New research highlights how relationships support young people

Screen Shot 2013-09-10 at 10.35.05 AMSummarized by UMass Boston doctoral student Stella Kanchewa, M.A.

Guay, F., Ratelle, C., Larose, S., Vallerand, R.J., & Vitaro, F. (2013). The number of autonomy-supportive relationships: Are more relationships better for motivation, perceived competence, and achievement? Contemporary Educational Psychology, 38, 375-382.

Introduction: Self-determination theory (SDT) suggests that students are “…inherently self-motivated to master their environment. They are eager to learn, develop their skills, and assimilate school values” (p.375-376). Furthermore, significant adults within students’ lives (e.g., parents/guardians and teachers) play a role in harnessing this inherent self-motivation by supporting autonomous regulation, or internalized motivation(s). Autonomy-supportive behaviors are defined as “…recognizing others’ perspectives, offering them opportunities to feel volitional, providing them with meaningful rationale for performing less interesting activities, and avoiding control and punishments to motivate  behaviors” (p.375). Autonomy support from significant adults has implications for students’ learning and academic achievement.

This study sought to a) identify distinct groups of students based on varying levels of autonomy support received from parents and a teacher b) compare motivation and academic outcomes of students across the distinct groups c) explore whether having more autonomy supporting relationships results in greater outcomes (i.e., is there an incremental effect or does having at least one supportive relationship suffice).


This study included 4,000 students, a random, stratified sample representative of the 430,000 public high school students (grades 7-9) in the province of Quebec, Canada. Students and parents completed questionnaires. Students’ questionnaires included the following measures:

  • Perceived academic competence: “students’ perceptions of their abilities at school” (p. 376)
  • Autonomous and controlled academic regulations: students’ reasons or motivations for attending French class, including internal and external regulators of this behavior (presented here in order of increasing autonomy):
    • Intrinsic regulation: learning for knowledge, e.g., “because I experience pleasure and satisfaction while learning new things”
    • Identified regulation: deemed as important for a self-identified goal, e.g., “because eventually it will enable me to enter the job market in a field that I like”
    • Introjected regulation: partly self-identified but largely around concerns of esteem, e.g., “to show myself that I am an intelligent person”
    • External regulation: reward and punishment based, e.g., “in order to have a better salary later on”
  • Perception of autonomy support by parents and teacher: students’ perception of how much their mother, father and French teacher supported academic autonomy, e.g., “with respect to my studies, I feel that my mother/father/teacher provides me with choices and options” (p. 377).
  • Academic achievement: grade percentage in French class from school transcripts

The authors used latent profile analysis, a statistical approach that identifies groups among the students based on similar response patterns regarding students’ perceptions of autonomy support received from their parents and teacher.

Results: A three group solution emerged as the best statistical fit.

  • Group 1 (“low”) reported low autonomy support from all three adults (17% of students).
  • Group 2 (“father low”) reported low support from fathers and moderate support from mother and teacher (7% of students).
  • Group 3 (“moderate”) perceived moderate autonomy support from both parents and teacher (76% of students).

Above and beyond the influence of gender, age and family structure, students in group 2 (father low) and group 3 (moderate) perceived themselves as more academically competent, and reported higher autonomous and external regulation. Additionally, students who reported autonomy support from all three adults had higher achievement.

Conclusions and Implications: In this study, distinct groups of perceived autonomy support received from parents and a teacher were found among students, which in turn was associated with differences in perceived competence, regulatory abilities and achievement. In addition, the findings suggest that autonomy support from few relative to many sources has differential effects depending on the outcome of interest. Specifically, for outcomes related to competence autonomous regulation having a few supports relates to student improvement, whereas for outcomes related to achievement having multiple supports is incrementally beneficial.

The findings from this study, if replicated, have implications for youth mentoring, specifically the potential role of mentors as additional source of autonomy support. Through structured activities and other “teachable moments”, mentors have the opportunity to foster and reinforce more internal and autonomous regulation/motivation. Interestingly, in this study, students who had multiple sources of autonomy support had the greatest achievement. Mentors, when connected to other adults within youths’ lives (e.g., parents/guardians and teachers) have the greatest capacity to influence concrete academic outcomes – this speaks to the importance of encouraging mentors to connect with other adults within youths’ social network,  as well as structuring opportunities for greater connection (e.g., attending parent-teacher meetings, etc).