The Role of Social and Emotional Competencies in Academic Efficacy Beliefs, Emotional Distress, and Academic Stress: A Study Among Lower Secondary School Students


social competencies, emotional competencies, academic stress, emotional distress, lower seconday school, academic efficacy beliefs, sosial kompetanse, emosjonell kompetanse, akademisk stress


Background: Adolescence is a time of significant social and emotional changes, including changes in school and learning environment. Adolescents report high levels of academic stress, and mental health difficulties typically surface during this period of life. Furthermore, adolescents’ expectancies, beliefs, and persistence regarding their schoolwork tend to decrease in lower secondary school. The stimulation of students’ social and emotional competencies (SECs) has previously been shown to lower emotional distress, nurture academic performance, and build resilience in students. However, research on stimulating SEC has primarily been conducted among younger students. Moreover, relatively little is known about how specific SECs is related to academic efficacy beliefs (AEB), emotional distress, and academic stress during early adolescence.

Aims: The overall aims and main research question of this thesis was how students perceive their SECs, and how they are related to AEB and emotional distress, as well as how SECs are experienced and whether they help coping with academic stress during the first year of lower secondary school. Moreover, this thesis is article based and consists of three studies:

Study I had a cross sectional design and aimed to investigate the associations between relationship skills, emotional regulation, and structuring of school and homework with AEB and emotional distress. AEB had the role of an intermediate variable. Study II had a longitudinal design and investigated intraindividual changes in perceived relationship skills, emotional regulation, AEB, as well as perceived classroom relations i.e., emotional support from teachers, and collaborative peer relations changed during the first year of lower secondary school. This study also tested relationships between these changes by use of two structural models, where perceived relationship skills and emotional regulation through cognitive reappraisal were independent variables, perceived classroom relations intermediate variables and AEB dependent variable. Study III used focus group interviews to explore how an educational intervention addressing relationship skills, emotional regulation, mindfulness, growth mindset, and problem-solving was experienced by eighth grade students, and particularly to what degree the different components of the intervention helped students cope with academic stress.

Methods: Studies I and II were quantitative and used students’ responses to questionnaires as data sources. Survey data was collected at two time-points: T1 in September 2018 and T2 in March 2019 in grade eight. Study I used data from T1 and structural equation modeling (SEM) with latent variables implemented as the analytic tool. Multi-group analysis was used to inspect whether gender differences moderated the structural associations. Study II used data from the T1 and T2, and a latent change score (LCS) approach was implemented. Study III was a qualitative embedded single case study in which data were derived from three focus groups. The informants were adolescent students who had participated in ROBUST. A qualitative conventional content analysis was used to analyze the data.

Results: In study I, relationship skills, emotional regulation, planning schoolwork, and structuring homework were cross sectionally associated with AEB. Moreover, high perceived relationship skills, emotional regulation, and AEB were associated with low emotional distress. Indirect associations may reflect that these SECs could play a role in reducing emotional distress via improving AEB. Perceived good relationship skills, emotional regulation, and structuring of homework had a stronger association with less emotional distress among females than male student. Emotional regulation and structuring of homework were also more strongly related to AEB among adolescent females.

Study II’s results indicate that relationship skills, emotional regulation, AEB, and classroom relations on average decrease during the first year of lower secondary school. The strongest decline was observed for emotional support from teachers and collaborative peer relations, whereas the weakest decline occurred for perceived relationship skills and emotional regulation. However, significant individual variations in change were found for all variables. The LCS structural model showed a strong and direct association between intra individual changes in emotional regulation and AEB. Links also occurred for changes in relationship skills with collaborative peer relations and emotional support from teachers and via this with AEB. Indirect associations were found for the SECs via classroom relations with AEB.

Results from study III suggest that students perceived the SECs mindfulness, problem-solving, and growth mindset as helpful means of coping with academic stress. Emotional regulation and relationship skills were perceived as more challenging to utilize.
Conclusions: Findings of this thesis suggest that the SECs relationship skills, emotional regulation through cognitive reappraisal, AEB, and classroom relations all decrease on average during the first year of lower secondary school. This further indicate a need for nurturing students SECs to support a more positive development. In this regard, students perceived relationship skills, emotional regulation through cognitive reappraisal, and planning and structuring schoolwork are likely to have a role in students’ AEB in the beginning of lower secondary school. Moreover, positive AEB, perceived relationship skills, and emotional regulation may all serve to reduce emotional distress. Added to this, the findings also propose that during the first year of lower secondary school adequate emotional regulation through cognitive reappraisal may engender growth in AEB, and more positive development of relationship skills can enhance AEB via good collaborative peer relations and emotional support from teachers. Students’ relationship skills may support the establishment of quality relations in the classroom that promote AEB and protect against emotional distress. Emotional regulation through cognitive reappraisal may aid in students’ academic learning activities and facilitate more optimistic emotions that bolster their AEB. This further suggests that stimulating students’ emotional regulation and relationship skills is key for growth in adolescents’ AEB.

However, a part of this thesis involved the development, piloting and adjustment of an educational intervention that stimulated students SECs in lower secondary school. The students who participated perceived the SECs emotional regulation and relationship skills as more challenging to utilize. Emotional experiences may be stronger and more negative in adolescence. Social relations may also be perceived as more demanding, and together the findings may reflect a need for adolescent students to gain more practical experience of these SECs to be perceived as supportive. Nevertheless, the young perceived mindfulness as reducing negative thinking about academic work by promoting a more accepting attitude toward stressful experiences. Problem-solving was perceived as supporting active efforts to cope with academic stress, and a growth mindset may have the potential to enhance optimism that supports beliefs about coping with challenging academic work. Thus, the findings support the notion that nurturing SECs can build resilience in adolescent students.

Author Biography

Lene Vestad

Associate professor
Norwegian Centre for Learning Environment and Behavioural Research in Education
Faculty of Arts and Education
University in Stavanger


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