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Students’ confidence for social-emotional skills is linked with their motivation and behaviour: opinion

Research on motivation has long shown that students’ perceived academic competence is critical for supporting their positive academic outcomes. Perceived academic competence refers to students’ confidence about their ability to do well in schoolwork.

More recently, researchers have started to consider students’ perceived social-emotional competence (perceived-SEC) and whether this is associated with positive social-emotional outcomes. Perceived-SEC refers to students’ confidence about their ability to act in socially and emotionally competent ways.

In a recently published study in the academic journal, Learning and Instruction, I examined perceived-SEC among 414 adolescent students. Findings showed that perceived-SEC is linked with students’ social-emotional motivation and the types of behaviours they enact.

As I explain in more detail below, helping to build perceived-SEC among students is important for social-emotional development.

What is perceived social-emotional competence?

Perceived-SEC refers to students’ confidence in their ability to act in socially and emotionally competent ways. Perceived-SEC is different from actual competence or skills and is important to examine because the perceptions we hold about our abilities have a large impact on the actions we undertake. If, for example, we feel capable to ask for help when we need it, we’re more motivated to actually ask for help.

In the study, five types of perceived-SEC were examined. Perceived competence for…

  • Assertiveness which involves feeling capable to advocate for ourselves and act as a leader.
  • Tolerance which involves feeling capable to be open-minded towards diverse perspectives and people.
  • Social Regulation which involves feeling capable to adjust or manage behaviours to meet the requirements or expectations of different situations and contexts.
  • Emotion Regulation which involves feeling capable to adjust our thoughts to experience fewer negative emotions or more positive emotions.
  • Emotional Awareness which involves feeling capable to identify and name the emotions we experience.

The aim of the study was to examine how the different types of perceived-SEC are linked with students’ autonomous social-emotional motivation and behaviours.

Autonomous social-emotional motivation involves being motivated to undertake adaptive social-emotional behaviours because we endorse the importance of those behaviours.

Prosocial behaviour involves actions that benefit others, such as helping someone in need. In contrast, conduct problems involve antisocial behaviours such as acting aggressively, disobeying rules, and stealing.

In the study, prosocial behaviour and conduct problems were reported by parents. The other factors were all reported by students.

What did the findings reveal?

The findings showed that the different types of perceived-SEC were linked with students’ motivation and the behaviours they engage in. That is, perceived-SEC was associated with greater autonomous social-emotional motivation, greater prosocial behaviour, and lower conduct problems.

These findings mean that students who feel more confident in their social emotional skills are more likely to be motivated to be a positive member of the school community and also to act in line with those values via more adaptive behaviours.

What do the results mean for teachers and schools?

The study suggests that efforts to support students’ perceived-SEC are important—that is, helping students to feel competent and capable when it comes to the five types of perceived-SEC. This is particularly important given other research showing that social-emotional skills can dip in adolescence.

Social and emotional learning programs are one way that perceived-SEC can be developed within a school’s curriculum (see www.beyou.edu.au for details of evidence-based programs).

Teachers may also want to directly support perceived-SEC in their regular teaching. A relevant strategy* to boost perceived competence for assertiveness, social regulation, and emotion regulation is to ask students to identify a situation where they could have engaged more confidently, or regulated their actions or emotions differently. Then, teachers can ask students to brainstorm how they could react differently next time and put those ideas into practice. This step can be followed with discussions to evaluate the impact of the strategy and whether it was effective, with refinements made as needed.

To build perceived competence for tolerance and emotional awareness, teachers can use literature to build students’ perspective-taking abilities and social-emotional vocabulary. Activities can include role-playing how characters might respond in different situations, or reflecting on characters’ perspectives, motives, and emotions.

Rebecca J Collie, School of Education, University of New South Wales, Sydney

*Boekaerts, M., & Pekrun, R. (2016). Emotions and emotion regulation in academic settings. In L. Corno, & E. M. Anderman (Eds.), Handbook of educational psychology (3rd ed., pp. 76–90). Routledge. 


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