Healthy Pathways towards Academic Achievement and Social Mobility for Low-SES Youth

Project: Research project

Project Details


National education statistics reveal consistent academic achievement gaps by socioeconomic status (SES). Students from the lowest income quartile are six times less likely to complete high school than those from the highest income quartile. Even those low-SES students who do reach high school graduation are 25% less likely to enroll in post-secondary education than high-SES high school graduates (Baum, Ma, & Payea, 2010; NCES, 2013). A growing number of social psychological interventions to improve academic motivation and achievement provide effective practices to combat these social disparities in educational attainment (e.g., Destin & Oyserman, 2010; Hulleman, Godes, Hendricks, & Harackiewicz, 2010; Stephens, Hamedani, & Destin, 2014; Yeager & Walton, 2011). Many of these social psychological interventions can be conceptualized as “identity-based”, in that they transform the ways that young people consider who they are, who they aim to become, and how they will reach their “future identities” (Destin, 2013). However, insight from health psychology suggests that setting young people on the path to higher academic achievement and social mobility may often come at a cost to physical health (e.g., Brody et al., 2013; James et al., 2006). The persistent effort necessary to excel despite formidable contextual challenges, such as socioeconomic disadvantage, can take a cumulative, physiological toll and potentially alter important biological processes such as inflammation and immune functioning. Thus, it is important to understand how identity-based interventions can encourage academic motivation in a manner that simultaneously promotes physical health, for instance by leveraging sources of social support and connection and by helping young people to prepare for the challenges of social mobility.

The proposed research integrates social psychological approaches to improving academic motivation with advances from health psychology related to resilience in the context of health disparities. A school-based intervention and embedded experience-sampling study will establish the foundation for a program of research that tests the effectiveness of practices designed to promote pathways towards healthy achievement for adolescents in low-SES contexts and reduce socioeconomic disparities in health and achievement.
Project #1:

I plan to develop a novel program of research that will assess the pathways toward healthy achievement, emphasizing both identity-based motivation and social connections. A randomized controlled intervention will directly test the causal influence of specific interactions and cues within a school-based intervention. A treatment condition that promotes a healthy achievement focus should exert positive effects on physical health and achievement, through the benefits of social support/connection and identity-based school motivation. A standard motivation focus that does not explicitly incorporate elements of social support and connection should also improve academic outcomes, but at a potential cost to the physical health of low-SES students.

Additionally, the study will incorporate ESM to evaluate how everyday social interactions and contextual cues predict student health and achievement, both normatively and in reaction to the healthy achievement intervention. Regular interactions that encourage identity-based school motivation and simultaneously provide meaningful support and connection should be especially important in low-SES contexts and facilitate positive intervention effects. These interactions may involve peers,
Effective start/end date7/1/166/30/22


  • William T Grant Foundation (185616)


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