The Latino population is the largest and fastest growing ethnic minority group in the United States (Bernstein, 2008) and, in 2006 over 9.98 million Latino youth were enrolled in schools throughout the U.S. (Pew Hispanic Center, 2008). Unfortunately, compared to all other ethnic groups, Latinos are less likely to finish high school (U.S. Census Bureau, 2008). One important factor that researchers have found to be related to success in school is academic motivation. The more academic motivation students have, the more likely they are to succeed in school (Anderson & Keith, 1997; Wentzel, 1998).

What Is Academic Motivation?

Academic motivation has been defined in many ways (Anderson & Keith, 1997; Goodenow & Grady, 1993; Gottfried, Fleming, & Gottfried, 2001; Linnenbrink & Pintrich, 2002; Wentzel, 1997):

  • Academic effort
  • Attendance
  • Educational aspirations
  • Enjoyment of learning
  • Importance placed on school
  • Perseverance
  • School conduct

Academic motivation is influenced by the relationships adolescents have with others (Goodenow & Grady; Linnenbrink & Pintrich). Specifically, parents and teachers have been found to have strong influences on students’ academic motivation (Harter, 1996; Matute-Bianchi, 1991; Newman, Lohman, Newman, Myers, & Smith, 2000; Wentzel).

The Importance of Parents and Teachers On Latino Academic Motivation

Parents and teachers may be especially important to consider among Latino students because the Latino culture is family oriented (Garcia-Preto, 1996; Sabogal, Marin, Otero-Sabogal, Marin, & Perez-Stable, 1987) and emphasizes the importance of extended family and relationships outside of the family (Cooper, 1999; Shweder et al., 1998).

In a recent study, my colleagues and I looked at how academic support from parents and teachers influenced Latino adolescents’ academic motivation (Alfaro, Umaña-Taylor, & Bámaca, 2006). We collected data from 324 9th and 10th grade Latino students in the Midwest. To measure academic support, we had students tell us if their mothers, fathers, teachers, and friends helped them with school and helped them make decisions about continuing their education. They also told us how motivated they were in school.

Results of Our Study on Latino Academic Motivation

We found that that academic support from teachers was important for both boys and girls, but we also found some differences for boys and girls.

  • Academic support from fathers was only important for boys. The more help boys reported from fathers, the higher their academic motivation.
  • Academic support from mothers was only important for girls. The more help girls reported from their mothers, the higher their academic motivation.
  • Academic support from teachers was important for both boys and girls. The more help boys and girls reported form their teachers the higher their academic motivation.
  • Academic support from friends did not influence boys’ or girls’ academic motivation.

These findings highlight the importance of teachers to Latino youth. By providing help to Latino students, teachers motivate them to succeed in school. We also recognize that parents influence their sons and daughters differently. Therefore, it is important for schools to work with both mothers and fathers. 

Keeping Latino Youth Motivated Through High School Graduation Is Difficult

Our study followed students only through 10th grade, but it is important to ensure that Latino youth graduate from high school. Academic motivation has been found to decline as adolescents go through school (Chouinard, Vezeau, & Bouffard, 2008; Gottfried et al., 2001). Some researchers believe that drops in academic motivation may be a result of changes in adolescents’ relationships with others (Eccles, Lord, & Midgley, 1991; Eccles et al., 1993). Specifically, as adolescents try to establish their independence, they may seek out less support from their parents and teachers. If this is the case, following Latino students throughout high school can help us see if there is a long-term connection between academic support from parents and teachers and academic motivation. A better understanding of academic motivation for Latino students will help in developing intervention and prevention programs that keep Latino students motivated to succeed in high school.

While we wait for the development of prevention and intervention programs, Latino parents can take some simple steps at home to help motivate their adolescents:

  • Provide help with school work.
  • Show your children that you care about their education.
  • Provide advice about school.
  • Encourage your children to continue their education beyond high school.
  • Help your children make educational plans.

These are important steps for both mothers and fathers to take because moms and dads influence their sons and daughters differently.


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