Children's school performance and their parents' causal attributions to ability and effort: A longitudinal study

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<ul><li><p>theirildrely, theassocttribu&amp; Eccattribquen</p><p>Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 30 (2009) 1422</p><p>Contents lists available at ScienceDirect</p><p>Journal of Applied Developmental Psychologyattributions predict their children's performance (Hess, Holloway, Dickson, &amp; Price, 1984) or whether children's performancecontributes to parental causal attributions (Holloway &amp; Hess, 1985). Most studies have also examined parental attributions forolder children's performance (Cashmore &amp; Goodnow, 1986; Georgiou, 1999), although it might be assumed that parents' causalattributions begin to evolve in the early school years (Miller, 1995). Consequently, the aim of the present study was to investigatethe extent to which children's academic performance predicts their parents' causal attributions concerning the causes of academicsuccess and failure, and the extent to which parents' attributions predict their children's subsequent performance.</p><p>1.1. Parental causal attributionsrelationships between parental causalbefore predicting it by another. ConseThe attribution theory of achievementwhich parents explain and evaluate their ch</p><p> This study is a part of the ongoing Jyvskyl Entr778230). We would like to express our gratitude to allteachers and local school authorities. Corresponding author. Department of Psychology</p><p>E-mail address: natale@psyka.jyu. (K. Natale).</p><p>0193-3973/$ see front matter 2008 Elsevier Inc. Adoi:10.1016/j.appdev.2008.10.002utions and children's performance, by controlling for the previous levels of the variabletly, little is known about the direction of inuence, that is, whether parents' causalperformance, the more the parents aDunton, McDevitt, &amp; Hess, 1988; Yee 2008 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.</p><p>children's academic outcomes are important as they may have an impact on parents'n's academic skills. Such parental conceptions are then likely to impact their behaviordevelopment of children's academic skills (Miller, 1995). Previous research has showniated with children's performance at school: the higher the level of the children'ste success to ability, and the less they attribute it to effort (Holloway &amp; Hess, 1985;les, 1988). However, only a few longitudinal studies have examined the cross-lagged1. Introduction</p><p>Parents' beliefs about the causes ofgeneral conceptions regarding their chtoward their children, and consequentthat parents' causal attributions areChildren's school performance and their parents' causal attributions toability and effort: A longitudinal study</p><p>Katja Natale, Kaisa Aunola, Jari-Erik NurmiDepartment of Psychology, University of Jyvskyl, Finland</p><p>a r t i c l e i n f o a b s t r a c t</p><p>Available online 31 October 2008 The present study investigated the cross-lagged associations between parents' attributions ofability and effort concerning their children's success and failure, and children's academicperformance in kindergarten and primary school. Two hundred seven children and theirparents were followed over three years. The parents completed a questionnaire concerningtheir causal attributions for their children's performance three times. Children's performance inmathematics and reading was tested twice a year. The results showed that children's highacademic performance predicted parents' attributions of their children's success to ability,whereas low performance predicted parental attributions to effort. Furthermore, parentalattributions to ability were positively related to higher levels of later academic performance.</p><p>Keywords:Parents' causal attributionsAcademic performanceSchool transitionAbilityEffortmotivation (Weiner, 1985, 1986, 1992) has been extended to encompass the ways inildren's academic performance. The causal attributions used by parents have typically</p><p>ance into Primary School (JEPS) study, and was funded by a grant from the Finnish Academy (63099 andthe children and their parents participating in this study, as well as their kindergarten and primary schoo</p><p>(Agora), University of Jyvskyl, P.O. Box 35, 40014 Jyvskyl, Finland.</p><p>ll rights reserved.l</p></li><li><p>15K. Natale et al. / Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 30 (2009) 1422been divided into those that refer to a child's ability and effort, and those that refer to task difculty and teachers' competence(Cashmore &amp; Goodnow,1986; Yee &amp; Eccles, 1988). Such causal attributions vary along three dimensions: locus (internal external),stability (stable unstable), and controllability (controllable uncontrollable; Weiner, 1986). Ability and effort, for example, areboth internal causal attributions whereas task difculty and teachers' competence are external attributions. Ability and effort differon the stability and controllability dimension, however. Ability is a stable characteristic and is beyond the control of the child. Incontrast, effort is unstable across settings, and is controllable by the child. Task difculty and teachers' competence, in turn, areboth stable and uncontrollable properties. Empirical studies have shown that parents most often attribute their children's successand failure to either ability or effort rather than to task difculty or teacher competence (Cashmore &amp; Goodnow,1986; Cote &amp; Azar,1997; Georgiou,1999; Holloway &amp; Hess,1985; Kinlaw, Kurtz-Costes, &amp; Goldman-Fraser, 2001; Rty, Vnsk, Kasanen &amp; Krkkinen,2002; Rytknen, Aunola, &amp; Nurmi, 2005; Stevenson &amp; Lee, 1990; Yee &amp; Eccles, 1988). Hence, the present study focused onexamining the relation between these two causal attributions and academic performance.</p><p>Researchers have found associations between children's performance and parents' causal attributions. For example, Yee andEccles (1988) found that parents tended to attribute their children's current mathematics success to effort when that performancewas average or low, and attributed it to ability when their performance was high. For failure, effort was perceived as the mostimportant cause. There is also evidence from longitudinal studies that children's past performance predicts their parents' causalattributions. When children perform well at school, parents are likely to attribute their success to a stable cause, such as ability(Dunton et al., 1988; Holloway &amp; Hess, 1985; Rytknen et al., 2005). By contrast, failure is typically attributed to an unstable cause,such as effort (Holloway &amp; Hess, 1985).</p><p>Previous research on the relationship between parental attributions and children's academic performance has several majorlimitations. First, although it has been shown that children's school performance predicts their parents' causal attributions, thoselongitudinal studies showing this relation have not controlled for prior parental attributions. Second, few studies have examinedthe possibility that the relation between parental causal attributions and child academic performance might be bidirectional, thatis, parental attributions might predict the child's performance (Hess et al., 1984). Parents' causal attributions may, for example,inuence their expectations and aspirations concerning their children's performance, as well as the support, advice, and guidancethey give to their children (Murphey, 1992). Parents' attributions may also have an impact on their children's behavior at school. Ithas been shown, for example, that adult praise of intelligence increases children's performance-orientation, whereas praise foreffort promotes their mastery-orientation strategies (Kamins &amp; Dweck, 1999; Mueller &amp; Dweck, 1998). Such changes in children'sconceptions may in turn have an impact on their subsequent performance.</p><p>A further limitation of earlier research is that most studies have examined older school-aged children (Georgiou, 1999; Yee &amp;Eccles, 1988). It might be assumed, however, that parents' causal attributions are established when children are young (Miller,1995). Moreover, the role of parents' causal attributions in their children's performance may change as children grow older, asmany changes take place in children's school-related activities and also in parentchild relations. A particularly important periodfor the formation of parents' causal attributions, and their impact on children's performance, is the time when their children beginto be faced with the challenge of learning basic academic skills, i.e., the transition from kindergarten to primary school. During thisperiod parents receive increasing amounts of information and feedback concerning their children's progress in learning.</p><p>Thus, the goal of the present study was to investigate the cross-lagged associations between parents' causal attributions, andtheir children's academic performance during their transition to primary school. Using longitudinal data in an academic setting,this study examined the extent to which children's school performance predicts their parents' causal attributions, the extent towhich parental causal attributions predict the child's performance, and whether these prospective associations show reciprocalpatterns, consisting of both kinds of cross-lagged associations (Pomerantz &amp; Eaton, 2001).</p><p>Previous studies have also shown that parents' causal attributions vary with the child's sex. For example, mothers typicallythink that their sons succeed in mathematics because of their ability, but that their daughters' success is due to effort (e.g., Duntonet al., 1988; Eccles, Jacobs, &amp; Harold, 1990; Lummis &amp; Stevenson, 1990; Rty et al., 2002; Yee &amp; Eccles, 1988). Not all studies,however, have found sex differences. For example, Cashmore and Goodnow (1986) and Rytknen et al. (2005) found that bothparents attributed their daughters' and sons' success to ability. Because the previous research on sex differences has shownmixedndings, the present study also investigated this topic.</p><p>In Finland, primary school with formal teaching begins one year later than in the United States. Children start their schoolcareer in the year of their 7th birthday. Before primary school, children normally participate in one year of kindergarten, which isequivalent to kindergarten in the U.S. In Finland, kindergarten is not compulsory, but almost all children attend. In Finnishkindergarten there is no formal teaching, but children are encouraged to play with letters and numbers, and concepts related toreading and mathematics. In kindergarten, parents are seldom provided with feedback on their children's progress in learning.However, when they move to primary school, parents typically meet children's teachers and discuss their children's progress withthem. Although grades are not given during the rst two school years of primary school, teachers give written reports of children'sprogress in the major subjects (see Aunola, Leskinen, Lerkkanen, &amp; Nurmi, 2004).</p><p>1.2. Research questions</p><p>The present study examined the following research questions:</p><p>(1) Does children's academic performance predict their parents' causal attributions of ability and effort concerning theirchildren's success and failure at school?</p></li><li><p>16 K. Natale et al. / Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 30 (2009) 1422(2) Do parents' attributions of ability and effort concerning their children's success and failure at school predict their children'ssubsequent academic performance?</p><p>(3) Are these lagged relationships different for the parents of boys and the parents of girls?</p><p>2. Method</p><p>2.1. Participants and procedure</p><p>This study was part of the Jyvskyl Entrance into Primary School (JEPS) Study (Nurmi &amp; Aunola, 1999). The original sampleconsisted of all the children born in 1993 (N = 210) and resident in twomedium-sized communities (population 5019 and 8407) inCentral Finland and their parents. These two communities were selected because they included both suburban and rural areas. Thefact that all the children in the two communities were examined helped keep attrition rates low. Parental permission to gather datafrom their children was obtained in August 1999. Parents of 207 children (111 boys, 96 girls) who were 56 years old (M = 75month, SD = 3.30 month) at the baseline gave permission.</p><p>Information about the children's performance in reading and mathematics was gathered on six occasions: at the beginning(Time 1) and at the end (Time 3) of their kindergarten year, in October 1999 (N = 207) and April 2000 (N = 199); at the beginning(Time 4) and at the end (Time 6) of their rst primary school year, in October 2000 (N = 196) and April 2001 (N = 196); and at thebeginning (Time 7) and at the end (Time 9) of their second primary school year, in October 2001 (N = 197) and March 2002 (N =196). The attrition of 11 childrenwas due to the fact that the families of these childrenmoved to other districts andwere not able tocontinue participation in the study later on.</p><p>All tests were carried out by trained investigators and took place in a suitable room in the kindergarten or primary schoolpremises. Childrenwhowere absent from the school on the day of testing (e.g., because of illness) were tested as soon as they wereback at school again. Children's math performance was assessed in an individual testing situation at Times 1 and 3, and in a groupsituation in the classroom at Times 49. Of the tests assessing children's reading performance only the Sentence Comprehensiontest was conducted in a group situation in the classroom at Times 49. Other reading performance tests were performed in anindividual testing situation at all measurement points. For the kindergarten assessment, the children came from 21 kindergartengroups with 3 to 21 (M = 9.8) children from any one kindergarten. In the rst grade, the children came from 17 classes with 2 to 26(M = 12.0) children from any one class. In the second grade, the children came from 19 classes with 6 to 30 children (M = 17.2) fromany one class. The reason for the low numbers of participants in some of the classes was that in some schools children fromdifferent grades were combined to form a single class and in others not. Combining grades is common practice in Finland in themore remote small schools where there are few children in any one grade.</p><p>A causal attribution questionnaire was mailed to parents on three occasions (Times 2, 5, and 8) during kindergarten (December1999), therst primary school year (December 2000), and the secondprimary school year (December 2001).Mothers and fatherswereasked to answer the questionnaires independently and without conferring. Overall 189, 170 and 178 mothers, and 164, 147 and 160fathers answered the causal attribution questionnaires in the kindergarten, rst and second years of primary school, respectively.</p><p>Families most often included two parents and their children (83%), either the mother or the father living with her/his new spouseand their children (10%); or a single mother with her child/children (7%). The number of children per family ranged from 1 to 11 (M =2.80, SD = 1.50). A total of 18% of themothers and 14% of the fathers had a degree from an institution of university standing, 68% of themothers and 75% of the fathers had a qualication from an i...</p></li></ul>