the naturally occurring transitions that these adolescents face provide clear and powerful challenges to self development. Following these youth as they progress through these transitions offers tremendous opportunity to examine many mechanisms of self-regulation (because of the breadth of our protocol) and to evaluate which are most effective and under what circumstances.
Moreover, our inclusions of ethnicity, gender, and SES as index variables will allow us to examine the moderating effects of the various subgroups. For example, research indicates that low SES minority children are at greater risk for school failure (Luster & McAdoo, 1996; Graham, 1994). Furthermore, authoritative parenting and parental involvement appear to have less of a positive impact on the school performance of minority children (Dornbusch et al., 1987; Luster & McAdoo, 1996; Steinberg, 1996), and minority adolescents additionally tend to be isolated from school-based peer social groups (Urberg et al., 1995). Considerable work from other theoretical perspectives has demonstrated pronounced differences in motivational systems of different subgroups (e.g., Graham, 1995; Stetsenko, Little et al., in press). One goal of this study will be to broaden and elaborate on this growing literature.
Cross-links between sub-areas. During the course of the project will focus on quite specific hypotheses within a sub-area of functioning; however, a significant number of hypotheses focus on the relationships between the various sub-areas. A comprehensive and integrated data set such as this also lends itself well to more exploratory investigations. Because of the substantial sample size of the data, these explorations can be conducted with cross-validation procedures, thereby minimizing the chances of inference errors and false conclusions. Because we have assessment in both the social and academic domains, we can explore various interrelations between the domains over time and across contextual transitions.
Longitudinal design. Critical transitions during adolescence highlight the question of continuity (Little, Stetsenko, & Maier, 2000). We will trace the developmental trajectories of each participant across the various transitions that are inherent in our design (e.g., the transitions to middle school and to high school). As mentioned above, issues of cross-lagged influence will be explicitly tested. For example, we will examine how personal agency, within the context of mutual friendships, contributes to quality friendship relations and, at the same time, examine agency within the context of achievement and, together evaluate their influence on adjustment and personal well being. In other words, understanding both the antecedents, reciprocal influences, and consequences of agentic processes is critical for understanding successful developmental pathways and outcomes during the turbulent transitions of the adolescent era.
Benefits and Contributions
Given the unique features of our protocol, the intensive longitudinal design, and the large and regionally representative sample, the potential benefits and contributions of this project are significant. Our project lies at the cusp between basic and applied paradigms. From a basic research perspective, the study will allow quite strong tests of competing theoretical models and provides important integrative findings. From an applied research perspective, the mass of knowledge that can be gained will allow policy-oriented programs the needed basis for designing interventions that are maximally effective. Such interventions can thereby reflect the complexities and multiple pathways in the development of the agentic self. Policies that provide both educational and social supports can be implemented with the goal of bolstering the agentic self-regulatory processes that adolescents need to negotiate the challenges and potential pitfalls of this critical life phase. Furthermore, developing and bolstering a sense of personal agency is important not only for individuals who are potentially at risk, but also for those who are within generally normative contexts; that is, by optimizing their unfolding pathways.