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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Seeking alternative pathways : an exploration of school engagement from the perspectives of marginalized youth Curtis, Nicole L.


Education in British Columbia is intended to be inclusive, however there are students who slip through the cracks. These marginalized students are often found to be struggling with challenges outside of and within school that complicate their educational journeys. According to Self-Determination Theory (SDT), one possible reason for their disengagement is that these students do not perceive their psychological needs for autonomy, belonging and competence as met, which may lead to reduced motivation, and therefore reduced engagement. Informed by feminist, trauma-informed and youth-centered perspectives, this study explored what motivated six marginalized youth to attend school, how they experienced school engagement, and how their experiences of school influenced their school engagement. Six youth enrolled in alternative secondary education programs participated in semi-structured interviews. The data collected from the interviews was analyzed according to SDT, which revealed that in general participants did not perceive schools as meeting their basic psychological needs for autonomy, belonging and competence. Findings from the study indicate that participants were motivated to attend school due to opportunities to develop employment skills, as well as increased access to social networks, resources and supports. The study found that participants found emotional, cognitive and agentic engagement desirable, while behavioural engagement was more often an inauthentic performance idealized in classrooms. Participants’ experiences of school were found to influence their engagement in a variety of ways. This study concluded that in order to increase student motivation to attend, schools might work toward fostering strong student connections, supporting access to employment skills training, reducing barriers to education, and building empathy and understanding for marginalized youth. In order to increase student engagement, schools might focus on increasing student perceptions of autonomy, belonging and competence in their learning environments, as well as work to reduce barriers such as learning challenges and the effects of outside factors on learning. Finally, viewing school engagement as collection of nested, or ecological, social processes that are influenced by factors beyond school walls, as well as by the bidirectional relationships within schools, may help to increase marginalized student engagement.

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