Characteristics of the school environment are known to affect the academic performance of students. Subtle verbal and nonverbal insults and threats, disrespect, and unfairness are examples of one type of detrimental environmental influence, which we call microthreats. Prior research has established the prevalence of microthreats in middle and high schools. Increased understanding of the direct and indirect effects of microthreats on academic performance can inform the development of effective strategies to reduce microthreats and block the pathways by which they hurt academic outcomes. Drawing from Self-Determination Theory and Student Involvement Theory, the current study examined the hypothesis that experiencing microthreats at school impedes students’ academic performance through its effects on misbehavior, engagement, and sense of belonging.
A latent variable mediation model was tested in Mplus 7.4. Data were collected from 5171 students in grades six through nine in 17 schools in two districts in a southeast state. Students completed the validated School Success Profile (SSP). Self-report measures of experiences with school microthreats (9 indicators), misbehavior (11 indicators), engagement (3 indicators), sense of belonging at school (5 indicators), and grades (2 indicators) were used in the analyses. Advanced methods were used for managing missing data and ordinal variables. In the full model, the effects of microthreats on grades were mediated by school misbehavior, engagement, and sense of belonging; the direct effects of microthreats on grades was also estimated. The effects of gender on misbehavior were controlled for.
A good fitting measurement model was confirmed before the test of the full model (RMSEA .044 [90% CI .044, .046]; CFI .96, TLI .95). Fit of the full model was also good: (RMSEA .045 [90% CI .044, .046]; CFI .95, TLI .95). Microthreats had a significant but small standardized direct effect on grades (.09, SE .024). The direct effect was in the unexpected direction; however, microthreats total effect on grades was -.19 because it had statistically significant indirect effects through all three hypothesized mediators: -.02 through sense of belonging; -.25 through behavior; and -.01 through engagement. Each mediator had a significant effect on grades: -.62 for misbehavior; .08 for engagement; and .07 for sense of belonging. The model explained 42% of the variance in grades; 21% of misbehavior, 2% of engagement, and 10% of sense of belonging.
Conclusions and Implications:
As hypothesized, microthreats were statistically associated with grades of sixth through ninth graders both directly and indirectly through three predictors of grades—misbehavior, engagement, and sense of belonging. A main takeaway of the study is that experiencing microthreats is moderately associated with school misbehavior (.40). In turn, misbehavior is strongly associated with grades (-.62). Therefore, the largest indirect effect of microthreats on grades was through its effects on misbehavior (-.25). Problem behaviors of some students degrade the school success of all students. Therefore, school-wide efforts to reduce a range of insulting, disrespectful, and unfair environmental influences may have a cascading effect that improves academic performance at both the school and individual levels.