Self-esteem suffers in class competition;Another voice;Opinion

15th May 1998 at 01:00
Compared with 1950, children spend much more time at school and the experience is considerably more competitive, from ever younger ages. These changes are so widely assumed to be "a good thing" by all political parties and by the media, that their potentially dire effect on the self-esteem and well-being of many children - both high and low achievers - is rarely discussed.

I should like to share with you the findings of Diane Ruble, an American developmental psychologist who has demonstrated that social comparison starts young in life and that its evolution is often subordinating. Indeed, I believe that the majority of us leave school feeling like failures as a result of the way we are handled by the educational system.

Until about seven, children are very indiscriminate in who they compare themselves with - as happy to pick an adult as a peer. They seem to find it hard to compare like with like and therefore do not grasp that they have done worse than others. Their assessments of their relative performance in the classroom are quite unrealistic.

Comparing the utterances of three to six-year-olds with seven to nine-year-olds, Diane Ruble found the younger children more likely to give voice to their successes.

But there is a big change after age seven. Studies at this age show less positive statements about their performance. Children stop talking about their successes because they begin to realise that doing so disturbs their peers. As Ruble puts it "there is a shift from rather boorish braggadocio to questions requiring little self-disclosure".

There is a steady increase in social comparing with peers as the means of self-evaluation, rather than using past personal performance or indiscriminate others, such as adults. If now more circumspect about their own performance, seven to nine-year-olds are more likely to request information about that of their peers.

As a result, they become more realistic, and the gap between their appraisal of themselves and their teachers' of them closes. They become increasingly preoccupied with competition and beating peers and teaching methods become increasingly designed to exploit this.

Perhaps because they do not compare themselves with peers, according to Ruble "pre-school and primary grade children show impressive resilience in the face of failure. They maintain persistence, self-confidence and expectations of future success".

But as the change to more realistic appraisal comes along, so do other changes that are not without their cost to the child's well-being. Ruble's studies show that "by middleelementary school, optimism and positive response to failure largely disappear...with increasing disinterest in school-related activities appearing as children progress through elementary school. When self-consciousness is induced (about their standard relative to other children) seven to nine-year-old children are not satisfied unless their performance surpasses other children".

Ruble argues that "because there are only a limited number of 'winners' in any competitive system, children may experience a dissatisfaction with themselves. Comparison can promote a sense of relative deprivation and inadequacy, affecting relationships and self-esteem".

She also emphasises the crucial fact that schoolchildren who feel they are failing (even though they may be doing well) have no escape from the comparative system.

She says that "the drop in self-confidence and achievement expectancies found during the early school years may be due to the incorporation of comparative standards into the self-concept". Children who do badly do more "social comparing" than those who are succeeding, because they are searching for clues as to where they are going wrong and because they feel uncertain.

Ruble continues: "Children may develop a poor opinion of themselves because they compare frequently, or they may socially compare more because they have a poor opinion of themselves. Taken all together, the data suggest that the period from seven to nine years is a very important one for self-definition and self-evaluation."

Children who do badly are more likely to show signs of "learned helplessness" - to behave as if their actions cannot make any difference.

Experimental studies bear this out. When children were given low scores - regardless of performance - on tests, they began to display signs of helplessness. Crucial in all this is the unavoidability and objectivity of the comparisons in the classroom. By contrast, adults are often able "to move the goalposts" if they are failing.

The practical implications of Ruble's work are far from simple; but when "education, education, education" has become the lodestar of our society's ambitions, I hope somebody in New Labour is taking into account the emotional impact of increased competition.

Oliver James's book 'Britain On The Couch - Why We're UnhappierCompared With 1950 Despite Being Richer', is published by Century.

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