The Effect of Self-Control on Academic Success in Mexican-Origin Youth

Wiebke Bleidorn is an associate professor of psychology. Her project, which explores the consequences for youths of failure to self-regulate, was awarded an ISS Individual Research Grant in 2016. She provided this update in June 2017.

How did this project come about? What inspired it?

Personality traits, like self-control, have a widespread impact on adjustment and well-being across the lifespan. Individuals who are more self-controlled often experience better physical and mental health, higher educational and occupational attainment, and more satisfaction in interpersonal relationships, whereas individuals who are less able to control their behaviors and emotions often experience many problems in these domains. Given the importance of self-control, we were particularly interested in knowing how it may impact academic success and failure. The school context is, arguably, one of the most important environments in developing children and adolescents. Youth not only get an education at school, but they also learn to have responsibilities, gain the capacity to navigate social relationships (including relations with peers and authority figures), and acquire the ability to behave in a structured setting. Many researchers have studied factors that promote school achievement and performance among adolescents; however, less is known about how we can prevent youth from experiencing behavioral problems in the school context. Thus, we focused on how youths failure to self-regulate can lead them to get suspended or expelled from school, to act out in the classroom, or to skip school altogether. 

How has it progressed since you received an ISS Individual Research Grant?

Since receiving the ISS Individual Research Grant, we have been able to investigate our research questions in a longitudinal study of Mexican-origin youth, the California Families Project. The study has followed adolescents and their parents for about 10 years, starting when the youth were in the 5th grade. With this kind of data, we are able to examine how poor self-control predisposes youth to experience problems in the school context, from 5th to 11th grade. Additionally, we were also able to investigate whether these problems in school can subsequently shape youths’ ability to self-regulate.

What notable or surprising findings can you share at this point?

Interestingly, we have found that adolescents with poorer self-control were more likely to experience an increasing number of school behavioral problems (getting suspended/expelled, misbehaving in the classroom, skipping school) from 5th to 11th grade. Moreover, these problems in the school context gradually eroded adolescents' abilities to be self-controlled. Or, in other words, poor self-control and school behavioral problems mutually reinforce each other over time. More practically, these findings have two important implications. First, by knowing that poor self-control has dire consequences in the school environment, future empirical and applied research may be able to examine self-control as a point of intervention to reduce the likelihood of school problems and improve the welfare of adolescents. Second, the results showing that the experience of school problems leads youth to have subsequent declines in self-control suggests that being selected out of the school environment may be particularly detrimental for youth adjustment. For example, youth who get suspended from, or skip, school may be even less self-regulated because they are no longer in the structured school setting, and as a result, have the ability to engage in many other forms of problematic behaviors outside of school (like doing drugs, stealing, etc.). This implies that maintaining these troubled youths in the structured school setting may be crucial for not perpetuating a cascade of problematic behaviors.

What is the next step?

As a next step, we are conducting follow-up analyses to examine whether characteristics of the school may intensify the associations between poor self-control and school problems. For example, it is possible that attending a violent school makes it easier for dysregulated youth to engage in problematic behavior and get suspended or expelled.

We are currently writing an empirical article on the findings from this project, which we are planning to submit for publication by the end of the summer.

Learn more about Wiebke Bleidorn.