Adolescents’ future academic prospects : predictors and mental health outcomes

University dissertation from Stockholm : Karolinska Institutet, Dept of Public Health Sciences

Abstract: In the context of a changing labor market and increasing demand for higher education, young people may face challenges and uncertainty about their futures. Sweden has also faced many changes to the education system, as well as decreasing trends in youth mental health, especially among girls. These factors may affect how young people perceive their futures, and how they envision their future academic prospects. While academic stress is generally perceived as negative, motivation and goal setting tend to correlate with better achievement and well-being. Academic expectations refer to how far people believe that they will go in school, while academic aspirations refer to how far people want to go in school. Less is known about how these perceived future academic prospects relate to mental health. Additionally, little is known about which modifiable factors may predict future academic prospects. This thesis aims to explore the relationship between future academic prospects and mental health among adolescents and to better understand the contextual and individual factors which predict the formation of adolescents’ future academic prospects. The studies included in this thesis are based on the KUPOL (a Swedish acronym for Knowledge about Young People’s Mental Health and Learning) cohort study. Adolescents (age 13 at baseline) answered questionnaires during three annual waves encompassing measures of their academic expectations, aspirations, and future goals, as well as their mental health, sense of identity, relationships with their parents, and academic achievement. Parents of the adolescents also answered questionnaires encompassing measures of their academic expectations and aspirations for their children as well as sociodemographic characteristics. School-level data were also collected at the schools that the adolescents attended using anonymous questionnaires measuring the pedagogical and social climate of the school given to teachers and 9th grade students. Adolescents future aspirations and goals at baseline were found to be associated with better mental health in terms of both internalizing and externalizing symptoms at one year follow up (study I). This relationship did not appear to differ according to gender. Similarly, parents’ expectations for their adolescent children to attend university, as well as the agreement of parents’ and children’s university expectations were associated with a decreased likelihood of the adolescent experiencing problematic externalizing symptoms (study II), though these associations were not found when considering internalizing symptoms. Furthermore, teacher-rated measures of the overall school climate, as well as the specific domains of academic and disciplinary expectations and support for students were associated with an increased likelihood of the adolescents aspiring to university (study III), but no such relationships were apparent when using the student report of the school climate measures. Finally, adolescents’ academic grades, engagement and parental engagement were associated with adolescents resolving their uncertainty in expectations between 7th and 9th grade, while academic grades, engagement, and parental expectations were associated with adolescents raising their expectations between 7th and 9th grade (study IV). Identity synthesis and mental health, however, were not associated with either of these outcomes. In light of these findings, it is important to find ways to encourage adolescent future prospects at the family and school level with the potential to improve their mental health.

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