Although engagement in school is important for successful learning, achievement, and graduation, studies have revealed generally declining trajectories of students’ school engagement during adolescence (Christenson, Reschly, & Wylie, 2012a; Fredricks, Filsecker, & Lawson, 2016). It has been suggested that these downward trajectories might be contingent on age-related risk factors in the school environment. This dissertation addressed significant gaps in the literature by clarifying how adolescents’ school engagement trajectories are shaped by relationships with peers, teachers, and their interplay, using samples with varying levels of ethnic diversity.
The first objective was to provide insights into the peer dynamics involved in adolescents’ school engagement trajectories while taking into account the multidimensionality of peer relationships, including dimensions such as peer status (i.e., peer likeability and popularity) and peer norms (i.e., descriptive and popularity norms). Regarding peer status, adolescents’ likeability was generally associated with more behavioral and emotional engagement in school, whereas popularity was related to less behavioral engagement and more behavioral disaffection (Chapter 2 and 5). However, likeability and popularity were also found to co-occur within adolescents, with popular-liked students reporting less behavioral engagement and more disaffection compared to adolescents with an unpopular-disliked or normative peer status (Chapter 3). With regard to peer norms, we found that descriptive norms, and not popularity norms, that reflect high levels of engagement were positively related to initial levels of adolescents’ own engagement (Chapter 6). In general, these findings underscore the importance of distinguishing between the multiple aspects of peer relationships in relation to the various school engagement dimensions.
The second objective was to shed light on how affective relationships with teachers impact adolescents’ school engagement, covering both positive and negative teacher-student relationships using student, peer, and teacher perspectives. Positive, supportive teacher-student relationships were associated with more behavioral and emotional engagement (Chapter 5 and 6). In contrast, negative, conflictual relationships with the teacher were found to hamper adolescents’ behavioral engagement (Chapter 4 and 5). These findings were congruent when using student (Chapter 6), peer (Chapter 5), and teacher (Chapter 4) perceptions of the teacher-student relationship, and denoted that also during adolescence, teachers remain important social sources of influence.
The third objective was to investigate the interplay between teachers and peers in shaping the school engagement of adolescents by examining the transactional associations between teacher-student relationships and peer status, on the one hand, and the joint or interactive effects of teacher support and peer norms on school engagement, on the other hand. No associations over time were found between teacher-student relationships and peer status, suggesting that teachers and peers tend to constitute separate social worlds in adolescence (Chapter 5). Furthermore, the role of teacher support in shaping students’ engagement was stronger in classrooms with high average levels behavioral engagement (i.e., descriptive norms), with teacher support buffering against the decline in behavioral engagement over time in these classrooms (Chapter 6).
Taken together, these findings highlight the importance of adolescents’ relationships with their peers and teachers for the development of their engagement in school. Implications for future studies and educational practice are discussed.