Support for autonomy, competence and relatedness using school – community collaboration as a systematic ESL prevention tool

Thursday 23 July 2015, by Ana Kozina

The local community (school–community collaboration) can play an important role in preventing ESL by supporting a student’s basic psychological needs: autonomy, competence and relatedness. Autonomy, competence and relatedness are the building stones of intrinsic motivation that is crucial for students to stay in school.

The paper analyses the role of the local community in ESL – with a special focus on school–community collaboration and based on Self-Determination Theory (SDT) (Ryan & Deci, 2002). School–community collaboration occurs when groups or agencies come together to establish an educative community. The educative community is composed of a multitude of educating entities such as school, home, places of worship, the media, museums, libraries, community agencies, and businesses (Drew, 2004). When these entities take part in a common goal (education), students may see more meaning in education and be less likely to leave school. Some of the positive results found at schools practising extensive community–school collaboration are improved reading and maths performance, better attendance rates, a decrease in suspension rates, and a reduction in the ESL rate (Schargel & Smink, 2004). In the paper, we propose a model in which we use school–community collaboration as a possible tool for supporting psychological needs and positive effects on achievement and attendance rates using Self-Determination Theory – SDT (Ryan & Deci, 2002). Self-determination theory argues that people have three basic psychological needs: (i) the need for autonomy; (ii) the need for competence; and (iii) the need for relatedness. All three are discussed in this contribution and the role of school–community collaboration in satisfying these needs is explained. It has so far been established that when these psychological needs are met in students their well-being increases significantly, their knowledge is conceptual and ESL is less common (Ryan & Deci, 2009). There have also been more specific connections between an autonomy supporting environment and a low level of ESL (Alivernini & Lucidi, 2011). Our underlying assumption presented in the paper is that positive and ongoing school–community collaboration fosters students’ autonomy, competence and relatedness, which consequently prevent ESL.


The research on ESL reveals that one of the crucial factors influencing a student’s decision to leave school is a (lack of) motivation (Vallerand, Fortier, & Guay, 1997). Individual differences in academic achievement (and persistence to stay in school) can be significantly predicted by students’ self-efficacy beliefs and strong motivation to succeed in school (Motti-Stefanidi & Masten, 2013). The level as well as the quality (intrinsic or extrinsic) of motivation is important. Intrinsic motivation is the inherent propensity to seek out novelty and challenge, to extend and exercise one’s capacities, to explore and to learn (Reeve, 2015). Students with high levels of intrinsic motivation are less likely to leave school early (Guay & Vallerand, 1997; Hardre & Reeve, 2003). When students are intrinsically motivated they experience engagement, perceive that their school-related tasks are decided on by themselves (self-determined) and based on their personal values and interests (Alivernini & Lucidi, 2011). The higher a person’s intrinsic motivation the greater will be their engagement in a task (e.g. school tasks in a school setting), the stronger their effort to pursue their goals (Sheldon & Elliot, 1999), to pay attention in class, exert effort and stay in school (Hardree & Reeve, 2003; Skinner & Belmont, 1993). The more students are engaged, the less they are prone to ESL. For instance, a longitudinal study conducted by Archambault et al. (2009) showed that a global school engagement significantly predicts low levels of ESL. On the other side, extrinsic motivation arises from environmental incentives (rewards, consequences, punishments) that are separate from activity itself (Reeve, 2015). The problem with extrinsic motivations is that, when these environmental incentives are withdrawn, the behaviour stops as well – for instance, if a student is externally motivated to be in school (e.g. grades, parental pressure) and if these external rewards or punishers are gone (or a student no longer finds them relevant), he or she would leave school. All of this supports the notion that it is important to develop students’ intrinsic motivation. One of the most empirically supported theories of the contemporary psychology of motivation is Self-Determination Theory (SDT) (Ryan & Deci, 2002). SDT was chosen as a framework for the present paper due to its in depth-models of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation with practical implications, among others, for the field of education. In the paper, we will discuss how community–school collaboration can enhance students’ intrinsic motivation to learn and to stay in school by fulfilling their psychological needs.


The search for scientific articles was mostly unsuccessful in combining school–community collaboration with SDT and ESL (for instance, in the PsychArticles (EBSHOST) database by searching the key words ‘self-determination theory’, ‘early school leaving’, ‘drop out’, ‘school–community collaboration’ only 2 out of 15 articles found through the search engine were content-related and relevant). We used: (i) self-determination theory handbooks and monographs as the main source (and backward search); and (ii) a self-determination theory online platform where relevant research using self-determination theory is gathered (section application of self-determination theory/education) and the online platform ResearchGate.

Self-Determination Theory – SDT

Self-Determination Theory is a theory of motivation. It is concerned with supporting our natural or intrinsic tendencies to behave in effective and healthy ways. SDT (Deci & Ryan, 2002) is not so much focused on the amount of motivation but more on the quality of motivation by differentiating amotivation, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. All three types of motivation can be placed on a continuum of perceived locus of control or self-determination. The type of motivation is closely linked to the perceptions individuals hold concerning the origins of their behaviour (whether they are within or beyond their control). On one end of the continuum is amotivation (a total lack of intentionality and motivation). Here we can picture a typical ESL student (Reeve, 2015). On the continuum amotivation is followed by four types of extrinsic motivation that can be distinguished depending on the degree of autonomy: external regulation (not at all autonomous), introjected regulation (somewhat autonomous), identified regulation (mostly autonomous) and integrated regulation (fully autonomous). On the other end of the continuum there is intrinsic motivation as the highest level of self-determination (Ryan & Deci, 2000). The level of self-determination increases when we move from amotivation through extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation (fully autonomous motivation).

One of the many advantages and practical implications of SDT is that it explains how amotivation can be changed into extrinsic motivation (in the process of internalisation) first using external regulation (the task is done in order to obtain rewards or avoid negative consequences), then introjected regulation (the task is done in order to improve self-esteem and avoid shame, guilt and anxiety) to identified regulation (the task is done because students feel it is important and related to their own goals – they consciously apply a value to it) and finally to integrated regulation (the task is done because it represents an integral part of the student’s values and needs). The level of self-determination, perceived autonomy, increases as we move along the continuum. The level of perceived autonomy is important because the more autonomous one’s motivation is, the more effort they put into a task (e.g. schooling) and the more persistent and productive that effort is in terms of learning performance and achievement (Reeve, 2015).

The type of motivation depends on the fulfilment of three basic psychological needs: the need for autonomy, the need for competence and the need for relatedness (the more these needs are met, the more motivation is intrinsic). Need for autonomy refers to being the perceived origin or source of one’s own behaviour (Deci & Ryan, 2002). Need for competence refers to feeling effective in one’s ongoing interactions with the social environment and experiencing opportunities to exercise and express one’s capacities (Deci & Ryan, 2002). Need for relatedness refers to feeling connected to others, to caring for and being cared for by others, to having a sense of belonging both with other individuals and with one’s community (Ryan, 1995). People are naturally intrinsically motivated to learn and, when the environment supports all three basic needs, this natural urge emerges and learning is intrinsically motivated and of higher quality (in a school setting if all these needs are met this would relate to lower levels of ESL). Students who are externally motivated persisted much less than students who are internally motivated (Valleard et al., 1997), which leads us to believe that they are also less persistent when it comes to schooling.

SDT in the classroom and its role in ESL

Research (Ryan & Grolnick, 1986; Tsai et al., 2008) shows that ESL students typically have a lower level of intrinsic motivation and identified regulation and higher levels of amotivation. Students become more intrinsically motivated when their basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness are fulfilled. The need for competence and autonomy are the most important (the strongest predictors) ones in the development of intrinsic motivation, whereas the need for relatedness is crucial in supporting the process of transforming external motivation into more autonomous motivation. Legault and colleagues (Legaut, Green-Demers, & Pelletier, 2006) found that a lack of support for these three needs contributed to amotivation (a total lack of motivation or the lowest level of self-determination). Amotivated students do not want to study and feel they cannot change their academic outcomes, with the most likely consequence of those feelings being that these students would leave school as soon as they can. They also perceive themselves as being less competent and less autonomous in school activities (Valleard et al., 1997).

Experimental work shows when students are tested or given rewards for activities that are intrinsically motivated their intrinsic motivation decreases due to lowering their sense of autonomy. In contrast, providing students with choice (thus supporting autonomy) and positive feedback (thus supporting competence) typically increases intrinsic motivation. The satisfaction of all three needs results in strong intrinsic goals (e.g. personal growth, affiliation, community) that are linked to greater psychological well-being and better academic and non-academic outcomes (Ryan & Deci, 2009). Similarly, Otis, Grouzet and Pelletier (2005) investigated the transition to the first year of high school and found that the ESL intention was correlated with a decrease in self-determined motivation.

Autonomy and competence support

Valleard and colleagues (1997) introduced a model in which low levels of autonomy supportive behaviours from critical social agents (teachers, parents, school administration, local community) undermine students’ perceptions of their own autonomy and competence which, in turn, decreases self-determined motivation that leads to the thought of ESL and actual ESL. They (Vallerad et al., 1997) studied contextual and motivational predictors of ESL by assessing students with regard to their perception of their autonomy and the support for autonomy and by investigating which students would be more likely to still be in school a year later. They found that students who felt more autonomous and had more support for autonomy felt more competent and were more likely to stay in school a year later. In classrooms where teachers are more autonomy-supportive (e.g. letting students choose from various alternatives, listening to them and asking them for their point of view), students tend to become more intrinsically motivated, perceive themselves as more competent, and feel better about themselves, whereas in classrooms where teachers were more controlling (e.g. giving strict directions or orders, supervising and monitoring too closely or not giving students the opportunity to propose choices and opinions that differ from those expressed by adults), students tended to lose intrinsic motivation, perceived competence and self-esteem (Ryan & Grolnick, 1986; Tsai et al., 2008) and were more prone to ESL (Vallerand et al., 1997). Other studies on the topic (Guay & Valleard, 1997; Hardree & Reeve, 2003; Valleard & Bissonette, 1992) confirmed these findings, thereby stressing the importance of autonomy-supportive behaviour in schools.

The results were also replicated in a longitudinal setting. For instance, Alievernini and Licidi (2011) used a longitudinal design and showed that the level of self-determined motivation in students, which was directly related to the perception of the autonomy support they receive, was the best predictor of the intention to leave school early. Moving even further (by incorporating more variables in their model), Hardree and Reeve (2003) included academic achievement in their analysis of the relationship between autonomy support and ESL, and found that the more autonomous type of motivation influences the decision to stay in school, regardless of the level of academic achievement, namely, even in low-performing students. Alivernini and Lucidi (2011) added academic achievement and socio-economic status (SES) to the model and found that the level of self-determined motivation in students significantly predicted ESL, even when controlling for their academic achievement and SES, indicating that the intention to leave school early seems to be more directly affected by self-determined motivation than by academic achievement and perceived competence (Alivernini & Lucidi, 2011).

Intrinsic motivation is also related to higher quality knowledge (which fulfils the need for competence). In an experiment (Benware & Deci, 1984), students were given 3 hours to read a text. The first group was told they would be tested afterwards (low intrinsic motivation was expected) and the other that they would be given a chance to use their knowledge in practice by teaching others (higher intrinsic motivation was expected). The two groups did not differ significantly in the information memorised but did differ in their conceptual knowledge. The findings were replicated in numerous studies around the world (Grolnik & Ryan, 1987; Kage & Namiki; 1990; Fortier, Vallerard, & Guay, 1995).

Support for relatedness

The quality of motivation influences ESL (among others) by strengthening a student’s persistence, higher quality knowledge and positive feelings in school also by satisfying their need for relatedness. This is especially important in students prone to ESL since they are usually not intrinsically motivated and therefore we have to find a way to transform their amotivation into first extrinsic motivation and, finally, intrinsic motivation. The need for relatedness is the one supporting the need for competence and autonomy and can be addressed by providing an inclusive environment on the classroom level, school level and community level. Sense of belonging or relatedness refers to the extent to which students feel personally accepted, respected, and supported by others in the school social environment. Students with a smaller sense of belonging tend to be less socially integrated into the school (Pearson et al., 2007) and are less attached to the school community and the wider community. It is in this context (relatedness support) that community-based learning can be of special use. Community is used to expand the social network of students, which satisfies their need for relatedness through community-based learning. Research (Epstein et al., 2009) shows that community-based learning influences (besides influencing self-evaluated autonomy and competence) the sense of belonging, relatedness to school and the wider community. Important emphasis also has to be put on teachers’ motivation to collaborate with the community and support for their interests as well. Various studies of elementary and high school students (e.g. Hardre & Reeve, 2003; Jang, Reeve, & Deci, 2007) have shown that teachers’ support for autonomy is related to their own autonomous motivation and later work engagement.

As noted, the need for competence and autonomy are the most important elements in the development of intrinsic motivation whereas the need for relatedness is crucial when transforming external motivation into autonomous motivation and supporting the internalisation process. All three needs are important and must be balanced. When one of the needs is not fulfilled, intrinsic motivation is less likely to be developed (Emery, Toste, & Health, 2015).

Can the community help? Using community–school collaboration to foster autonomous motivation and prevent ESL

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Figure 1. Proposed conceptual model of the role community-based learning plays in ESL

Intrinsically motivated learning can be greatly influenced by social environments (Ryan & Deci, 2009). One of the social contexts (besides the home and school environment) that can influence motivation (by supporting autonomy, competence and relatedness and targeting key features of amotivation) is the local community. From an ecological perspective, students’ academic outcomes are also affected by the local communities in which they live (Ellias & Haynes, 2008). School–community collaboration occurs when groups or agencies come together to establish an educative community. The educative community is composed of a multitude of educating entities such as school, home, places of worship, the media, museums, libraries, community agencies, and businesses (Drew, 2004). When these entities take part in a common goal (education), students may see more meaning in education and be less likely to leave school. School–community collaboration can entail many types: (a) information for students and families on community health, cultural, recreational, social support, and other programmes or services (provided by community agents); (b) information on community activities that are linked to learning skills and talents, including summer programmes for students; © collaboration on common goals through partnership involving school, civic, counselling, cultural, health, recreation and other agencies and organisations, and business; (d) service to the community by students, families and the school (e.g. providing recycling, art, music, drama and other activities for seniors or others; (e) participation of alumni in school programmes for students and as mentors for planning for college and work (Epstein et al., 2009). Some of the positive results found at schools practising extensive community–school collaboration are improved reading and maths performance, better attendance rates, a decrease in suspension rates and a reduction of the ESL rate (Sanders, 2009; Schargel & Smink, 2004). Research on the impact of community collaboration on academic achievement is an emerging field.

We can use positive and ongoing school–community collaboration as a source of activities (for instance with project work and different assignments in a partner institution on the local level, such as museums, hospitals, parks…) that can foster a student’s self-perceived autonomy, competence and relatedness. When students become actively involved in the community, under proper conditions this fulfils one or more of their basic psychological needs that foster the development of self-determined motivation. Involvement of the community in the form of mentoring institutions supports a student’s competence (giving meaning to their knowledge) and relatedness (new social bonds, friendships, a sense of belonging to the broader community and being a vital part) and autonomy (independent project work). For instance, giving choice and supporting autonomy in organising and conducting project work fosters their sense of autonomy. By experiencing that their knowledge and skills come of use on the local community level students fulfil their need for competence. One example of this type of collaboration would be, for instance, project work on agricultural planning for planting local green areas in which representatives of the local community would cooperate with biology teachers and students of a local school. With students planning the whole project, their autonomy would be supported, by taking advantage of their biology knowledge their competence would be supported, and by actively taking part in teamwork their sense of belonging and relatedness (on the school level with their peers in the project team and on the community level with representatives of the local community) would increase. These types of activities (mentoring and tutoring programmes, contextual learning and job shadowing) also have research support (Epstein et al., 2009). The need that can be addressed to the greatest extent is the need for relatedness. Involvement of the community enhances the feeling of worthiness in students. Social support fosters a feeling of social connectedness which is required in order for children to internalise social standards (for instance, the value of education) and to develop respect for social institutions (including school) (Ellias & Hayes, 2013). In collaboration with the community, students build their own social network, social capital that is just as important an indicator of well-being as is material capital (Morenoff & Sampson, 2008). Even if a child or adolescent possesses the required skills for school success, the motivation to use them is related to the perception of social support for school-related activities (from their parents and the community).

The local community can provide a setting in which the autonomy of students can be supported, especially since school–community collaboration moves learning activities out of the typical hierarchical learning environment of the classroom.

Besides support for basic psychological needs, community-based learning can target some of the interrelated aspects of amotivation. For students prone to ESL the typical motivation is amotivation. Amotivation is a complicated construct comprising four interrelated aspects (Reeve, 2015): low ability (a sense of incompetence and the belief that one lacks sufficient ability to perform a certain task), low effort (a lack of desire to spend energy on a particular task), low value (a lack of perceived importance or usefulness of a certain task) and unappealing task (a perception that a task is personally unattractive). In school–community collaboration, low ability can be addressed by exposing students to practical assignments with a direct benefit for their local community and therefore their sense of ability (whatever their initial level of ability is) can be supported. Something similar applies to low effort. Low value can be targeted with the same activities. When students observe that their knowledge is of direct use they can develop a better sense of value of school-related knowledge. When schools collaborate with the community and address the needs of the community (e.g. teaching computer skills to elderly people in the community) the school curricula become more relevant and meaningful. Meaningful and relevant curricula related to students’ own interests and goals promote greater school engagement and intrinsic motivation in all students (Motti-Stefanidi & Masten, 2013). When framing school learning material in a community context it can become more interesting. The last characteristic of amotivation, attractiveness of the task, demands some extra effort from the school – when connecting individual students with selected school–community collaboration tasks. When their interests are considered to be important, they can perceive that a task is more attractive to them. To conclude, when trying to move from amotivation to extrinsic or possibly even intrinsic motivation we have to change the perception of school work as something not worth doing into something worth doing.


As pointed out by Ryan and La Guardia (1999, in: Ryan & Deci, 2009), the importance of autonomy and competence support needs to be recognised in ESL prevention even more since the first response of teachers and parents in situations of anticipated ESL is to add more controls and apply additional pressures to the students, which in a way closes the door for intervention and even reduces their motivation to stay in school. Involvement in community work can support the intrinsic motivation to learn and stay in school by introducing community–school collaboration. When schools are engaged in community-relevant activities these can affect the relatedness (sense of belonging to the community, being involved with peers, being involved with members of the community outside of schools), autonomy (designing and managing their own community-based project work) and competence (putting the formal knowledge gained at school into practice and use on the community level) as well – increase students’ motivation to learn and continue their education. By knowing the trajectories leading to ESL such as self-evaluated amotivation and extrinsic motivation (perceived control and external regulation), we can screen students (self-evaluation questionnaires) and identify those who are more at risk and then include them in more autonomy-supported activities (also related to community collaboration).

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