How do empathy, effortful control, and middle school students’ perceptions and feelings about school affect their aggression? Examining moderation and mediation models of social-emotional learning and behavior

Batanova, Milena Dentcheva
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According to the social and emotional learning (SEL) prevention framework, individual core competencies, the school environment, and students’ attachment or connectedness to the school play various roles in reducing their risky or problem behaviors, such as aggression. The current dissertation involved two studies testing various components of the SEL framework. Specific constructs of interest included individual competencies of social awareness (empathic concern and perspective taking) and self-management (effortful control), four mostly interpersonal aspects of school climate (perceived friction, cohesion, competition, and satisfaction with classes), school connectedness, and both overt and relational forms of aggression. Data were drawn from an existing prospective study of early adolescents, comprised of two waves with one year between each wave. Total participants were 500 10- to 14-year old students (54% female; 78% European American) who completed the first wave of a self-report survey in 6th and 7th grades. The first study examined the unique and interrelated effects of the individual competencies and perceptions of school climate on both subsequent forms of aggression across the one-year period. Study findings indicated that across gender, empathic concern was the only competency to reduce both overt and relational aggression one year later. None of the school climate perceptions made a unique contribution to subsequent aggression, nor did they show protective functions. Rather, several instances of cumulative advantage were observed, whereby positive school climate perceptions only reduced aggression for students who already had high levels of empathic concern. Unexpectedly, high levels of perceived cohesion among students contributed to higher levels of overt aggression for boys already high in effortful control. The second study then sought to examine school connectedness as a mediator that could further explain how students’ competencies and perceptions of school climate contribute to both forms of aggression. Although there were no mediation effects across gender, post-hoc analyses confirmed some hypotheses but raised questions regarding the direction and temporality of associations for others. Overall, the findings of both studies provide general support for some of the proposed relationships by the SEL framework and highlight the need for nuanced investigations when seeking to reduce different forms of aggression during middle school.