Central to many definitions of competence is the notion that successful adaptation within social contexts requires meeting multiple demands that reflect personal interests as well as those of the social group (e.g. Bronfenbrenner, 1989; see also Ford, 1992). This suggests that becoming a competent and well-adjusted student is a multi-faceted and complex process that involves the achievement of goals that are valued and interesting to the student as well as those that are valued by teachers and peers. Goals valued by teachers and peers should result in the smooth functioning of the social group (e.g. displays of appropriate classroom behaviour) and are reflected in levels of social approval and positive interpersonal relationships and interactions, and those valued by the individual should reflect the development of intrinsic and idiosyncratic interests, a healthy sense of identity, and emotional well-being (Bronfenbrenner, 1989; Ford, 1992).

In addition, theorists have suggested that competence is also a product of contextual supports that facilitate goal pursuit and the achievement of personal as well as socially valued goals (e.g. Bronfenbrenner, 1989). Personal attributes are typically discussed with regard to factors leading to positive motivational orientations and engagement. Contextual supports are most often described as emanating from interpersonal interactions and relationships. These supports provide students with opportunities for accomplishing their personal goals, such as to make friends or to learn algebra. They also define the appropriate parameters of these accomplishments so that they contribute to the socially valued outcomes, such as establishing friendship groups that are socially inclusive rather than exclusive and engaging in instructional activities during math class.

In light of this ‘competence-in-context’ perspective, in this essay, I first describe socially valued goals that define classroom competence for students. Next, I describe a set of motivational beliefs that support goal pursuit. Finally, contextual supports that facilitate development of these beliefs and subsequent goal pursuit are discussed with regard to contextual supports provided by teachers and peers.