The Relevance of Attribution Theory to Educational Psychology Essay

Attribution theory refers to the “causal explanations that individuals infer for their own behaviour, and that of others, in an attempt to interpret their social world” (Burgner and Hewstone, 1993. p.125). As Eslea (1999) notes, “attributional styles have been found to be an important factor in a number of areas relevant to education, including childhood and adolescent depression, familial abuse, reading achievement, academic task persistence and coping with the problems of low socio-economic status” p. 35. The aim of this essay is to discuss the relevance of attribution theory to educational psychology. Specifically, the essay will focus on the success and failure attributions of children who have learning difficulties, the attributions made by children who have behaviour problems and the impact that the attributional styles adopted by teachers may have on children’s learning. In exploring these issues, the essay aims to highlight the practical implications of research findings on attribution theory.

According to Weiner’s (1979) theory of achievement attribution, we make causal attributions for success or failure on a task according to whether the locus of the cause is internal or external (i.e., something about the person or about the situation); stable or unstable (i.e. whether something is likely to fluctuate or is an enduring feature, e.g., intelligence); and whether something is controllable or uncontrollable (i.e. the extent to which a person has control over the cause, e.g., effort). A large body of research into attribution theory indicates that much of our attributional thinking is biased in ways that serve our own best interests, i.e., we tend to take credit for successes and attribute failure to external causes (Bradley, 1978; Nicholls, 1975; Riemer, 1975; Zuckerman, 1979). Thus, a child who performs well on a particular test may attribute their success to ability (internal cause) but attribute failure on the test to the test being difficult or to poor teaching (external cause).

In contrast, research on the attributional thinking of children with learning difficulties suggests that these children show the opposite tendency (Hysenook, 1999; Kistner, Osborne and LeVerrier, 1988) and are likely to attribute their successes to an external cause such as good luck, while ascribing their failures to lack of ability (Butkowsky and Willows, 1980; Licht, Kistner et al, 1985). As Weiner’s (1979) model would predict, children who attribute their failure in a task to an internal, stable cause such as lack of ability are less likely to persist with it than children who attribute their learning problems to an external, stable and controllable cause such as effort (Andrews and Debus, 1978). Furthermore, ascribing failure to a controllable cause is associated with better academic progress (Kistner, Osborne and LeVerrier, 1988). Therefore, attributing failure to an unchangeable trait such as lack of ability lowers the child’s expectancy of success in future. As Weiner (1985) suggests, “Motivation is believed to be determined by what one can get (incentive) as well as the likelihood of getting it (expectancy)” p.559. Children who have learning difficulties show less persistence in mastering tasks, thus increasing the likelihood of failure and attributions of lack of ability and they become trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle (Borkowski, Weyhing and Carr, 1988).

In addition to the dimensions of locus and stability, Weiner’s (1979) model also highlights the importance of controllability as a critical determinant of the expectancy of success. This is crucial to children with learning difficulties – who through a long history of failure experiences – may view themselves as having no control over their achievements, leading to a state of ‘learned helplessness’ and “depressed affect, diminished self-esteem, low expectancy for future success and deteriorated performance” (Craske, 1988. p152). In such cases, children do not expect to succeed irrespective of the amount of effort they expend. When working with children who have learning difficulties, therefore, a child’s selection of causal attributions is an issue that must be addressed.

A number of studies suggest that attribution training, i.e., teaching children to attribute learning outcomes to effort, may help children to overcome such problems as learned helplessness (Craske, 1988, Dweck, 1975), improve performance after failure (Andrews and Debus, 1978, Craske, 1988, Dweck, 1975) and improve academic progress in the long term. In a study of strategy-based reading comprehension in children with learning disabilities, Borkowski, Weyhing and Carr (1988) note that because children with learning disabilities develop antecedent attributions (or “long-standing beliefs about personal causality” p.46), they may not be able to “use, appreciate or generalise newly acquired strategy to reading assignments” p.46. Consequently, Borkowski et al suggest that such children should undergo reattribution training in addition to training on strategy in order that they benefit from other interventions and attempts to teach them skills and strategies. Thus, reattribution training should attempt to change the children’s antecedent attributional beliefs and thus their general attitudes about achievement outcomes, as providing task-specific reattribution training alone does not promote generalisation to other tasks.

Research also suggests that hyperactive children, who often develop learning difficulties and similarly show maladaptive attributional beliefs, could benefit from this approach. In a study on the effect of antecedent and programme-specific attribution training in combination with self-control training on the use of strategic behaviours (i.e., rehearsal strategies), Reid and Borkowski (1987) found that children in the combined attribution and self-control training group used more complex rehearsal strategies and developed stronger beliefs about the importance of effort compared to a control group who received only self-control training. Furthermore, children in the combined group showed less hyperactivity in the classroom.

However, research suggests that not all learning-disabled or hyperactive children may benefit from reattribution training. In a study of the effects of attribution training on primary school children whose arithmetic performance deteriorated after they had experienced failure, Craske (1988) found that while some children developed a state of ‘learned helplessness’ others were more likely to protect their self worth by ascribing failures to low effort or task difficulty and thus avoiding inferences of low ability. This performance of the ‘self worth’ group did not improve after training and Craske concluded that encouraging some children to try harder may place ‘self worth’ children under stress. It may therefore be important to distinguish between these two groups when planning interventions. Forsterling (1985) also urges caution when encouraging children to try harder, arguing that “leading a person to attribute success (especially at an easy task) to high effort might at the same time foster a conclusion of low ability” (p.504), whereas attributing failures to lack of effort could also give rise to feelings of guilt, which could also be detrimental to performance.

Conversely, Mueller and Dweck (1998) reported that praise for intelligence can lead children to feel pressurised to continue to perform and they may then begin to avoid tasks that contain any risk of failure, similar to the ‘self worth’ group in Craske’s (1988) study. They also found, however, that praise for hard work enabled children to develop more adaptive achievement behaviours after failure than praise for ability. Possible gender differences is also a factor that should be taken into account, since research indicates that females may be more susceptible to learned helplessness than males, though results are far from conclusive. Burgner and Hewstone (1993), for example, found that boys exhibited self-serving attributions in the face of failure whereas girls selected self-derogating attributions. However, studies by Craske (1988) and Kistner, Osborne and LeVerrier (1988) did not support these findings.

In addition, it has also been suggested that attributional style differs with age. Butler (1984), for example, reported that younger children, below ages 11-12, have an incremental view of ability (i.e. they believe it is changeable and can be modified by effort), whereas older children are aware that ability is stable. Thus, attribution retraining should take developmental differences into account, especially for children with learning difficulties, who may be slower to develop an understanding of the relationship between effort and ability. Furthermore, Butler recommends that teachers should adapt communications about a child’s performance to the child’s social-cognitive capacities. Therefore, it would appear that although reattribution training is very effective at altering maladaptive beliefs, a child’s age, gender and particular attribution style must be taken into account.

In addition to changing the attributional style of children with learning difficulties, attribution training has proved to be of benefit to children with behaviour problems. Contrary to the expectation that behaviour problems may reflect an excessive externalisation of negative events (i.e. not taking responsibility for one’s own misdemeanours), a study by Eslea (1999) revealed that boys in a school for severe behaviour problems who were unresponsive to the school’s behaviour programme in fact made significantly more personal attributions for negative events than for positive events. In contrast, those who were making good progress tended to make more global and internal attributions for positive events. Eslea concluded that the tendency to attribute positive events to external causes (a depressed attributional style) prevented these children from internalising and generalising the school’s traditional behaviour modification techniques. He noted that an increased awareness of attributions among teachers could increase the effectiveness of the school’s behaviour programme and recommended that rewarding self-enhancing attributions would enable children to generalise those attributions to new situations.

Although the focus of the essay has been on the attributions of children, the attributions of teachers also play a significant part in influencing children’s learning and behaviour. As Moses and Croll (1985) report “teachers’ ideas about the causes of special needs, particularly learning difficulties and behaviour problems, are likely to affect the attitudes they take towards children with special needs and so to influence the ways in which they react towards them in the classroom” p.42. They found that primary school teachers attributed classroom behaviour problems to home factors in over 80 per cent of cases and identified pupil-related factors as explanations for learning difficulties in over 78 per cent of cases. Conversely, they are more likely to take credit for positive behaviour and results (Miller, 1996). If a teacher is seen to take credit for a child’s successes but to attribute the child’s failures to the child, understandably the teachers’ attributional style is likely to have a negative effect on the child’s, causing the child to attribute his failures to internal factors and successes to external factors. Furthermore teachers’ attributions about a child’s behaviour will similarly affect the child’s own attributions. If teachers ascribe good behaviour to external factors and bad behaviour to internal, stable factors, the child’s behaviour is hardly likely to improve. As Fredrickson points out “When the behaviour of such a pupil shows improvement teachers may express the view that the pupil hasn’t really changed and is just “being good” to obtain particular rewards or avoid sanctions.” p.37.

Thus an awareness of attributional styles would be of significant benefit to teachers and the educational psychologist can help to facilitate this awareness. As Miller (1996) argues “the attributions teachers make for pupil behaviour are likely in some instances to remain considerable stumbling-blocks to any form of intervention unless they are incorporated more explicitly into the legitimate domains for EPs enquiries and action” (p.152). Furthermore, the educational psychologist can also improve collaboration between parents and teachers. Highlighting the need to establish better relationships between parents and teachers and educational psychologists, Bowers (1994) reported that parents tend to attribute stable personality characteristics to education officers with whom they have had negative experiences, but attribute positive experiences to external factors (e.g. “it’s his job” or that’s what they’re paid to do”.). He recommends that education officers should take time to listen and ‘establish an open dialogue’ with parents and Fredrickson (1988) similarly advocates an approach whereby the psychologist should engage in “explicit or accessible reasoning, sharing with parents and carers their attributions and their developing understanding of aspects of a problem situation”. p. 41

In conclusion, attribution theory is extremely relevant to educational psychology. The evidence presented suggests that children with learning difficulties develop maladaptive beliefs about their abilities and attribute their failures to internal, stable causes and successes to external causes. The application of attribution theory to education can help motivate such children and improve their performance after failure by addressing their attributional styles. Furthermore, reattributional training has also been shown to be effective in reducing hyperactivity and improving the learning of children with ADHD. Similarly, children who have behaviour problems have been shown to have ‘depressed’ attributional styles, which may be altered if teachers reward self-enhancing attributions. Indeed, awareness of attributional styles in teachers would be highly beneficial and would prevent their attributions for children’s’ behaviour from negatively impacting on children’s attributions. Furthermore, as Bowers (1994) highlighted, attribution theory may help to improve collaboration between the parents of children with learning difficulties and educational psychologists and teachers.


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