CE28 - Cognition, éducation, formation tout au long de la vie

Psychological disengagement and self-esteem : a vicious cycle of dropping out of school ? – DISESTEEM

Psychological disengagement and self-esteem : a vicious cycle of dropping out of school ?

We investigate four potential predictors of school disengagement: a disadvantaged family background, unfavourable and unfair treatment by a teacher or peers, or membership of a disadvantaged social group. Our aim is first to show that the feeling of relative deprivation mediates the link between the main predictors and school disengagement. Second, we will study the consequences of this disengagement on self-esteem, emotions, and performance.

Study of the predictors and consequences of school disengagement.

The aim of the project is to explore the main predictors of school disengagement in pre-adolescents, adolescents and young adults and the cognitive, affective, behavioural and social consequences. The originality of this project will be (1) to identify new predictors of psychological disengagement; (2) to reveal differentiated consequences from psychological disengagement on global self-esteem on one hand and specific-domains of self-esteem on the other hand according to the advance in adolescence; (3) to study their links to other psychological processes that may mediate the effects of disengagement on self-esteem (performance goals avoidance, perceived control, group identification); (4) to study their effects on learning; and (5) to examine trials to prevent psychological academic disengagement. Moreover, we will focus especially on low socioeconomic status (SES) students, who are more likely to disengage from school than high SES students because of the negative academic stereotypes associated with their group. The results of this project will enable us to contribute to the ongoing debate on how to prevent school dropout.

WP A aims to test the theoretical model of school disengagement proposed in our project in adolescence. Studies A-1 and A2 test correlationally the steps of this model, namely the links between the feeling of relative deprivation, psychological disengagement, self-esteem (SE), emotions and cognitive performance, according to the age of the students. In Study A-3, we test the same relationships as in Studies A-1 and A-2, but with an experimental design in which the feeling of relative deprivation is induced. In parallel, we conduct a literature review on the sources that can generate feelings of relative deprivation or conversely supply the perception of social support that promotes school engagement. Study A 4 aims to correlationally test these main sources of social support.
WP B tests the moderators of the school disengagement process as a function of students' socio-economic status: performance-avoidance goals (experimental study B-0), teacher perception (experimental studies B-1 and B-2) and belief in school meritocracy (experimental study B-4 and correlational study B-5).
The objective of WP C is to decrease academic disengagement by (1) reducing the impact of negative intellectual stereotypes through evaluative conditioning; (2) testing the impact of academic citizenship behaviours (ACB) on the academic engagement of students.

The more students feel relative deprived within their class (feeling less academically successful than their peers and being dissatisfied with this), the more they discredit their grades, which in turn predicts devaluation of school (no longer valuing school). Psychological disengagement from school is associated with lower self-esteem (SE), except for mid-adolescents who find social approval by discrediting their grades.
Academic SE has a positive effect on positive emotions which have a beneficial effect on reasoning performance. Conversely, the lower the adolescents' overall SE, the more negative emotions they reported in relation to the school context. These results underline the importance of preserving or even improving academic and global self-esteem, especially as age increases during adolescence.
In addition, socio-economic status (SES) is an important factor to consider when looking at school disengagement. The advantaged students compared to disadvantaged students seem to allow themselves to devalue the importance of school.
To reduce school disengagement, we showed the effectiveness of academic citizenship behaviours (ACB). The more mid-adolescents report social development ACB and the more university students report ACB (across all dimensions), the more academically engaged they are and the less psychological and behavioural disengagement they exhibit. Among university students, these effects are mediated by the satisfaction and (lack of) frustration of motivational needs. Because of their impact on motivational needs, ACB could be beneficial to various aspects of students' academic experience.

Social impact: This research project will test the extent to which relative deprivation feeling is a first step in a vicious cycle leading to academic failure and resulting in school dropout. At the end of DISESTEEM, we will be able to specify which factor(s) is (are) the most predictive of academic disengagement and whether self-esteem is affected. We will able to indicate whether there is an age category during adolescence, which experiences more risk of psychological disengagement. We believe that identifying the sense of relative deprivation as a mediator between its main predictors and school disengagement is likely to provide an indicator of risk of school disengagement.
We will also be able to plan a course of actions to prevent the vicious cycle of disengagement from school. Thus, the work conducted in WP C on academic Academic Citizen Behaviours will offer a tangible avenue that can be shared with teachers in an attempt to foster academic engagement among students.
DISESTEEM will provide valid scientific data that can debunk some unsubstantiated claims on the importance of promoting students’ self-esteem at school. Understanding the nature and interrelationships among global self-esteem, specific domains of self-esteem, disengagement from school, academic learning and academic performance is likely to inform educational actors on the interest (or not) in focusing on global self-esteem and increase the effectiveness of future educational interventions.
Scientific impact: The results of this collaborative effort will be shared with the scientific community via national and international conferences and peer-reviewed publications that focus on educational psychology, social psychology, and developmental and cognitive psychology.

-Martinot, D., Beaton, A., Tougas, F., Redersdorff, S., & Rinfret, N. (2020). Links between psychological disengagement from school and different forms of self-esteem in the crucial period of early and mid-adolescence. Social Psychology of education, 23, 1539–1564. doi.org/10.1007/s11218-020-09592-w
-Yakimova, S., Maintenant, C., & Taillandier-Schmitt, A. (2020). Examining how positive and negative emotions influence cognitive performance in secondary schools. In C. Pracana & M. Wang (Eds.), Psychology Applications & Developments VI (pp. 255-267). Lisbon, Portugal: InScience Press. press.insciencepress.org/index.php/press/catalog/book/12
-Bruno, A., Toczek-Capelle, M.C., & Darnon, C. (2020). Facing the Risk of Upward Mobility: Performance-avoidance goals and social class among high-school students. Journal of Social Psychology, 160(4), 496-508.
-Yakimova, S., Maintenant, C., & Taillandier-Schmitt, A. (2020). Performances cognitives au collège : rôle des émotions et de l’estime de soi. in Y. Tazouti (Eds.). Actes du colloque de la 13e édition du RIPSYDEVE 2020. La psychologie du développement et de l’éducation pour le 21e siècle : nouveaux objets, espaces et temporalités, Oct 2020, Nancy, France.

This project aims to investigate the psychological disengagement of pre/adolescents from school. Psychological disengagement is a first step of a process that may result in dropping out of school. We distinguish between two psychological disengagement mechanisms: discounting and devaluing. Discounting involves the conviction that negative academic feedback and poor academic outcomes are biased and do not reflect one’s true abilities. Devaluing is a mechanism whereby a student will minimize the importance of academic achievement and feel that this domain is no longer relevant for the self. To gain a better understanding of psychological disengagement: (1) we examine how the experience of dissatisfaction following a negative comparison between one’s academic achievement with that of other classmates is conducive to psychological disengagement; (2) we clarify the link between psychological disengagement and self-esteem by considering specific-domains of self-esteem, since adolescents make important distinctions when they describe and evaluate their abilities in various domains; (3) we investigate the relationships between psychological disengagement, self-esteem, negative affective state and cognitive performances. These three topics of investigation constitute the first work package (WP A) of the DISESTEEM project. Together, these studies will contribute to the body of knowledge of the links between the experience of academic dissatisfaction, psychological disengagement, self-esteem and cognitive performance at the crucial period of pre/adolescence. In WP B, we will focus on low socioeconomic status (SES) students, who are more likely to disengage from school than high-SES students. Indeed, low-SES students report a lower sense of school self-competence, compared to their high-SES counterparts, and face negative stereotypes of intellectual inferiority. As a result, low-SES students, rather than high-SES students, are more likely to psychologically disengage from school and enter into a vicious cycle of academic failure and eventual school dropout. We will investigate the role of the nonverbal behaviours of teachers and the role of academic merit salience on the psychological disengagement of low-SES students. In the last research endeavour (WP C), we will test two strategies designed to prevent psychological disengagement from school. To support low-SES students, we will test whether positive evaluative conditioning may reduce the impact of the negative intellectual stereotypes associated to their group. A positive evaluative conditioning procedure occurs when a stimuli linked to the identity of low-SES individuals is combined with unconditioned stimuli of positive valence, such as positive pictures. This positive conditioning is expected to reduce the negative impact of their poor intellectual reputation on psychological disengagement, self-esteem and performance. We also investigate the role of a particular form of academic behaviour, academic Organizational Citizenship Behaviours (OCB) that teachers, educators and policymakers can introduce to reduce or prevent psychological disengagement. Academic OCB can take different forms, such as altruism, compliance with the institution, and interest in the school institution. We will examine whether making salient academic OCB, especially those related to altruism and deemed desirable by teachers, academic institutions and peers, increases academic engagement. In each WP, we will conduct a series of correlational and experimental studies with mainly secondary public school students but also undergraduate students.

Project coordinator


The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.


Université de Moncton / Chaire de recherche Relations Intergroupes
PAVeA Psychologie des Âges de la Vie et Adaptation

Help of the ANR 210,319 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: October 2018 - 36 Months

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