The Development of Competence Related and Efficacy Beliefs

Most of the work on the development of children's achievement-related beliefs has looked at the development of children's ability and expectancy-related beliefs (e.g., see Eccles, et al., 1998; Stipek & Mac Iver, 1989). Researchers have studied three kinds of age-related changes in these beliefs: change in the factor structure of these beliefs, change in children's understanding of these concepts, and change in their mean levels. Due to limited space we focus on the second and third. We also discuss various ways of assessing and describing longitudinal patterns of change at the level of the individual.

Changes in Children's Understanding of Competence-Related Beliefs

It is important to understand how children conceptualize the different constructs in order to interpret comparisons of different-aged children's beliefs meaningfully. Several researchers have investigated these concepts, focusing primarily on children's understanding of ability and intelligence. For example, Nicholls and his colleagues asked children questions about ability, intelligence, effort, and task difficulty, and how different levels of performance can occur when children exert similar effort (e.g., Nicholls, 1990; Nicholls et al., 1990). They found four relatively distinct levels of reasoning: At level one (ages 5 to 6), effort, ability, and performance are not clearly differentiated in terms of cause and effect. At level two (ages 7 to 9), effort is seen as the primary cause of performance outcomes. At level three (ages 9 to 12), children begin to differentiate ability and effort as causes of outcomes, but they do not always apply this distinction. Finally, at level four, adolescents clearly differentiate ability and effort, and understand the notion of ability as capacity and believe that ability can limit the effects of additional effort on performance, that ability and effort are often related to each other in a compensatory manner, and, consequently, that a success which required a great deal of effort likely reflects limited ability.

Nicholls' analysis suggests that children early in the middle childhood period of life are likely to believe that they can get better by working harder and that failures result primarily from a lack of effort. If they live in a culture that stresses the moral importance of working hard (vs. being lazy), failures during this period may make children feel guilty rather than incompetent. Both Burhans and Dweck (1995) and Harter (1998) found that preschool children do report thinking they are bad people if they fail at tasks their parents and teachers highly value. Similarly, Heyman, Dweck, and Cain (1993) and Stipek, Recchia, and McClintic (1992) found that some children as young as 2 react both behaviorally and emotionally to failure experiences. On the positive side, such attributions leave open the belief that one can get better.

Dweck and her colleagues (see Dweck, 1999) focused on children's notions about the controllability and modifiability of their own abilities in various domains. They believe that children hold one of two views of intelligence or ability: An entity view that intelligence and other skill-based abilities are stable traits, or an incremental view that skill-based abilities are changeable and can be increased through effort. Like Nicholls (1990), Dweck stressed how children's conceptions of ability and intelligence have important motivational consequences. Believing that ability is an entity increases the debilitating effects of failure. Children holding this view likely believe that they have little chance of ever doing well, because their ability cannot be improved after failure. In contrast, believing that effort can improve performance should protect children from a learned helpless response to failure precisely because these children should continue to try even if they are not doing well on a given task. Although Nicholls' work suggests that younger children may be less likely to believe ability is stable or fixed, Burhans and Dweck (1995) concluded that some preschool-aged children already have doubts about their ability to do certain tasks, even if they are trying hard.

Both the Nicholls and Dweck perspectives point to the importance of developmental changes for understanding the emergence of a sense of industry versus inferiority during the middle childhood years. If children begin to think of ability as more entity-like during these years then the consequences of learning difficulties for developing a sense of industry increase. Evidence from a few studies (see Dweck, 1999) suggests that this is exactly what happens to children growing up in the United States. Furthermore, evidence is beginning to emerge suggesting that the developmental increase in entity beliefs is due in part to an increased emphasis by the adults (both teachers and coaches) on social comparative evaluative feedback and stress on doing better than others rather than improving one's own competence over time (see Dweck, 1999; Eccles, Midgley & Adler, 1984; Midgley, 2002)

Change in the Mean Level of Children's Competence-Related Beliefs

Several researchers have found that children's competence-related beliefs for different tasks decline across the elementary school years and into the middle school years (see Eccles et al., 1998; Eccles & Midgley, 1989; Fredricks & Eccles, 2002; Jacobs et al., 2002; Stipek & Mac Iver, 1989). To illustrate, in Nicholls (1979) most first graders ranked themselves near the top of the class in reading ability, and there was essentially no correlation between their ability ratings and their performance level. In contrast, the 12- year-olds' ratings were more dispersed, and their correlation with school grades was .70 or higher. Similar results have emerged in cross-sectional and longitudinal studies of children's competence beliefs in a variety of academic and nonacademic domains by Eccles and her colleagues (e.g., Eccles et al. 1993; Fredricks & Eccles, 2002; Jacobs et al., 2002; Wigfield et al. 1997) and Marsh (1989). These declines often continue into and through secondary school (e.g., Jacobs et al., 2002).

Some of the findings from our work on the Childhood and Beyond Study (CAB) are summarized in Figures 14.2 and 14.3, which illustrate the longitudinal changes in children's ability self-concepts for math and sports from Grade 1 through Grade 12. A set of predominantly white middle class children (N = 615), initially in first, second, and third grades, were given a survey in their classrooms each year for 3 consecutive years during elementary school (yielding data from Grade 1-6) and then again each year for 4 consecutive years 4 years later (yielding data from Grade 7-12). This survey contained items assessing their competence beliefs for math, reading, sports, and instrumental music (see Eccles et al., 1993). The items were read aloud to the children in the first three waves and given as a self-administered survey in the secondary school years. Scales were created from several items responded to on a 7-point scale anchored with verbal labels at the extreme endpoints and the midpoint (see Eccles et al., 1993; Fredricks & Eccles, 2002; Jacobs et al., 2002; and Wigfield et al., 1997 for full details).

Using Hierarchial Linear Modelling (HLM) techniques, these data can be used to create a picture of the developmental changes over the entire Grade 1-12 school period. The results of our HLM analyses for math and sports are shown in Figures 14.2 and 14.3 (see Fredricks & Eccles, 2002). For each of these domains, as well as for reading/English and instrumental music, there is a steady decline in the children's ability self-concepts as they move through the elementary and secondary school years. These declines are quite marked during middle childhood and early adolescence and they occur in children with all initial ability levels. Interestingly, the declines are least extreme for children whose parents rate their children's ability in each domain quite high, even after the children's actual ability levels are controlled. Thus, having a parent who thinks you are very competent protects you from the impact of negative performance experiences and teacher bias on your own confidence in your abilities.

Similar results have been found in the Michigan Study in Adolescent Life Transitions (MSALT, a mixed social class and ethnic sample from southeastern Michigan), (see Eccles et al., 1989 and Wigfield


Figure 14.2 Developmental changes in girls' and boys' math ability self concepts.

et al., 1991 for details of study). These students were studied at four time points over the junior high school transition (two times in the sixth grade and two times in the seventh grade). Students' confidence in their math and English abilities and self-esteem were assessed at each time point. Confidence in both academic domains showed a marked decline over this school transition and continued to decline during the first year of junior high school. Self-esteem also showed a marked drop over the school transition followed by a partial rebound during the seventh grade school year (Wigfield et al., 1991). Most importantly for this chapter, confidence in one's abilities in math, sports, and reading predicted reduced declines in the self-esteem across this school transition (Lord, Eccles & McCarthy, 1994).

Expectancies for success also decrease during the elementary school years. In most laboratory-type studies, 4- and 5-year-old children's expect to do quite well on specific task, even after repeatedly failure (e.g., Parsons & Ruble, 1977; Stipek, 1984). Across the elementary school years, the mean levels of children's expectancies for success both decline and become more sensitive to both success and failure experiences. Consequently, both competence beliefs and expectancies more accurate or realistic in terms of their relation to actual performance history (see Eccles, Midgley, & Adler, 1984, Parsons & Ruble, 1972, 1977; Stipek, 1984).



Figure 14.3 Developmental changes in girls' and boys' sports ability self concepts.

Girls Boys

In summary, there is a drop in children's ability self-concepts and expectations for success over the elementary school years. In part this drop reflects the initially high expectations of kindergarten and first-grade children. Stipek (1984) argued that young children's optimistic expectancies may reflect hoped for outcome rather than real expectations; in contrast, Parsons & Ruble (1977) suggested that, since young children's skills do, in fact improve rapidly, high expectancies for future success may be based on experience. As the rate of improvement slows, children may learn that current failures are more predictive of subsequent performance. Other changes also likely contribute to this decline— changes such as increased exposure to failure feedback, increased ability to integrate success and failure information across time to form expectations more closely linked with experience, increased ability to use social comparison information, and increased exposure to teachers' expectations (see Harter, 1998; Stipek & Mac Iver, 1989).

Some of these changes are directly linked to the transition into elementary school. Entrance into elementary school and then the transition from kindergarten to first grade introduces several systematic changes in children's social worlds. First, classes are age stratified, making within-age ability social comparison much easier. Second, formal evaluations of competence by "experts" begin. Third, formal ability grouping begins usually with reading group assignment. Fourth, peers have the opportunity to play a much more constant and salient role in children' lives. Each of these changes should impact children's motivational development. Such changes could contribute to the increase in children's response to failure feedback as they move from preschool and kindergarten into the first grade (Parsons & Ruble, 1972, 1977; Stipek, 1984). Parents' expectations for, and perceptions of, their children's academic competence are also influenced by report card marks and standardized test scores given out during the early elementary school years, particularly for mathematics (Alexander & Entwisle, 1988; Arbreton & Eccles, 1994). More systematic studies of the effects of transition into elementary school, and transitions from kindergarten to first grade, on motivation are needed.

There are significant long-term consequences of children's experiences in the first grade, particularly experiences associated with ability grouping and within-class differential teacher treatment. For example, teachers use a variety of information to assign first graders to reading groups including temperamental characteristics like interest and persistence, race, gender, and social class (e.g., Alexander, Dauber & Entwisle, 1993). Alexander et al. (1993) demonstrated that differences in first grade reading group placement and teacher-student interactions have a significant effect (net of beginning differences in competence) on motivation and achievement several years later. Furthermore, these effects are mediated by both differential instruction and the exaggerating impact of ability group placement on parents' and teachers' views of the children's abilities, talents, and motivation (Pallas et al., 1994).

Further changes in ability self-concepts occur as children move from elementary school into middle or junior high school (see Eccles et al., 1993). These changes appear to reflect the impact of the types of changes in the classroom and school environments that often accompany this school transition, such as increased competitive and performance rather than task-mastery motivational strategies, increased ability tracking, and increased whole class instruction (see Maehr & Midgley, 1996; Midgley, 2002). Early adolescents who do not experience these types of changes in the classroom environments as they make this school transition do not show as marked declines in the ability self-concepts and expectations for educational success.

Individual Differences in Developmental Trajectories

All of the data reported above focused on mean level changes at the population level. Changes at this level likely reflect either shared maturational influences or shared changes in school characteristics (see Eccles, Midgley, & Adler, 1984; Eccles et al., 1998). These findings, however, mask individual differences in these developmental trajectories. Work in the arenas of underachievement, test anxiety, and learned helpless (reviewed later) provides clear evidence of strong individual differences in these trajectories: Some children evidence a negative self-concept pattern as soon as they enter the first grade and remain low throughout their schooling years; others start high and show the type of gradual decline evident in the mean level graphs; still others start low and rebound.

We have been exploring these individual differences in our Childhood and Beyond (CAB) study. This study was designed to look at two issues: (1) individual differences in the trajectories of children's academic ability self-concept, and (2) the relation of these different trajectories to other indicators of social development and mental health. We describe the results relevant to the first goal here; the results relevant to the second goal are presented later.

To assess trajectories of academic risk and resilience, we grouped children based upon their level of academic functioning at the two points in time: during early elementary school and later in middle school. We then examined a constellation of related indices of academic functioning as a means of corroborating our characterizations of children and youth as "academically at-risk" or "not-at-risk" during these times (for full details see Eccles, Roeser, Wigfield & Freedman-Doan, 1999). Because the criteria by which children judge their academic competence are known to change with development and increasing cognitive sophistication and because so many young children express such optimistic expectations and ability self-concepts (Eccles, Wigfield, & Schiefele, 1998), we relied on teacher reports of children's academic competence during the early grades to assess academic risk status. We did this by asking teachers to rate each child's academic abilities (in reading and math) and chances of future academic success relative to her same-aged peers.

When the youth were in Grade 7 and 8, we relied upon their own self-reports of academic competence to assess their academic risk status. Similar to the questions asked of teachers during the early elementary school years, several of the items in the self-report academic competence scale assessed how these early adolescents felt they compared to their same-aged peers in terms of their abilities in reading and math. By the early adolescent years, the use of social comparison information to determine one's abilities in a given domain is, for better or worse, a functional part of youth's self-assessments (e.g., Harter, 1998).

To identify children at risk at Time 1, we created a composite measure of teacher's perceptions of children's academic competence in reading and math, as well as their expectancies for children's future academic success. The children were identified as at academic risk at Time 1 if they were rated in the lowest 33% of the distribution of their teachers' ratings. Our original sample consisted of 397 first and second graders during the 1988 school year. Of these children, 137 (35%) were categorized as having poor school adjustment, and were thus designated as "academically at-risk." The remaining 260 children we categorized as academically "not-at-risk." Boys and girls were equally represented in each category.

We then assessed the relation of category membership to other indicators of developmental functioning. The Time 1 at-risk children scored significantly worse than the other children on the following measures: Teachers' ratings of the children's social competence, academic effort and persistence, adjustment to school, general anxiousness, and aggressive/impulsiveness; mothers' ratings of their children's academic competence; and the children's ratings of the value they attached to doing well in school and their own general sense of self-worth (see Eccles, Roeser, Wigfield & Freedman-Doan, 1999 for details). Interestingly, the two groups did not differ in the children's ratings of their own academic competence at either Time 1 or the next two annual waves of data collection. Clearly, being at academic risk early in elementary school is linked to wide range of other indicators of developmental functioning.

To identify the children at risk in Grade 7 or 8, we used adolescent self-report measures of their academic competence in reading and math. Criteria similar to those used during the early elementary school years were used to characterize adolescents as academically "at-risk" or "not-at-risk." Youth who were in the lowest 33% of the overall sample distribution on a measure of their self-reported academic competence were again designated as "academically at-risk." Youth in the upper 66% percent of the distribution were categorized as "not-at-risk." Of the sample of 363 seventh and eighth graders who were available for follow-up during the 1994 school year, 109 (30%) were categorized as being "academically at-risk," and 254 as "not-at-risk." Again boys and girls were equally represented in both categories but by junior high school there was a trend (p < .10) for boys to be slightly over-represented in the "at-risk" group.

Again we compared the two groups on a range of other self-report indicators of developmental well-being. The academic at risk early adolescents reported less academic valuing, lower grade point averages, lower self-worth, life satisfaction, and ego-resilience, higher probability of dropping out of school, and higher frequency of depression and anger than their not-at-risk academic peers (see Eccles, Roeser et al., 1999). We did not have either teacher or parent ratings at this wave of data collection. Thus, just as was true in early elementary school, being at academic risk in terms of one's academic ability self-concepts is linked with also being at risk on a wide range of other indicators of developmental well-being.

Next, we used these risk scores to identify different patterns of changes in risk status across the years that span middle childhood to early adolescence. To do this, we grouped children into four "academic risk trajectory" groups. These included children who were or were not at risk at both times, children who evidenced academic risk early on but not later, and children who did not evidence academic risk early on but did so later. Sixty-two percent remained in the same risk category across time. Nonetheless, the Chi-squared statistic for this two by two table was significant (x2 [1,289] = 17.85, p = .001), indicating significant instability in this matrix as well. Twenty-eight percent moved from at-risk to the not-at-risk category and ten percent moved from the not-at-risk category to the at-risk category.

How did the changers differ from one another and from the associated stable groups? As noted above, they did not differ in their academic ability self-concepts at Time 1. There were three very important differences in these groups at Time 1. First, the increasers started with lower self-reported academic value than the stable not-at-risk group. By the second wave of data collection this difference had disappeared and by Grade 7-8, both the stable not-at-risk and the increaser groups attached higher value to academic success than the stable at-risk and the decliner group. Somewhere between the end of Grade 3-4 and Grade 7-8, the children in the Grade 7-8 at-risk group (both the decliners and the stable at-risk groups) experienced a major decline in the value they attached to doing well in school.

Second, the four groups showed different trajectories of self-worth. This is illustrated in Figure 14.4. As you can see, the decliners had the lowest levels of self-worth at the second wave of measurement; the stable not-at-risk children had the highest self-worth at this same point in time. By Time 4, the stable not-at-risk and the increasers reported similarly high self-worth, higher than both the stable at-risk and the decliner groups.

Finally, as shown in Figure 14.4, the actual school performance grades showed a pattern consistent with the motivational and mental health differences between the four groups. Although the increas-ers started with lower academic performance than the decliners and the stable not-at-risk group, by Time 3, their academic performance had caught up with the decliners. In addition, by Time 4, the increasers' academic performance had surpassed all groups except the stable not-at-risk group. Clearly, the increaser group had overcome both the motivational and performance problems they evidenced early in elementary school by Time 4. Their first grade teachers had been wrong about their potential. We do not yet know what is responsible for this turn around. We plan to explore the possibilities in the future.

Apparently, although children's confidence in their academic abilities declines over time on the average, a substantial number of children identified as at risk by their teachers due to their academic limitations appear to enter adolescence with reasonably high ability self-concepts and good academic records. We discuss exactly who these children are later, but before leaving this discussion it is important to point out that one needs to be careful about assuming that the mean level declines in academic self-concepts represent the tip of dangerous iceberg. Instead, some of this decline likely reflects the overly optimistic scores of young children. Furthermore, even though first-grade teacher ratings have emerged in several studies as significant predictors of adolescent school achievement, these data clearly indicate that a nontrivial number of the children rated by their first-grade teachers as at academic risk look fine by the time they are in middle school.










Full scale data not available for Time 1

Time 1 Grades 1-2

Time 2 Grades 2-3

Time 3 Grades 3-4

Time 4 Grades 7-8


■Stable Adjustment

Figure 14.4 Youth self-report of self esteem by academic risk trajectory.

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