Individuals are not likely to do very well or be very motivated if they are in social environments that do not fit their psychological needs. If the social environments in the typical junior high schools and middle schools do not fit very well with the psychological needs of adolescents, this theory predicts a decline in their motivation, interest, performance, and behavior.
Evidence from a variety of sources supports this hypothesis (see Eccles et al., 1998). Both of these early adolescent school transitions often involve the following types of contextual changes: (a) a shift from a smaller to a larger school; (b) a shift from a less to a more bureaucratic, more controlling, and more heterogeneous social system; (c) a shift to a social setting with less personal contact with adults and less opportunity to be engaged in school activities and responsible school roles; (d) a shift to a more rigid, socially comparative grading system; and (e) a shift to a more rigid curriculum tracking system focused on different life trajectories (e.g., the vocational educational track versus the college-bound educational track). Along with these changes, evidence from classroom-based studies suggest that teachers in junior high schools and large middle schools feel less able to teach all of their students the more challenging academic material and are more likely to use exclusionary and harsh discipline strategies that can effectively drive low-achieving and problematic students away from school (see Eccles and Midgley, 1989; Fine, 1991).
Research in a variety of areas has documented the impact on motivation and school engagement of such changes in classroom and school environments. For example, the big school/small school literature has demonstrated the motivational advantages of small secondary schools, especially for marginal students (Barker and Gump, 1964; Elder and Conger, 2000). Similarly, the teacher efficacy literature has documented the positive consequences of high teacher efficacy on student motivation (Ashton, 1985; Brookover et al., 1979). The list of such influences could go on. The point is that the motivational problems seen at early adolescence may be a consequence of the type of school environment changes these students are forced to adapt to rather than the characteristics of the developmental period per se.
Eccles and her colleagues stress the fact that these school changes are particularly problematic for early adolescents—in fact they label this phenomenon stage-environment misfit. Evidence suggests that early adolescent development is characterized by increases in the desire for autonomy, peer orientation, self-focus and self-consciousness, salience of