Choice is good, but relevance is excellent: autonomy-enhancing and suppressing teacher behaviours predicting students' engagement in schoolwork

Br J Educ Psychol. 2002 Jun;72(Pt 2):261-78. doi: 10.1348/000709902158883.


Background and aims: This article examines two questions concerning teacher-behaviours that are characterised in Self-Determination Theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000) as autonomy-supportive or suppressive: (1) Can children differentiate among various types of autonomy-enhancing and suppressing teacher behaviours? (2) Which of those types of behaviour are particularly important in predicting feelings toward and engagement in schoolwork? It was hypothesised that teacher behaviours that help students to understand the relevance of schoolwork for their personal interests and goals are particularly important predictors of engagement in schoolwork.

Samples and methods: Israeli students in grades 3-5 (N = 498) and in grades 6-8 (N = 364) completed questionnaires assessing the variables of interest.

Results: Smallest Space Analyses indicated that both children and early adolescents can differentiate among three types of autonomy enhancing teacher behaviours - fostering relevance, allowing criticism, and providing choice - and three types of autonomy suppressing teacher behaviours - suppressing criticism, intruding, and forcing unmeaningful acts. Regression analyses supported the hypothesis concerning the importance of teacher behaviours that clarify the personal relevance of schoolwork. Among the autonomy-suppressing behaviours, 'Criticism-suppression' was the best predictor of feelings and engagement.

Conclusions: The findings underscore the active and empathic nature of teachers' role in supporting students' autonomy, and suggest that autonomy-support is important not only for early adolescents but also for children. Discussion of potential determinants of the relative importance of various autonomy-affecting teacher actions suggests that provision of choice should not always be viewed as a major indicator of autonomy support.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Child
  • Educational Status*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Internal-External Control*
  • Male
  • Motivation*
  • Teaching / methods*