Self-Esteem and School Belongingness: A Cross-Lagged Panel Study Among Urban Youth

Added January 28, 2019

This study explored the causal relationship between self-esteem and school belongingness among a sample of 175 urban youth in high school. The results offered support for the personal agency perspective of growth in self-esteem leading to growth school belongingness. On the other hand, growth in school belongingness does not appear to lead changes in self-esteem.  The degree to which high school students feel a bond with school, then, may in part represent a manifestation of their personality traits – in this case, perceptions of one’s value and worth. 

While interventions seeking to enhance self-esteem may increase school belongingness, the impact may be modest. Therefore, addressing multiple factors known to influence school belongingness should be considered, such as peer rejection, social skills, friendships, teacher-student relationships, and after-school programs. This comprehensive approach, ironically, underscores the environmental mismatch perspective. In other words, because the impact of such practices in high school may be small, growth is more likely to occur when they are implemented at earlier phases of adolescence when self-esteem is more responsive to change. Such practices are particularly important for low-income urban youth. Schools can function as a natural environment where barriers to fostering positive youth development among urban youth (while reducing the risk for adverse outcomes) can be overcome. Whether interventions are delivered during middle school or high school, school counselors can play a major role in the development, implementation, and evaluation of relevant policies and practices. 

Within the context of the study’s findings, two interventions that school counselors can employ are mentoring and extracurricular activities. Other approaches could involve growth mindset interventions as well as youth participation action research activities. Both of these practices have been used to empower low-income urban youth in high school settings. 

Uwah, McMahon, and Furlow (2008) recommended that school counselors encourage male African American high school students to get involved in out-of-school time activities.  Consistent with Vera et al. (2018), such practices are important for low-income urban youth in “finding ways to help students feel as though they are a valuable part of the school” (p. 8).  Based on a meta-analysis of 24 studies, Ciocanel, Power, Eriksen, and Gillings (2017) examined positive youth development interventions that occurred after school rather than during school.  Similar to Taylor et al. (2017), they found significant effect sizes for impact on academic achievement and psychological adjustment.  Six studies analyzed self-perceptions, nearly all of which utilized mentoring as a component or the sole intervention.  Targeting self-esteem in mentoring programs coincides with the role of school counselors as agents of positive youth development.  Perry, Wallace, and Barto (2013) observed that a relatively untested model of mentoring, school-based group mentoring, deserves more attention among adolescents with respect to its fit with developmental tasks and its capacity to reach a greater number of youth, particularly urban youth.

In addition to extracurricular activities and mentoring, Brougham and Kashubeck-West (2018) have examined the role of a growth mindset intervention in facilitating ASCA’s (2014) mindset standards among youth in an urban high school. Although they did not examine the program’s impact on self-esteem, non-cognitive factors associated with developing a growth mindset are also, in theory, associated with self-esteem. From a personal agency perspective, mindset interventions seeking to change students’ beliefs about their ability to improve their intelligence may simultaneously improve the way they feel about themselves in general. In a similar manner, school counselors may collaborate with school staff and community agencies in the delivery of youth participatory action research (YPAR); these are activities that not only empower young people to address societal inequities or conditions of oppression, but may also facilitate their sense of self.  This kind of intervention is highly relevant to the life experiences of urban youth. In fact, self-esteem was a targeted outcome in the evaluation of a YPAR program aimed at promoting the civic engagement and positive youth development of low-income urban youth in five public high schools (Ozer & Douglas, 2013).



Justin C. Perry, PhD, Bethany D. Lavins-Merillat