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Exploring Psychological Underpinnings of Student Engagement in At-Risk Youth Attending An Alternative High School

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Title: Exploring Psychological Underpinnings of Student Engagement in At-Risk Youth Attending An Alternative High School
Author: Durisko, Sophia
Department: Department of Psychology
Program: Psychology
Advisor: Lumley, Margaret
Abstract: Youth who struggle to succeed in school, often due to substantial social risk factors, poor mental health, learning disabilities, and disruptive behaviour are considered poorly engaged and at risk of not completing school. Educators and researchers are increasingly interested in the concept of student engagement and its relevance to academic outcomes, school completion, and overall well-being. This dissertation focuses on a sample of at-risk high school students attending one alternative high school that employs a strength-based approach to education. A mixed-methods approach is utilized to develop a nuanced understanding of intra-individual characteristics and school environment factors that may underlie the student engagement of these youth. Using student-reported peak-and-valley experiences on a school timeline graph, factors that contribute to and take away from student engagement across the students’ school experiences were examined. Overall findings suggest that school connection and social and emotional stability contributed to student engagement, whereas school problems and social and emotional difficulties contributed to gradual disengagement. Next, qualitative in-depth student interviews were conducted to explore current student engagement, with youth reporting on their past and current school experiences to identify the school factors in an alternative setting that may facilitate re-engagement. Findings highlight the importance of positive teacher-student relationships, a sense of community, flexible structure, holistic support, and making progress in an alternative setting. This dissertation also quantitatively assessed intra-individual factors underlying the process of student engagement. Positive schemas were found to mediate the relationship between student life satisfaction and student engagement, as well as the relation between psychological distress and student engagement. Furthermore, longitudinal analyses were performed to determine changes that take place regarding well-being and student engagement following one year in the alternative program. Life satisfaction was found to increase after one year in the alternative setting. Student positive schemas and psychological inflexibility were also found to predict student engagement one year later. Taken together, these results highlight the importance of considering both contextual (e.g., school practices) and intra-individual (e.g., self-beliefs) factors that impact student engagement. The study also supports the use of strength-based education and alternative programming in promoting positive outcomes for students most at-risk.
Date: 2019-09-25
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