The most common objection to acceleration as an educational strategy is that it may have an adverse effect on the student's social or emotional development (Daurio, 1979). A few widely publicized cases describe exceptionally talented youths who entered college at an early age but later suffered from severe adjustment problems that led to social withdrawal, depression, or even suicide (Daurio, 1979; Montour, 1976, 1977).
Nevertheless, there is little research evidence linking early college entrance or similar forms of acceleration to socioemotional adjustment problems. In their meta-analysis of acceleration outcome research, Kulik and Kulik (1984) found that although there was clear academic benefit to acceleration, there were too few studies of nonacademic effects to support any conclusion.
Studies have found no differences between accelerants and nonaccelerants on a variety of adjustment measures (Brody & Benbow, 1987; Fund for the Advancement of Education, 1953, 1957; Janos et al., 1988; Pollins, 1983; Robinson & Janos, 1986). Although such findings are reassuring, they are not conclusive. The failure to find significant results does not permit an unequivocal conclusion that problems do not exist.
A further problem is that most studies are retrospective. Such studies cannot adequately determine whether students suffered from adjustment problems during their acceleration years or how they might have changed over the course of their program. Moreover, studies which assess only successful graduates of acceleration programs may be biased by omitting students who dropped out of the program before completion (e.g., Fund for the Advancement of Education, 1957; Pressey, 1967; Stanley & Benbow, 1983). That is, students who react adversely to acceleration may leave the program prematurely and, as a result, not be included in research samples.
Finally, studies which compare accelerants to nonaccelerants provide no information about differences among accelerants. Which students fare best in an accelerated program? And is it possible to predict those students who will display healthy socioemotional adjustment versus those who will experience adjustment problems?
The present prospective study examined students' adjustment to a residential program designed to permit adolescent girls to complete high school and college in five years. Residential programs merit special attention because they involve such a dramatic change in the adolescent's access to family guidance and support.
The students in this program were 44 high ability adolescent females who were administered a series of personality and family adjustment measures at the beginning of one academic year. These measures were correlated with the students' socioemotional adjustment to the program over the course of the year. Socioemotional adjustment to the acceleration program was operationally defined and assessed in four main areas: (a) freedom from mental health problems that triggered staff intervention (e.g., counseling or referral to a mental health professional, (b) behavioral compliance with program rules and expectations, (c) positive peer relations, and (d) self-reported student satisfaction with the program.
METHODSampleThe sample consisted of 44 female students (22 first-year students and 22 advanced students) enrolled in an early college entrance/acceleration program at a liberal arts college during a single academic year. This excluded five students who entered mid-year, one who left the program after only one week, and one who declined to participate in the study.
The students ranged in age from 13 to 17 years (mean 14.9). Forty students were white, two were black, and two were of Asian-American background. Families were primarily middle to upper-middle class, although almost all required financial assistance to enable their daughters to attend the program. The majority of both mothers and fathers were college graduates. Parental occupations ranged from factory laborer to college professor.
Students live together in a single residence hall during their first years in the program. The residence hall is well-staffed by experienced counselors who provide close supervision and guidance to the students. There is considerable social programming for the girls throughout the academic year. Students initially take classes designed to accelerate their completion of a standard high school curriculum (often with-in one year), and thereafter take an increasing proportion of their classes from the general college offerings.
Entering students were tested with the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children-Revised approximately one month after beginning the program. Fullscale IQs ranged from 115 to 155 (mean 129). Although some of the students had lower scores than those typically associated with early college entrance, selection for the program involved a variety of factors beyond intelligence test scores. Strong motivation and aspiration for high achievement were important non quantitative factors, and each student was evaluated on an individual basis.
Predictor MeasuresTwo measures of family adjustment were mailed to students and parents during the summer prior to the start of school. Two personality measures were administered shortly after the students' arrival for the new academic year. Because the four selected instruments contain a prohibitively large number of scales relative to this study's sample size, specific scales were selected or combined for data analysis as described below.
Personality MeasuresThe Jackson Personality Inventory (JPI) (Jackson, 1976) is a carefully developed, 320-item self-report questionnaire which was standardized on a sample of 4000 college students enrolled in 43 American and Canadian colleges or universities. The JPl's psychometric properties, including evidence of adequate reliability and criterion-related validity, are reported in the test manual (Jackson, 1976). Although the JPI provides scores on 15 personality scales, factor analytic studies have identified four second-order factors. For purposes of this article, the 4 scales were given descriptive names based on their individual scale loadings: Factor I-Overall Adjustment; Factor 11- Interpersonal Interest; Factor III-Social Self-Confidence; Factor IV-Responsibility.
The Self-Perception Profile for Adolescents (SPPA) (Harter, 1986) is a 45-item self-report questionnaire which focuses on different aspects of the adolescent's self-concept. The adolescent version is derived from an earlier version developed for younger children, the Perceived Competence Scale for Children (Harter, 1982). Although there is published support for the earlier version's reliability and validity (Harter, 1982), available information for the newer, adolescent version is limited to reliability (Harter, 1986). Based on previous work with the Perceived Competence Scale for Children (Cornell et al., 1988), four of the nine scales were selected for use in this study: Scholastic Competence, which measures the adolescent's view of her academic ability; Social Acceptance, which measures her social self-concept; Physical Appearance, which measures her perception of her physical attractiveness; and Athletic Competence, which measures her evaluation of her athletic prowess.
Family MeasuresThe Family Environment Scale (FES) is a 90-item self-report questionnaire which assesses 10 characteristics of the family environment. The FES was standardized on a sample of 1,125 families; evidence of the instrument's reliability and validity is reported in the test manual (Moos & Moos, 1981). Previous work (Cornell & Grossberg, 1987) has demonstrated the applicability of the FES to families of high ability youth.
The FES provides scores on 10 scales clustered into three groups. The Relationship group consists of 3 scales: Cohesion (family mutual support), Expressiveness (encouragement of open self-expression), and Conflict (family anger and conflict). The Personal Growth group includes scales that measure the degree to which the family values or encourages the following: Independence, Achievement Orientation, Intellectual-Cultural Orientation, Active-Recreational Orientation, and Moral- Religious Emphasis. The System Maintenance group includes 2 scales: Organization (emphasis on planning and structure in family activities) and Control (emphasis on set rules and authority in the family).
Because of their conceptual similarity, the present study combined the three relationship scales into a single index, termed Family Harmony (formula for raw scores: Cohesion + Expressiveness - Conflict = Harmony). Likewise, the Organization and Control scales were averaged into a single index, termed Family Order.
Separate copies of the FES were mailed to the students and their mothers and fathers. Useable questionnaires were received from 27 fathers, 26 mothers, and 24 students across a total of 32 families. Some parents were unavailable to complete the questionnaire and some family members declined to participate. As recommended by the test manual, individual family member scores were averaged to determine family scores.
The Parent Adolescent Communication Scale (PACS) (Barnes & Olson, 1982) is a 20-item self-report questionnaire which assesses the adolescent's view of her relationship with her parents. Support for the instrument's reliability and validity is reported elsewhere (Barnes & Olson, 1982; Barnes & Olson, 1985). A separate questionnaire is completed for each parent. The PACS provides two scales-Openness and Problems (in parent-adolescent communication)--which are then summed into a total score. Only total scores were used in this study.
Outcome Measures. No single measure could adequately encompass the student's socioemotional adjustment to the program. Therefore, multiple adjustment measures were devised. Measures were obtained from the perspectives of program staff, peers, and students. All staff and students were blind to results of the predictor measures.
Mental Health Adjustment Index. First, some general mental health information was collected from the program staff. This included the following items, scored on a present/absent basis: (a) Depression-the residence hall staff perceived the student as depressed at any time during the school year (depression must have lasted at least two weeks and must have elicited some form of staff intervention, such as counseling) ; (b) Suicidal Behavior-the student engaged in some form of suicidal behavior (ranging from verbal threat to suicide attempt) ; (c) Counseling-the student was seen for (nonacademic) counseling by the program guidance counselor; (d) Mental Health Treatment-the student was seen by a local mental health professional (such as a psychologist or psychiatrist) ; and (e) Stress-Related Attrition-the student dropped out of the program for reasons related to socioemotional stress.
Behavioral Adjustment Index. Second, behavioral adjustment information was obtained from the daily log maintained by residence hall staff. This log consisted of detailed handwritten entries by staff members addressing a wide variety of topics, such as routine reports of how the students behaved (peer arguments, dormitory rule infractions, etc.) , special activities or events (such as picnics, parties, or field trips) , and individual student needs (illnesses, special appointments, etc.). The log was devised by the program staff for the purpose of facilitating communication across work shifts. Staff members were unaware that entries would be coded for use in this study. No log information was available for six third-year students who lived in a different residence hall.
The log was coded by counting the number of times over the course of the academic year that each student was mentioned for some type of rule infraction or other form of misbehavior. Examples of misbehavior included: violating dormitory sign-out policies, oversleeping, not attending residence hall meetings, not cleaning up her room, lying, and disobeying adult directions. This coding specifically excluded academic-related problems (such as cutting classes) or adjustment difficulties (such as suicidal statements), which were covered in other outcome measures. Most of the recorded incidents were relatively minor forms of misbehavior which are common for many adolescents (although they were deemed noteworthy by the staff). It was assumed that higher frequencies of misbehavior constituted a reasonable indication of adjustment difficulties.
Peer Adjustment Index. The third adjustment measure was a peer sociogram in which students were surveyed about their relationship with their peers. Peer relations is increasingly recognized as a critical developmental issue with long-term consequences for adjustment (Parker & Asher, 1987). As reviewed by Asher and Hymel (1981), peer status can be reliably and validly assessed with a roster and rating technique or a peer nomination procedure. Both were used in this study.
Each student rated each peer on three questions. The first was: "If you were asked to choose a person to work with on an academic project, how would you feel about choosing each person from this list?" Students rated each peer on a 5-point Likert-type scale ranging from "never" choosing this person to being "enthusiastic" about choosing this person. The second question asked about choosing someone to organize an activity such as a trip or party, and the third question asked about choosing someone to talk with about a personal problem or concern. In addition to ratings, students were asked to nominate the three students they would be most likely to choose by circling their names on the roster. Mean scores were tabulated for the ratings and nominations each student received from all peers completing the survey. Scores were combined into a total peer adjustment index.
Student Satisfaction with Program. The final outcome measure consisted of a 7-item questionnaire completed by each student along with the peer survey. The questionnaire contained items inquiring about the student's satisfaction with the program in the following areas: fairness of program rules, degree of personal freedom in program, quality of personal help and advice received from staff, quality of academic courses, satisfaction with grades, perception of fitting into the program, and overall happiness with the program. Students responded to each item on a 4-or 5-point Likert-type scale. Items were summed into an overall Satisfaction score.
Data Analysis. The first step in data analyses was to evaluate the internal consistency of the mental health adjustment, peer adjustment, and student satisfaction outcome measures. The behavioral adjustment outcome measure consisted of a heterogeneous array of coding categories (e.g., oversleeping, lying) which were not expected to intercorrelate. Next, descriptive statistics were generated for all predictor and outcome measures.
Third, simple correlations between predictor and outcome measures were generated. Significance tests for the correlations were one-tailed, based on the hypothesis that more favorable personality and family adjustment (higher scores) would be associated with more favorable outcome scores (lower scores on the Behavioral Adjustment Index and higher scores on the other three indices).
Finally, separate regression analyses were employed with each personality or family adjustment instrument to examine its cumulative predictive value (as assessed by multiple rs) for each outcome measure. Regressions were conducted in a stepwise mode in order to (a) identify the most important predictive scale for each instrument and (b) examine the unique additive contribution of any other scales. Unfortunately, the lack of complete data from all subjects prevented the calculation of omnibus regression analyses combining the predictor instruments.
RESULTSThe internal consistency of the mental health, peer adjustment, and student satisfaction indices was good. Corrected item-total correlations for the five items in the mental health adjustment index ranged from .49 to .73. Internal consistency of the index as assessed by Cronbach's alpha was .81. For the peer adjustment index, corrected item-total correlations for the six items ranged from .63 to .88, with an alpha of .78. For the student satisfaction questionnaire, corrected item-total correlations for the seven items ranged from .29 to .82, with an alpha of .82.
Table 1Descriptive Statistics for Predictor and Outcome Measures
A preliminary analysis revealed that IQ was not significantly correlated with any of the four outcome measures. This suggested that intelligence was not a potentially confounding variable in the primary analyses correlating personality and family adjustment with outcome.
Descriptive statistics for the predictor measures are reported in Table 1. Inspection of the group means for the predictor measures suggests overall healthy adjustment. In a previous report, we noted that these students tended to be consistently better adjusted than both college and high school norms for the Jackson Personality Inventory (Cornell, Callahan, & Loyd, 1988).
Outcome measures are also reported in Table 1. Individual percentages for presence of items on the Mental Health Adjustment Index are as follows: Depression-25 (57%), Suicidal Behavior-5 (11 %), Program CounseIing-22 (50%), Mental Health Treatment-11 (25%), Stress related Attrition-13 (30%).
Table 2Correlations of Personality and Family Measures with Program Adjustment
Correlations between predictor and outcome measures are reported in Table 2. Fifteen of 68 correlations (22%) were statistically significant at the p < .05 level. This is well above the 3 or 4 correlations which might be found significant due to Type I error. Curiously, JPI Factor 3 (Social Self- Confidence) was positively correlated with peer status but contrary to prediction was equally highly correlated with poor adjustment on two of the other outcome measures.
A total of 16 regression analyses were calculated for each predictor instrument-outcome measure pair. In 5 of the analyses no variables entered the equations. Results for the other 11 analyses are reported in Table 3.
Table 3Summary of Stepwise Multiple Regression Analyses
DISCUSSIONContrary to previous research (Brody & Benbow, 1987; Janos et al., 1988; Pollins, 1983; Robinson & Janos, 1986), this study did find evidence of socioemotional adjustment problems among students enrolled in an early college entrance/acceleration program. Among 44 adolescent females studied over a one-year period, over half were reported by staff as suffering from a period of depression. This report must be viewed with some caution because the students were not formally assessed, and the term depression is not used in the narrow sense as a psychiatric diagnosis. Still, it is noteworthy that so many of the students exhibited changes in behavior that elicited the concern of staff members experienced in working with adolescents.
Moreover, it is sobering that 5 students engaged in suicide-related behavior. This included 3 who engaged in self-injurious behavior which was not life-threatening and 2 more who made suicidal threats. Half of the girls were seen for counseling by the program's guidance counselor and 11 girls (an overlapping group) were referred to outside mental health professionals in the local community. Because of the need for confidentiality, more information cannot be reported.
Thirteen girls left the program for reasons judged by the program directors to be at least in part stress related. (Some other girls left for academic, familial, or financial reasons.) This relatively high attrition rate suggests the inappropriateness of acceleration for some students.
While recent studies have emphasized the absence of overall group mean differences between accelerants and nonaccelerants (Brody & Benbow, 1987; Janos et al., 1988), it is critically important to examine individual differences among accelerated students. Our study found a wide range of adjustment within this accelerant sample.
Personality Characteristics Associated with Healthy Adjustment This study identified a variety of personality and family variables that were correlated with socioemotional adjustment. Based on results of the multiple regression analyses, the Jackson Personality Inventory was predictive of three of four outcome measures. As might be expected, Responsibility was associated with better behavioral adjustment. Interpersonal Interest was associated with greater student satisfaction with the program.
Curiously, Social Self-Confidence was associated with better peer adjustment, but poorer behavioral adjustment and less student satisfaction with the program. This factor is composed of scores on just two scales, Self-Esteem and Social Adroitness. Notably, the Social Adroitness scale not only assesses skill in social situations, but may also indicate tendencies to be assertive and even manipulative of others. It may be that some of the more self-confident girls were more assertive and independent in a way that led to more conflict with the program rules or staff and less satisfaction with their overall program experience.
The Adolescent Self-Perception measure provided information about the girls' later behavioral adjustment and peer relations. Girls with more favorable perceptions of their physical appearance, as well as of their academic competence, were less likely to violate program rules and expectations. Not surprisingly, adolescents with more positive social self-concepts enjoyed higher peer status. This is consistent with previous findings (Cornell et al., 1988).
Family Characteristics Associated with Healthy Adjustment Harmonious family relationships (FES Harmony) were associated with better mental health adjustment and fewer behavioral problems. Girls from families with greater emphasis on organization and definite rules were more favorably perceived by their peers and more satisfied with the program. Positive peer status was also associated with families that placed somewhat less emphasis on moral-religious values and somewhat higher emphasis oil recreational activities.
The quality of the girls' relationships with their mothers, but not their fathers, was consistently related to their adjustment. Girls who enjoyed open communication with their mothers experienced better mental health adjustment and fewer behavior problems.
Study LimitationsWhile this study raises some provocative issues, caution in interpretation and generalization is needed. The prospective nature of the study suggests that personality and family characteristics can be used to predict program adjustment, but the correlation coefficients are generally of modest magnitude and allow for wide individual variation. The multiple regression analyses do result in some substantial multiple correlation coefficients (range .327 to .630), but stepwise procedures require confirmation in independent samples. Clearly, this study must be replicated in other acceleration programs.
Because of limited sample size, it was not possible to examine differential effects for entering students versus more senior students. In future work this issue will be addressed.
There are many hazards to prospective research. Among these are the problems of planning and coordinating extensive data collection over a period of time and subject attrition or noncompliance with data collection. The subjects who drop out of the study could be the ones who are experiencing the most difficulties, so that correlations are attenuated and under-estimate the true relationship between predictor variables and outcome.
There is some risk that study findings could be misinterpreted to mean that acceleration in general, or this specific program in particular, has a deleterious effect on socioemotional adjustment. This study does not address these questions. This study only provides evidence that girls differ in how well they function while in a specific acceleration program and that certain personality and family variables may be useful in predicting adjustment outcome.
It must be emphasized that the incidence of depression and other problems reported for these girls does not by itself demonstrate that acceleration caused adjustment difficulties. This study does not present comparable adjustment data for girls who did not attend an accelerated program. Some degree of mental health problems can be expected in any sample of students, regardless of their educational program. Problems may develop because of stresses in the girls' families or personal lives that are unrelated to their educational program. Nevertheless, our findings indicate a need for future acceleration studies to collect similar adjustment data to examine this issue in much more detail.
Studies comparing accelerants in different programs are needed. Residential programs that require students to live on campus may be more stressful than programs in which the students commute from home. There may be gender differences in how students adjust to accelerated programs.
Another plausible hypothesis is that some of the students experienced emotional stress due to inadequate academic or intellectual ability to succeed in an accelerated program. Certainly the IQs of some of the students in this study were lower than those commonly associated with early college entrance. Nevertheless, IQ was not predictive of the adjustment measures in this study. Future work will study the relationship between IQ and program adjustment in more detail.
It is possible that the adjustment problems experienced by these students preceded their enrollment in the program. However, the mean scores on our predictor measures suggest that as a group, these students and their families were well-adjusted. Moreover, a separate report (Cornell, 1989) examined differences between entering students and a control group of equally able non accelerants who live with their families and attend local high schools. There were few differences between accelerants and non accelerants in personality and family measures, suggesting that the accelerants in this study were not an atypical group in most respects. In future work changes in personality and family characteristics of these students over the course of their acceleration program will be investigated.
Program Changes Because of concerns about the students' social and emotional adjustment during the year of this study, the program instituted a number of changes the following year. In the area of admissions, the program became more selective, placing greater weight on evidence of the student's emotional maturity, prior achievement record, and demonstrated ability to relate well to adults. The program also made improvements in providing counseling and support for the students. These changes included revised guidelines and policies for residential staff in dealing with minor problems and residence hall rule violations, as well as provision of a half-time clinical psychologist to provide confidential counseling for more serious problems. The program director reports considerable improvement in student adjustment under the revised system, including a decline in stress-related program attrition from 30% to 13%.
Conclusion Students' socioemotional adjustment in an early college entrance program can be predicted from prior measures of personality and family characteristics. Further study is needed to examine changes in the students' adjustment over time and to isolate the factors associated with adjustment problems. Results indicate a strong need to study individual differences in how students fare in accelerated programs.
Author Notes We express our gratitude to the students and families who participated in this study. We thank Mary Manke and Karen Loftus for their assistance in data collection. We especially appreciate the support and cooperation of the staff and administrators who opened their program to our research team. Their willingness to allow independent investigators to study such a controversial topic is unequivocal evidence of their integrity and commitment as educators. This research was supported in part by grants from the Appalachia Educational Laboratory. A preliminary report of this study was presented at the 1988 Annual Convention of the National Association for Gifted Children in Orlando, Florida.
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