Students’ social and civic competencies: Predictors of ESL

Wednesday 11 February 2015, by Maša Vidmar

Externalising behaviours (e.g. deviant, disruptive, oppositional behaviour) are consistently shown to be risk factors for ESL. Civic competence (via participation in extracurricular activities) as well as social competence constitute protective factors. Peers also play a role. Supporting students’ social and emotional adjustment early on is warranted.

ESL’s possible links with social competence and problem behaviour have received some scientific attention, in the process demonstrating their relevance for dealing with ESL. Yet the topic remains largely overlooked in relevant policy briefs. The role of civic competence relative to ESL has also been neglected. The aim of this article is to review scientific studies linking social behaviour and civic competence to early school leaving and to academic achievement/failure in order to highlight the important need to support students’ social and emotional adjustment as well as their civic participation from the early years on.

With regard to ESL, a review of studies shows that externalising behaviours (e.g. alcohol, drug use and abuse, disruptiveness and oppositional behaviours, delinquency, teenage parenting) are most consistently linked with ESL, while less research has considered internalising behaviour and social competence and even less has examined civic competence. Concerning internalising behaviour, links between ESL and depressive symptoms and mood disorders have been found. Social competence seems to be especially important for the student at risk – it appears to help build up their resilience to ESL. Evidence regarding the link between civic competence and ESL is limited, but its role has been demonstrated via extracurricular activities – participation in extracurricular and community-based activities plays a role. Peers also play a role – ESLers more often associate with deviant peers.

Despite the strong evidentiary base on the relationship with ESL (particularly for externalising behaviour), these aspects are often overlooked when addressing ESL. Thus, in order to prevent ESL it seems warranted to help build students’ social and emotional adjustment and their participation in extracurricular activities from the beginning of school.


Social and civic competencies include a wide range of personal, interpersonal and intercultural abilities that enable individuals to participate constructively in social and school/working life in our societies that are increasingly diverse (European Commission, 2006). Social competence and several other related terms (e.g. social behaviour, social adjustment, behavioural competence) appear in similar contexts and many different definitions of them exist. For the purpose of this article, social behaviour is an overarching term within which social competence is described as efficiency in social interactions which meets short- and long-term developmental needs (Rose-Krasnor, 1997), while the lack of social competence is viewed as problem behaviour. Problem behaviour is classified in two broad categories: externalising behaviour (which includes hyperactivity, impulsiveness, attention problems, anger, opposition, aggression, disruptive and antisocial behaviour; Hinshaw, 1992; Mullin & Hinshaw, 2007) and internalising behaviour (which includes depression, anxiety, preoccupation with physical symptoms, and social withdrawal; Eisenberg, Hofer, & Vaughan, 2007; Mullin & Hinshaw, 2007). As with social competence, there is a variety of definitions and conceptualisations for civic competence and the definition of “civic” has expanded considerably in the last decade (Haste, Bermudez, & Carretero, 2017). Most broadly, civic competence equips individuals to fully participate in civic life, based on knowledge of social and political concepts and structures and a commitment to active and democratic participation (European Commission, 2006).

Social competence and problem behaviour have received considerable attention among scholars worldwide and a multitude of publications links the two domains to later (mal)adjustments (including ESL) or examines their early precursors. Civic competence is also a topic of scientific interest. Moreover, social and civic competencies are recognised as key competencies for lifelong learning also within the European reference framework (European Commission, 2006). However, as indicated by Downes (2011), these aspects (social, emotional competence) are often overlooked in the ESL policy discourse. This article aims to review scientific studies linking problem behaviour, social competence, peer relations and civic competence to ESL in order to highlight the important need to support students’ social and emotional adjustment as well as their civic participation from the early years on (see Figure 1). The article also explains the mechanisms underlying these relationships.

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Figure 1. The predictors of ESL examined herein


This article is based on an examination of scientific articles found using the following key words: early school leaving, early school leaver, drop-out AND social behaviour, social competence, problem behaviour, externalising behaviour, internalising behaviour, social adjustment, peers, civic competence, academic achievement in the EBSCOhost database. A search was also conducted using the backward procedure, while in addition we drew information from EU policy documents (e.g. European Commission).

Problem behaviour and ESL

Much research has been done on the topic of ESL and its link to problem behaviour. Most of the reviewed literature took a longitudinal approach to collecting data or comprised meta-analyses of existing literature on the topic. A literature review by PPMI (2014) for the European Commission described the competence profile of underachievers and ESLers. That profile includes poor social skills as well as being too disruptive (externalising behaviour) or too quiet, isolated (internalising behaviour) in class.

The majority of the existing research links ESL to externalising behaviours such as delinquency, discipline problems, absenteeism and deviant behaviours in and out of school (alcohol, drug use and abuse, disruptiveness and oppositional behaviours, juvenile delinquency, teenage parenting, aggression, vandalism etc.; e.g. Rumberger & Lim, 2008; Hawkins, Jaccard, & Needle, 2013; Jimerson, Carlson, Rotert, Egeland, & Sroufe, 1997; Alexander, Entwisle, & Horsey, 1997; Jimerson, Egeland, Sroufe, & Carlson, 2000; Townsend, Fischer, & King, 2007; Battin-Pearson et al., 2000). South, Haynie and Bose (2007) found that students who are not expressing disruptive behaviours and not misbehaving (i.e. are behaviourally engaged) are less likely to drop out of school the following year. The opposite applies to disruptiveness, which may lead to early withdrawal from school because it contributes to school problems (Jimerson et al. 1997). Absenteeism and discipline problems have also been linked to ESL (Rumberger, 2004; Rumberger & Larson, 1998).

Within externalising behaviours, deviant behaviour’s relationship with ESL has been most consistently reported in the literature (Townsend et al., 2007). Alcohol and drug use predicts ESL even when controlling for other risk factors (Garnier, Stein, & Jacobs, 1997; Lynskey, Coffey, Degenhardt, Carlin, & Patton, 2003; Mensch & Kandel, 1988). In addition, prior delinquency has been found to predict ESL beyond the influence of poor academic achievement (Battin-Pearson et al., 2000). Parker and Asher (1987) report that, among personal factors, a disruptive behavioural profile (i.e., aggressive-hyperactive-oppositional behaviours) has repeatedly been shown to predict early withdrawal from school, even after controlling for familial and socioeconomic factors. Ensminger and Slusarcick (1992) showed that aggressive behaviours and low grades as early as first grade predicted later school dropout. On a similar note, after reviewing 25 years of previous research Rumberger and Lim (2008) concluded that engaging in any deviant behaviour (as described above) increases the risk of ESL. Two studies (Battin-Pearson et al., 2000; Newcomb et al., 2002) controlled for a host of different predictors, including prior academic achievement and family background. Both studies established that deviant behaviour at age 14 had a significant and direct effect on ESL by age 16, and high school failure (dropout and months of missed school) in grade 12. Some studies (Bernburg & Krohn, 2003; Hannon, 2003; Sweeten, 2006) examined involvement in the justice system and found that being arrested had a separate and generally bigger effect on ESL than delinquency. Sweeten (2006) also determined that involvement in court after being arrested was a much stronger ESL predictor than simply being arrested without any court involvement.

With regard to drug and alcohol use, in their review Rumberger and Lim (2008) established that drug and alcohol use during high school and also during middle school was associated with higher ESL in most studies examined. Alcohol, drugs and tobacco are often correlated, but two studies found that tobacco use during middle school had a direct effect on the chances of ESL, while drug (marijuana) use did not (Ellickson, Bui, Bell, & Mcguigan, 1998; Battin-Pearson et al., 2000). Another study showed that both marijuana and tobacco use had direct effects on ESL, but marijuana use had the stronger effect (Bray, Zarkin, Ringwalt, & Qi, 2000).

Another important indicator of deviant behaviour studied in the research literature is teen pregnancy and parenting. There is an issue of establishing a causal connection between teenage pregnancy and ESL, not knowing whether teenage pregnancy directly makes females drop out or if other unobservable factors contribute to both the pregnancy and the ESL. Rumberger and Lim (2008) report that 50 out of 62 studies found teenage parenting and childbearing to increase the odds of ESL or reduce the odds of graduating. Further, teenage parenting held more serious consequences for females than for males (Fernandez, Paulsen, & Hirano-Nakanishi, 1989). One of the challenges authors report on in studies of out-of-school behaviours is whether the behaviour, in this case delinquency, is causally related to ESL or whether the two behaviours are the result of a common set of underlying factors.

Research on internalising behaviour and its connection to ESL is much less extensive. Some studies linked depression to ESL through students’ self-perception of academic competence. Certain researchers (Abramson, Metalsky, & Alloy, 1989; Hankin, Abramson, & Siler, 2001) report that depressed students have a lower and more negative self-perception. They have low self-perceived competence and, as a result, their negative perceptions of competence lead to their reduced engagement in learning activities and underachievement (Bandura, 1993; Fortier, Vallerand, & Guay, 1995; Pajares & Graham, 1999; Shim, Ryan, & Anderson, 2008; Zimmerman, 2000). In the long run, children and adolescents with lower self-perceived competence and achievement are more likely to drop out of school (Alexander, Entwisle, & Kabbani, 2001; Caprara et al., 2008; Guay, Larose, & Boivin, 2004; Vallerand, Fortier, & Guay, 1997). Quiroga, Janosz, Bisset, & Morin (2013) established an association between depression and ESL. Adolescents with bigger symptoms of depression were 23% more likely to become ESLers. The relationship between depression and ESL was, however, mediated by self-perceptions of academic competence. Yet the causality in the relationship between ESL and mental health issues remains unclear. In Kaplan, Damphousse and Kaplan’s (1994) North American study, 4,141 young people were tested in 7th grade and once again as young adults. They determined a significant damaging effect of dropping out of high school on the functioning of mental health, including anxiety, depression and coping (Downes, 2011). Something similar can be said for the study by Esch and colleagues (2014) who found that mood disorders were significantly related to ESL, even after adjusting for socio-demographic factors. They report another strong and often co-occurring predictor of mood disorders is suicidal ideation. However, generally speaking, their systemic review showed that internalising disorders were reported as developing as a consequence of ESL.

The mechanisms underlying the links between ESL and problem behaviours have been explained by several authors. Jimerson et al. (2000) state that early experiences may affect self-esteem and the sense of agency that may directly influence school performance and decisions to stay in school, and may also lay the foundations for behavioural control and relationships with teachers and peers that further propel individuals along a path leading to ESL. Cole et al. (1996) stated that failure in social functioning may foster negative self-perceptions that are associated with depression. In relation to externalising behaviour, early aggression may lead to peer rejection which, in turn, may lead to lower self-esteem and associated internalising problems (Panak & Garber, 1992 in Mesman, Bongers, & Koot, 2001). Some authors (Patterson et al., 1989 in Mesman, Bongers, & Koot, 2001) have also suggested there is a connection from early aggression to peer rejection and later delinquency.

Social competence and ESL

Fewer studies have directly examined the links between ESL and social competence than have examined problem behaviours. Elias and Haynes (2008) reported that social competence is extremely important in determining school success among an at-risk population as social competence was significantly related to academic performance. Just as high social competence predicts positive outcomes, students lacking in social competence are typically aggressive, rejected by their peers, and unable to regulate their emotions (Masten & Coatsworth, 1998). Many studies (Townsend et al., 2007; Rumberger & Lim, 2008) show that peer rejection and antisocial behaviours increase the risk for ESL, allowing the conclusion that a lack of social competence increases the risk of ESL. Lane, Pierson and Givner (2004) more specifically report that secondary students with deficiencies in their academic, behavioural and social skills or whose abilities differ from the norm are at risk for short- and long-term negative outcomes, including ESL. Tirabassi (2013) conducted a study in which the general relationship between the protective factor of social competence and its relationship to previously identified risk factors for ESL was examined. It was concluded that students who display strengths in social competence increase their resilience to ESL. On that basis, they concluded that students low in social competence in addition to low academic achievement have a great risk of ESL. Carter (1998) also conducted a study to determine which relationships exist between the social competence skills of at-risk seventh graders who remain in school and at-risk seventh graders who drop out of school. The research confirmed there was a key difference in the social competence scores between the two groups, with the dropout group having lower social competence than the non-dropout group. Frey, Balzer and Ruppert (2014) observed that young people with a higher ESL risk assessed their social competencies as being lower than those with a lower ESL risk. To sum up, social competence seems to play a protective role, particularly for students at risk; yet more extensive research must be conducted in the future in this area.

As low academic achievement is one of the strongest and most consistent ESL predictors, we briefly review the large body of research linking academic achievement to social behaviour. The link from academic achievement to social competence and to problem behaviour (especially externalising behaviour) is demonstrated in many studies, but not in all; most studies found negative longitudinal effects of externalising behaviour on academic achievement (for a review, see Battin-Pearson, 2000; Vidmar, in press; Vidmar, 2011). Research evidence shows that externalising behaviour has a negative effect on academic achievement particularly at the start of schooling, while in later years the relationship becomes reciprocal (Chen, Rubin, & Li, 1997; Masten et al., 2005; van Lier et al., 2012; Vidmar, in press; Welsh, Parke, Widaman, & O’Neil, 2001). Reciprocal relations between social competence and academic achievement were established in some studies (e.g. Vidmar, 2011), while for problem behaviour the relationship was unidirectional (early problem behaviour predicted later academic achievement, but not vice versa; e.g. Vidmar, in press). The link between internalising behaviour and academic achievement has less consistently been found and is under-researched (for exceptions, see van Lier et al., 2012; Vidmar, 2011). Thus, social competence and low problem behaviour function as a predecessor of academic competence, at least to some degree. Mindes (2015) stated that children who managed to enhance their socio-emotional competence show an improved academic performance and social behaviour, reduced behavioural problems, and less emotional stress.

Peers and ESL

The role of peer networks has received relatively little attention in the statistical work conducted with regard to delinquency and ESL (Audas & Willms, 2001). Authors believe this is largely due to the difficulty of meaningfully quantifying these aspects of a young person’s life. Traag (2012) stated similarly, noting that studies on the relevance of peers for ESL are quite limited.

Ellenbogen and Chamberland (1997) examined the peer networks of at-risk youths. They identified three trends: First, actual ESLers and future ESLers have more friends who have dropped out. The second trend was that future ESLers tend to be rejected by their school peers and, the third, at-risk individuals tend to lack integration into their school’s social network. We found quite a few studies making similar conclusions (Parker & Asher, 1987; Kupersmidt, Coie, & Dodge, 1990). Cairns, Cairns and Neckerman’s (1989) longitudinal study of 475 US students showed that for both boys and girls in seventh grade school drop-outs affiliated with peers who themselves later dropped out of school. Another study by Vitaro, Larocque, Janosz, and Tremblay (2001) among Caucasian boys in Canada showed that associating with deviant friends (i.e. friends who had been arrested by the police, been a member of a gang and/or had considered leaving school) did have a significant impact on high school ESL. On a similar note, a study by Ream and Rumberger (2008) revealed that the number of drop-out friends significantly increased the risk of school drop-out in grade 12. Moreover, a review of different studies by Rumberger and Lim (2008) found that having deviant friends – friends who engage in criminal behaviour, or friends who have dropped out – increases the chances of ESL. There appear to be many more studies in support of that fact (Alpert & Dunhan, 1986; Elliott & Voss, 1974). There are also many studies showing that being bullied increases the chances of avoiding school or even leaving school early (Cornell, Huang, Gregory & Fan, 2013; Downes, 2011). Traag (2012) reports that both popularity and friendship correlate with ESL. Like others before them, they also found that being popular among future ESLers as well as being friends with future ESLers are both associated with a greater risk of ESL.

Kelly (1993) identified three ways that peer groups become involved in the disengagement process. The first are conflicts with other students leading to expulsion; the second are the dissociative feelings with school peers that are the cause and motivation for someone to quietly withdraw from that environment; and third, attributing greater importance to relationships and maybe even pregnancy than to school.

On the other hand, positive peer relationships can be a protective factor supporting a student’s academic pursuits, with studies revealing that peers can serve as effective socialisation agents for school engagement and motivation (Hymel & Ford, 2014). Since there are many studies showing school engagement is a big protective factor against ESL, we may conclude the same with regard to positive peer relations.

Civic competence and ESL

Not many studies directly link ESL with civic competence, although the two domains could related and further studies are called for. Youniss et al. (2002) states that the elements constituting civic competence and citizenship are open to debate. As mentioned, many different definitions can be found; they include knowledge of the structure and functions of government; attitudes to proper political behaviour; and behaviour itself, such as voting, commitment to society, and, of late, a host of actions that comprise participation in civil society (e.g. Kymlicka & Norman, 1994). Starks (2010) argues that civil knowledge and participation are vital for sustaining an ordered society (e.g., voting, employment, supporting the local economy, and going to school with the intention to graduate from high school).

Extracurricular activities have long been identified as one of the earliest manifestations of civic engagement (Sherrod, Flanagan, & Youniss, 2002; Yates & Youniss, 1998). Youniss, McLellan and Yates (1997) pointed out that such participation allows youth to explore the roles and processes central to the successful development of adult civic engagement. They believe that involvement in extracurricular activities provides adolescents with opportunities to appreciate the relationship between the rights and obligations of citizens, and to learn democratic principles, such as solidarity, tolerance, intergroup understanding, and interdependence (Flanagan & Faison, 2001). Activity participation has been linked to higher academic achievement and educational attainment (Cooper, Valentine, Nye, & Lindsay, 1999; Fletcher, Nickerson, & Wright, 2003; Otto, 1975). Adolescents involved in extracurricular activities have also been shown to have more academically inclined friends and fewer friends who exhibit risky behaviour, such as skipping school and using drugs (Eccles & Barber, 1999), which are all risk factors for ESL. Mahoney and Cairns (1997) found that involvement in extracurricular activities significantly reduced ESL rates, especially among at-risk youth. Participation in extracurricular and community-based activities assists adolescents in developing their social skills and acquiring new prosocial peer relationships (Eccles & Barber, 1999), which are all protective factors regarding ESL. Obradović and Masten (2007) report that active participation has been linked to higher academic achievement and educational attainment (Fletcher et al. 2003).

Starks (2010) highlights the importance of civic education in relation to student school dropout as being aware of the importance of a high school diploma. It is stated that students who lack civic knowledge and education are eroding the importance of a high school diploma, which then leads them to the alternative of ESL. The author believes that one way to reduce the high ESL levels is to connect education with civic responsibility.


Social competence, problem behaviour and to some extent civic competence have a long-lasting research tradition. In relation to ESL, the review of studies shows that externalising behaviours (e.g. alcohol, drug use and abuse, disruptiveness and oppositional behaviours, delinquency, teenage parenting) are most consistently linked with ESL, while there is less research on internalising behaviour and social competence and even less on civic competence. Concerning internalising behaviour, ESL’s links with depressive symptoms and mood disorders have been established. Social competence seems to be especially important for a student at risk – it seems to help build their resilience to ESL. Evidence regarding the link between civic competence and ESL is limited, but its role has been demonstrated via extracurricular activities – participation in extracurricular and community-based activities plays a role. Peers also play a role – ESLers more often associate with deviant peers and other ESLers.

It is also important to note that externalising and internalising behaviours, low social competence, peer relations, and achievement problems strongly correlate with each other. Despite the solid evidentiary base on the relationship with ESL (especially for externalising behaviour), these aspects are often overlooked in policy discourse dealing with ESL. In the future, efforts to address ESL should take this into consideration.

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