Local community support in students’ self-concept development, academic achievement and ESL prevention

Thursday 23 July 2015, by Ana Kozina

Through high-quality, community-based activities open to all students (including high-risk students), the community can play a significant role in building students’ positive academic self-concept and promote overall positive development that can, in turn, lead to lower levels of ESL.

Keywords : local community  self-concept 

This paper applies the strength-based approaches (positive self-concept development and overall positive youth development (Lerner, 2007)) to the promotion of young people’s success within the school environment and ESL prevention. It introduces the role of the local community in overall (student personal) development and the development of a positive self-concept. A positive self-concept is a valuable resource for favourable developmental outcomes since being socially constructed it can play a significant role in preventing ESL. The paper builds on theoretical findings on changes in the self-concept. Potential ESLrs can be influenced by building their positive self-concept (especially academic self-concept), first by significant others providing positive feedback (a positive change in a low academic self-schema) and, second, by introducing and focusing on educational goals (combining educational goals with non-educational goals in a congruent way). Further on, when analysing the role the local community can play in preventing ESL the relational development system theory and positive youth development perspective (Overton, 2010; Kiely Mueller et al., 2011) can be of great use. Development system theory indicates that youth should be studied not in isolation but as a product of the two-way relationship between the individual and his or her environment. One important environmental asset are community-based activities as a source of positive experience and positive self-concept development (Li, Bebiroglu, Phelps, & Lerner, 2009). Participation in high-quality, community-based activities is an influential contextual asset for promoting positive youth outcomes (positive self-concept and academic achievement as well) (Eccles & Gootman, 2002). The paper provides some practical implications and guidelines on how to plan such community-based activities. In the conclusion, special attention is paid to positive self-concept development and support in planning ESL prevention with a focus on high-risk students and the period of transition.


Self-concept is a reflection of individual actual abilities in a specific domain and internalisations of the feedback obtained from significant others (Harter, 2006). It is also an important construct from the motivational perspective since it predicts behaviour in specific domains (Reeve, 2015). In the interplay between self-concept and ESL, the motivational role of self-concept is crucial. Self-concept (e.g. academic self-concept) moderates effort and motivation to be active in a certain field (e.g. school attendance, learning). Since self-concept is socially constructed, and therefore subject to change, it holds the potential to play a significant role in ESL prevention. In the present paper, we will focus on the role the local community (besides other relevant contexts, such as family, school peers) has in fostering positive self-concept development (especially academic self-concept development). We will use the theoretical framework of relational systems models and the positive youth development perspective (Lerner, 2007) as they stress the value of the interplay between the individual and contexts’ characteristics in promoting overall positive youth development (e.g. developing a positive self-concept and preventing ESL). Most of the literature has focused on risk factors for failure and ESL rather than on promoting competencies that can increase young people’s likelihood of successfully completing high school. This paper applies the strength-based approaches (positive self-concept development and overall positive youth development) to the promotion of young people’s success within the school environment by introducing the role of the local community in overall development and ESL prevention.


A search of scientific articles was not successful in combining school-community with ESL and self-concept (for instance: in the database Psych Articles (EBSHOST): self-concept (in title) & early school leaving (in title) – 0 articles; self-concept (in title) & drop out (in title) – 0 articles; self-concept (in title) & academic achievement (in title) – 0 articles; self-concept (in title) & local community (in title) – 0 articles). Since the focus of this paper is on the self-concept and the role of the local community as a context in self-concept development, academic achievement and ESL prevention we used: (i) self-concept handbooks and monographs; and (ii) development system model handbooks and monographs as the main source (with extensive backward search focusing on ESL and factors related to ESL). The development system model and within it positive youth development as a framework was used due to its focus on individual–context relations relevant to this paper.

Self-concept, self-concept development: link to (academic) outcomes, motivation and ESL prevention

Self-concept (a collection of domain-specific self-schemas) is typically seen as a cognitive representation of the self or perception of one’s personal and interpersonal characteristics (Haney & Durlak, 1998). Self-concept can also be defined as an organised collection of characteristics, traits, attitudes, opinions, beliefs and other mental elements which individuals attach to themselves in different stages of development and in different situations (Kobal, 2000). Situations or domains typically include school, peer and athletic contexts (Galambos & Costigan, 2003). The self-schemas that are central to self-concept are those which are more important to every individual. At the same time, they also reflect the developmental period one is in (Markus, 1977, in Reeve, 2015). In adolescence, the major self-schemas are related to academic competence, athletic competence, physical appearance, peer acceptance, close friendship, romantic appeal and behavioural conduct or morality (Harter, 2006). Self-schema is a cognitive generalisation about the self that is domain-specific and learned from past experiences (Markus, 1983 in Reeve, 2015). For instance, in school the individual develops academic self-schema that is domain-specific and derived from their past experiences and reflections of those experiences (Reeve, 2015) in the school setting. This specific self-schema answers the question about ‘me as a student’.

The development of self-concept is supported on one hand by cognitive development and on the other by social interaction processes (Harter, 2006). In focusing on normative developmental changes, cognitive development impacts two general characteristics of the self-structure: differentiation and integration. With regard to differentiation, emerging cognitive abilities allow the individual to create self-evaluations across various domains; multiple selves in different contexts. In relation to integration, cognitive abilities allow the individual to construct a higher-order generalisation, also called general self-concept (Harter, 2006).

Positive self-schema and positive evaluations about oneself are related to positive outcomes, such as a lower level of depression, lower level of conduct problems (Gerard & Buehler, 2004; Trzensnievsky, Donnelalan, & Robins et al., 2006) and higher academic achievement (Avsec, 2007; Juriševič, 1999). The data collected so far point to the co-dependence of individuals’ uncertainty about themselves, a low self-concept, a low academic self-concept and lower career aspirations with a greater likelihood of ESL (Reid, 2000). The one that predicts academic achievement most significantly is the domain-specific academic self-concept. The relationship between academic self-concept and academic achievement depends on the developmental period one is in. In the early years of schooling academic achievement fosters the academic self-concept whereas in later years the relationship becomes more reciprocal and in adolescence the relationship is the other way around, namely the academic self-concept fosters academic achievement (Juriševič, 1999). Taken together, these findings show that positive self-concept is a valuable resource for favourable developmental outcomes. All said, it makes academic self-concept an important building stone of academic success and ESL prevention. For instance, several relevant strengths that youth must develop to be successful during adolescence include positive self-evaluations, long-term planning, use of effective learning strategies and prioritising goals (Wigfield, 1995). These skills all contribute to learning and greater school engagement (Wigfield & Cambria, 2010; Zimmerman & Schunk, 2001).

Self-schemas (e.g. academic self-schema) generate motivation (e.g. for learning, staying in school) in two ways. First, self-schemas, once formed, direct behaviour in ways that call on feedback that is consistent with the established self-schemas: self-schema consistency (Reeve, 2015). For instance, if one sees himself as a successful student he or she will engage in school activities more, put greater effort into school work in order to get the feedback that will reinforce their already positive self-schema in the academic field. In contrast, the student who perceives him or herself as a school failure will become less and less active in the school environment. Second, the self-schema creates motivation to move from the real self to the ideal self (goal setting) (Reeve, 2015). In order for a student to stay in school he has to have a goal to stay in school. For example, a student who sees him or herself as a basketball player and not a student will move from the school setting and put more effort into basketball trainings, e.g. could leave school early to pursue his or her aims in basketball). Potential early school leavers can be influenced in both of these two processes. First is the positive change in the low academic self-schema (by significant others providing positive feedback) and the second is setting goals in the educational domain (by combining educational goals with non-educational goals in a congruent way).

The role of community in self-concept development

According to social identity theory (Tajfel, 1981), the individual’s self-concept is partly derived from their role and connectedness to the group. The importance of the interplay between individual characteristics and contexts is stressed in relational developmental system theory. When studying adolescence, the theory is operationalised as a positive youth development perspective (Lerner, 2007). When addressing risky behaviour such as ESL, following the relational development system theory and the positive youth development perspective (Overton, 2010, in Kiely Mueller et al., 2011) can be of great use. Development system theory indicates that young people should be studied not in isolation but as a product of the two-way relationship between the individual and his or her environment. For instance, in adolescence adaptive adolescents’ regulations involve aligning the developing strengths of youth with the features of their complex and changing worlds (e.g. school transitions). When the intervention and positive change occurs on both sides – individual and context – positive youth development takes place (Lerner, Bowers, Geldof, Gestdottir, & DeSouza, 2012). The basic idea is that youth will develop positively when their strengths are aligned with the resources existing in their ecology. Positive outcomes (e.g. a positive self-concept) will be more probable and risky behaviour (e.g. ESL) less frequent. The question then is how to boost individual strengths and ecological assets so as to increase the likelihood the young person will become productive (including academically productive).

The positive youth development perspective (Lerner, 2007) proposes a model in which positive development is operationalised through the 5Cs: competence, confidence, character, connection and caring (Lerner et al., 2012). The 5Cs model emphasises the strengths of adolescents (Bowers, Li, Kiely, Brittian, Lerner, & Lerner, 2010) as a result of positive interactions between individual characteristics and context (including the local community). The process is outlined in the figure below.

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Figure 1. Relational developmental model: The role of academic achievement and local community. (Adapted from Lerner et al., 2005)

Academic achievement forms part of one of the 5Cs: competence, and self-concept forms part of another: confidence, and they are both results from positive interactions between the strengths of the individual (such as school engagement (Chase, Hilliard, Geldof, Warren, & Lerner, 2014)) and ecological assets or contexts (such as social networks (local community) and institutions (school)). In order for students to be successful, they need strong support from their families, neighbourhoods and schools. As seen from the model, a student’s academic success and positive self-concept is a product of many factors, both individual and contextual (Chase et al., 2014). According to the positive youth development perspective, there are strengths that exist in the ecology of youth, that is, there are resources in the families, school, neighbourhood and the local community that can support the actualisation of adolescents’ change in more positive directions. These contextual resources are called ecological developmental assets (Benson, Scales, Hamilton, & Semsa, 2006). One important contextual asset is community-based activities as a source of positive experience and positive self-concept development (Li, Bebiroglu, Phelps, & Lerner, 2009). Participation in high-quality, after-school activities is an influential contextual asset for promoting positive youth outcomes (a positive self-concept and academic achievement as well) (Eccles & Gootman, 2002). When there are positive programmes in the community in which youth can participate, these programmes play an important role in promoting positive outcomes (Eccles & Gootman, 2002; Kiely Mueller et al., 2011). After-school activities constitute a significant portion of the time that many young people spend away from the family and school setting that can function as a protective factor. Participation in community, after-school activities can also impact on youth achievement within the school setting (Zaff, Moore, Papillo, & Williams, 2003). For instance, participation in a variety of extracurricular activities is linked to higher school engagement, lower risk behaviours and positive academic outcomes (Fredrics & Eccles, 2005).

Unfortunately, not all students are equally involved in such activities, for example students who come from a home without as many resources are frequently left out. The community can come forward in addressing these issues by providing cost-free activities for youth. Taking part in high-quality, community-based activities results in several positive outcomes, such as goal-setting skills related to self-concept development (Larson, 2000; Simpink, Vest, & Becnel, 2010). In addition to promoting positive outcomes and self-concept-related outcomes, participating in community-based, out-of-school activities has been linked to several other outcomes that are also related to academic achievement and school success, such as emotional regulation (Larson & Brown, 2007) and structured positive and prosocial peer relations (Barber, Stone, Hunt, & Eccles, 2005, in Kiely Muller, Lewin Bizan, & Brown Urban, 2011). The community activities differ from school by providing challenge and motivation to develop their skills. The community context gives youth critical opportunities to work towards a real-world goal, exert control over projects and learn skills that may engage their energy and attention (Ramey & Rose-Krasnor, 2012). For instance, youth living in communities with greater opportunities to participate in structured activities may experience better overall development than do youth in less well-organised communities (Scales, Benson, Leffert, & Blyth, 2000), indicating the important role the local community plays in positive youth development and ESL prevention.

Practical implications

In order to promote positive development and, within it, promote development of a positive self-concept and prevent ESL, Eccles and Gootman (2002) suggest eight community programme characteristics are important: (a) physical and psychological safety; (b) an appropriate structure; © supportive relationships; (d) opportunities to belong; (e) positive social norms; (f) support for efficacy and mastering; (g) opportunities for building skills; and (h) integration of family, school and community efforts. In a shorter version, these have been condensed to three: (a) positive and sustained programmes (lasting at least a year); (b) including youth life skills building activities; © activities led by youth and the inclusion of activities holding a high value for youth. Participation in such programmes has been linked to positive outcomes, among others to higher grades and a positive self-concept (Kiely Mueller et al., 2011). When the community setting offers opportunities for meaningful participation and broad commitment in ways that extend to interests outside the self, such as citizenship and volunteering, youth respond in ways that impel growth and positive youth development (Ramey & Rose-Krasnor, 2012). [1] In addition, the programmes that are aimed at boosting the self-concept show a notable improvement in a participant’s personal adjustments and academic achievement (Haney & Durlak, 2006).

When planning an intervention, one also has to consider the timing in line with the developmental trends of self-concept. The entry to elementary school and the period of middle childhood is connected to a general decline in the overall and domain-specific self-concept (Cantin & Boivin, 2004). Researchers (Harter, 2006) attribute this drop to greater reliance to social comparisons information and social feedback, leading to more realistic judgements about one’s capabilities. After this period and the identification of relative weaknesses and strengths concerning specific domains, recovery of the self-concept is expected. The next developmental drop in self-concept is expected in early adolescence due to the transition to lower secondary school (Wigfield, Eccles, MacIver Reuman, & Midgley, 1991). It is in this period that ESL is also most frequent. In Western societies, the physiological and emotional changes related with puberty (indicating the onset of the period of adolescence) often overlap with the changes associated with the transition from elementary to lower secondary school (Cole et al., 2001). But this decline has been found to be less common and less intense in low-risk students (Castro-Olivo, 2014). Research also shows that a lower level of connection with school through school engagement may have a negative impact on students’ academic achievement (Blum & Libbey, 2004; Humphrey, 2013). This all indicates that special attention to the positive self-concept development and support should be paid to the transition periods in order to foster ESL prevention, with a focus on high-risk students and the period of transition.


The paper concentrates on the role of the local community in both positive self-concept development and academic achievement, which both lead to ESL prevention. The positive youth development perspective, which provides a theoretical foundation, represents a strength-based approach (as opposed to a prevention model) and sees youth as a resource to be developed and not as a problem. Following this perspective, every young person has the potential for successful and healthy development and all youth possess the capacity for positive development. The basic idea is that young people will develop positively when their strengths are aligned with the resources that exist in their ecology. Positive outcomes will be more probable and risky behaviour (such as ESL) less frequent (Lerner et al., 2012). The positive youth perspective asserts that young people have the right to contexts that foster their strengths and competencies, which provide opportunities and encouragements to learn and explore (Damon, 2004). The community context can provide just that to promote positive development and prevent ESL by introducing community-based activities that are free to all and organised in such a way that promotes positive youth development and positive self-concept development (congruent with the academic self-concept).


[1For example, a specific, well-organised programme which helps to build a strong self-concept in connection to educational attainment is the PLYA programme in Slovenia (Dobrovoljc et al., 2003): Project learning for young adults, which is a publicly accredited informal education programme intended for the unemployed aged between 15 to 25 years with the intention to either encourage young people to return to education or to find a job. The programme is basically a second-chance programme, but it also builds on relationships with the community.

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