Full report: Comparing the Locus of Control of Young People in Foster Care
Author: Dinithi Wijedasa
Published by: Adoption & Fostering, March 2017
The term "locus of control" was first coined in the 1950s and refers to the attitude people have to events and outcomes in their lives. Individuals with an internal locus of control believe things that happen to them are the results of their own actions and behaviour. Meanwhile, those with an external locus of control believe things that happen are the result of outside forces such as fate, or are out of their control due to the actions of people more powerful than they are.
Research suggests individuals with a bias towards an internal locus of control enjoy better health and wellbeing, are more adaptable and positive about change and tend to achieve better results in academic tests. They are also less likely to become offenders, are more resilient and less aggressive. Research has also shown individuals may have beliefs associated with both internal and external locus of control at the same time and that a person's tendency to internal or external locus of control can shift over time.
Dinithi Wijedasa, of the Hadley Centre for Adoption and Foster Care Studies at the University of Bristol, wanted to find out whether the locus of control of children in foster care differs from that of children who have been adopted, children from disadvantaged backgrounds and children in the general population. She analysed data from 36 children in foster care, 31 adopted children, and 33 children from a disadvantaged background for her paper People Like Me Don't Have Much of a Chance in Life.
The children, aged 14 and 15, were part of the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England, and were compared with a sample of 13,406 children from the same study who formed the general population group.
Children were asked how far they agreed with a number of statements. Young people in all the groups reported high agreement with statements indicating an internal locus of control such as "Working hard at school now will help me get on later in life", with no significant differences between the groups.
However, when it came to external locus of control there were differences between the groups. When compared with young people in the general population, fostered children were nearly four times more likely to agree with the statement "People like me don't have much of a chance in life". They were also more than twice as likely to agree with "How well you get on in this world is mostly a matter of luck". Adopted young people were one-and-a-half times more likely than young people in the general population to agree with the first statement and were less likely than their general population peers to agree with the second.
Implications for practice
It is important to identify and establish policies and practice that could improve decision-making and permanency for children in foster care, addressing the lack of control brought about by constant moves, suggests Wijedasa. Children's locus of control is affected by the locus of control of those around them, so when foster carers feel disempowered this can affect the way the foster children perceive the world. Children in care may also feel more empowered through efforts to nurture their sense of identity such as contact with birth families and life story work.
- Locus of Control Orientation: Parents, Peers, and Place, Eileen Ahlin and Maria João Lobo Antunes, Journal of Youth and Adolescence, September 2015. A US study examining the factors associated with a tendency towards an internal locus of control among young people.
- Locus of Control at Age 10 Years and Health Outcomes and Behaviours at Age 30 Years: the 1970 British Cohort Study, Catherine Gale, David Batty, Ian Deary, Psychosomatic Medicine, May 2008. A study that finds having a stronger sense of control over one's own life in childhood appears to have health benefits in later life.
- Locus of Control, Self-efficacy, and Motivation in Different Schools: Is Moderation the Key to Success? Angelika Anderson, John Hattie, Richard Hamilton, Educational Psychology, January 2007. Moderate levels of locus of control appear to be more adaptable than either extremely high or low levels, according to this study.