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The benefits of autonomy support for adolescents with severe emotional and behavioral problems

Abstract

The benefits of autonomy support in the domain of education have been well established within the general population, but have yet to be demonstrated within clinical populations. The present study investigated the benefits of an autonomy-supportive interpersonal style on teenage girls’ internalization of a tedious clinical workshop and their subjective experience during this task. Participants were female teenagers placed in a social rehabilitation center for their severe emotional and behavioral problems (n = 29). An experimental design allowed comparing the impact of learning a tedious, but important workshop with or without autonomy support on internalization and experiential outcomes. Results demonstrate that autonomy support leads to higher perceived task’s value, task liking as well as less negative affect compared to a condition without autonomy-support. Participants in the autonomy-supportive condition also perceived the instructor as more competent. By uncovering benefits of autonomy support to a clinical population of adolescents, the present study supports self-determination theory’s tenet that the benefits of autonomy support are universal.

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Notes

  1. In Quebec (Canada), Youth and Family Centres (YFCs; Centres Jeunesse) provide psychosocial, rehabilitation, and social integration services in relation to The Youth Protection Act (81 %), The Youth Criminal Justice Act (14 %) and An Act respecting Health Services and Social Services (4 %; Centre Jeunesse de Montréal 2011). These laws and their related services all entail to a same purpose, to allow children and adolescents to live and grow in safe and stable environments by providing services related to child placement, adoption/adoption disclosure, expertise to court and mediation. Quebec has a unique and complex social rehabilitation system which may defer from those encountered in the rest of Canada and the United States. Social Rehabilitation Centers (SRCs) are residential placement settings that cannot be compared to detention centers, foster homes/groups or in-patient mental hospitals because it has goals of protection (individuals and society) and treatment.

  2. Groups were assigned to a workshop time according to availabilities. In order to facilitate the instructor’s script fidelity, the schedule was established so that only one interpersonal style (AS or NoAS) would be used within a testing day. The experimental condition of the day was decided by chance for the first day and alternated subsequently.

  3. Despite the presence of orders and evaluative feedback, the NoAS experimental condition is conceptualized here as typical/neutral because this language is considered mainstream and widely used during learning activities. Controlling contexts are not only defined by the use of controlling language, but also by the use of expected rewards, intrusion, pressure, threats and guilt induction (Reeve 2009). None of those elements were present in the NoAS condition. Therefore, though in this study requests had to be made and limits set, we believe that the use of mainstream language without the addition of controlling components makes this condition a “neutral” or “typical” one.

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Acknowledgments

This research was supported in part by grants from the Fonds Québécois de Recherche sur la Société et la Culture (FQRSC) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). We thank the Centre Jeunesse de Montréal—Institut Universitaire—for their partnership in the project.

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Correspondence to Mireille Joussemet.

Appendix

Appendix

For informational purpose, items from the scales used to measure the task value, task liking, feeling of autonomy and affect appear below (items were freely translated from French to English). The French versions can be obtained from the corresponding author.

Task value
The topic was meaningful to me
It was important to me that I thoroughly understand the material covered
I thought that the content of the lesson could be useful in real life
This activity was personally important to me
I consider that doing this activity was worthless to me (Reversed)
Task liking
I appreciated solving dilemmas
I found the activity interesting
I did this activity because it was fun for me
I found the dilemmas interesting
Autonomy
During the activity…
I felt free to be myself
I felt like I was in jail (reverse scored)
I felt free to express my ideas and my opinions
I felt suppressed (reverse scored)
I felt I had to do what I was told (reverse scored)
I felt free to do the tasks at my how pace and according to my values
I felt pressured (reverse scored)
I felt there was space for my ideas
I felt I had choices about how to apply the learned skills
Affect
During the activity, I felt…
Positive affect:
Happy In a good shape
Energetic Alert
Good mood Interested
Attentive Cheerful
Enthusiastic Glad
Negative affect:
Angry Sad
Impatient Worried
Nervous Stressed
Frustrated Disappointed
Anxious Depressed

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Savard, A., Joussemet, M., Emond Pelletier, J. et al. The benefits of autonomy support for adolescents with severe emotional and behavioral problems. Motiv Emot 37, 688–700 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-013-9351-8

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Keywords

  • Autonomy support
  • Internalization
  • Well-being
  • Motivation
  • Clinical population