Academic journal article School Community Journal

Perceptions of School Experiences during the First Semester of Middle School

Academic journal article School Community Journal

Perceptions of School Experiences during the First Semester of Middle School

Article excerpt

Introduction

Starting middle school is a critically important experience during early adolescence (Holas & Huston, 2012). Youths' positive perceptions of school experiences at this time point are associated with higher grades (Ryan, Shim, & Makera, 2013) and place youth on a trajectory of greater engagement in school and fewer socioemotional difficulties during adolescence (Bond et al., 2007; Loukas & Murphy, 2007). Adolescents' interpretations of the middle school environment are highly individualistic and subjective-an environment that may feel challenging and supportive to one student may appear hostile and overwhelming to another. Therefore, it is of interest to examine adolescents' own appraisals of the middle school environment and how these may relate to the experiences adolescents have in school. With this in mind, the purpose of the current study was to examine associations between youths' perceptions of their middle school environment and three aspects of their experiences during the first few months of sixth grade: school satisfaction, school engagement, and trouble avoidance. Aspects of the school environment included student perceptions of learning climate, academic rigor, teacher support, and school safety. The moderating effects of prior grades, youth gender, and youth race/ethnicity were examined to better understand how associations between school environment and youths' perceptions of school experiences might vary for students with different characteristics and backgrounds.

Background

Symbolic Interactionism and Stage-Environment Fit Theories

Symbolic interactionism (SI) posits that behavior and satisfaction are shaped by socialization processes, which include individuals' interactions with significant and important generalized others within and across various contexts (LaRossa & Reitzes, 1993). From an SI perspective, this socialization process involves individuals' agency within environments they select and/or in which they are placed, as well as individuals' perceptions of significant and generalized others' views of them and their behavior/accomplishments (Espinoza & Juvonen, 2011). Reflected appraisals are one of the ways in which socialization environments and agents shape individuals' sense of self (Cooley, 1902 and Mead, 1934 as cited in LaRossa & Reitzes, 1993). These basic constructs and propositions guided the current study by highlighting the need to examine youths' perceptions of school climate and relationships with teachers and other students when entering middle school. The transition from elementary school to middle school creates both opportunities and vulnerabilities, and the structure and experiences within the new contexts are salient to youths' experiences of school satisfaction and behavioral engagement/success (Holas & Huston, 2012; Waters, Cross, & Shaw, 2010).

Eccles and colleagues' (Eccles et al., 1993) developmental extension of stage-environment fit theory also helped shape hypotheses. This theory emphasizes important challenges that are present in early adolescence, as well as salient characteristics of the middle school environment. Eccles et al. proposed that youths' motivation across middle school is shaped by the fit between students' needs and capacities and the supports and challenges offered by the school environment. As such, "a facilitative and developmentally appropriate environment, even at this vulnerable age, should have a positive impact on children's perceptions of themselves and their educational environment" (Eccles et al., 1993, p. 92). Negatively perceived aspects of the school environment, such as inadequate support from teachers and feelings of insecurity or unsafeness, create vulnerabilities for youth. Alspaugh (1998) documented this potential vulnerability with regards to academic success when he found that achievement scores declined more during early adolescence for youth who attended middle school when compared with youth who attended K-8th grade schools. …

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