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Have we got it wrong about self-esteem?

Teachers don't have a magic wand to wave to sprinkle confidence. But they can show learners that with effort ability will grow, says Alan McLean

The Executive's national priorities have pushed the need for confident and motivated pupils to the top of the agenda. But how do we go about achieving this? We usually think of boosting self-esteem as the answer, but a review of recent research has led me to feel we may be barking up the wrong tree.

Schools can't influence self-esteem as much as we think. This is something pupils determine for themselves and is shaped by factors sometimes unknown to teachers, namely whatever is really valued by pupils. While they can allocate worth to pupils, teachers (unless they are part-time hypnotists) can't give pupils self-esteem, no matter what the motivational gurus claim.

The good news, however, is that low self-esteem isn't as big a barrier to learning as we think, and the even better news is that schools can do a lot about the key factors that shape self-motivation. Esteem and motivation are like wealth and happiness: not having wealth may make you unhappy, but having it doesn't guarantee happiness.

There are a number of doubtful practices that follow from loose thinking about self-esteem. Most teachers think that telling children they are clever builds confidence. Such praise, however, may instil the belief that ability is something they can't change. Some people see intelligence as a fixed commodity, of which they only have so much and about which there is little they can do. Confidence can crumble if pupils have a fixed idea of ability.

A more robust confidence is nurtured in classes that convey the message that ability can grow if pupils apply themselves and use the right approaches. Even pupils with low confidence but who think of ability as changeable cope better with setbacks than confident pupils with fixed ideas.

Our confusion is reflected in the tension between honest feedback and protecting self-esteem. Well chosen and carefully delivered criticism can communicate high expectations while indiscriminate praise for easy success can be meaningless and convey lack of interest.

Telling pupils they are good at something they are struggling with won't help their confidence. As long as children know their worth is respected they will absorb accurate feedback about what they do. Criticism of personal qualities, howevr, will always threaten self-esteem.

Current theories recognise the self-determining aspects of motivation. Pupils with a mastery approach are motivated to achieve their best in contrast to those with a competitive mindset who want to be the best or others whose priority is to avoid failure. Not everyone can be the best but they can all be high in mastery.

The real "feel-good" factor is self-efficacy in goal achievement - the SEGA factor. Particularly useful in boosting confidence is achieving goals that help us realise aspects of our ideal self. Achievements give pupils a buzz when attained at their highest possible challenge and skill level. The more self-efficacy pupils develop the more they will choose difficult tasks, try harder, use problem-solving strategies and have less fear of failure.

Self-efficacy is the belief in one's ability, in particular skills, while self-esteem is an affective judgment of overall worth. In a learning situation we are more likely to ask, "will I be any good at this?" than, "how do I feel about myself?" Motivation depends on the value of the outcome and the chances of achieving it. Low self-esteem, while unfortunate, may not in itself undermine motivation. Girls generally have lower self-esteem than boys yet show greater motivation.

I am not suggesting we ignore low self-esteem or abandon esteem-building approaches. Such strategies in isolation, however, will not nurture confident learners. This requires attention to be focused on specific aspects that are important to the pupil rather than vague attempts to make pupils feel good about themselves.

Confidence-building teachers instil the beliefs that ability is not fixed and there are many ways to succeed. They treat mistakes as essential steps to efficacy by linking failure to factors that pupils can repair. Confidence depends less on actual achievement than on the relationship between achievement and aspirations.

Effective teachers encourage an accurate match between pupils' aspirations and their current skills level. They praise effort and emphasise the possibility of improvement. This encourages children to concentrate on learning rather than displaying ability or avoiding failure and to put progress down to effort. Most important of all they stress personal rather than normative success.

Alan McLean is an educational psychologist with Glasgow City Council.

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