Self-Esteem: Part 1April 5, 2009
“I have noticed that students lacking in self esteem can display behavioural problems. I have found that the lower the self esteem the greater the negative effect. Would you agree with this and what can I do to help promote a greater sense of self esteem in my students? Thank you”
Post on the TES forum
The words “self-esteem” are never far from the lips of appeasers. It can be used both directly and indirectly to excuse poor behaviour. In the indirect case where a badly behaved student has an identified problem (such as: poverty; a learning disability; membership of a possibly oppressed social group, or, of course, bad teachers) it is used to explain why their disadvantaged status has affected their behaviour. Disadvantage has lowered their self-esteem, and poor behaviour is merely a reaction to that low self-esteem. Alternatively, in cases where the badly behaved student has no obvious problem that can be used to justify treating them as a victim then, often in defiance of all the available facts, low self-esteem is drafted in to be the problem. In both cases low self-esteem is seen as a clear motive for anti-social and irresponsible behaviour. In extreme cases of appeasement this link is seen as so obvious that low self-esteem can be diagnosed from poor behaviour alone. Once the diagnosis of low self-esteem has been made then attempts to raise self-esteem, through praise, special attention, and other miscellaneous treats which are usually indistinguishable from rewarding them for their bad behaviour, can begin.
The belief that self-esteem can explain all sorts of social ills (particularly those which most obviously stem from human weakness) is widely used as an alternative to realism about human behaviour. Low self-esteem makes people do bad things, but can be cured by, what can only be described as “niceness”. If we just share the love nobody will ever become addicted to drugs, engage in risky sexual behaviour, or commit crimes. Emler (2001) identified countless examples of this sort of thinking. (Oprah Winfrey features prominently.) He also reviewed the research literature, particularly empirical studies of self-esteem (and this forms the factual basis of the rest of this blog entry). He arrives at a conclusion which deserves to be widely known.
“What has become common sense in this matter – only people with low self-esteem act in ways that are harmful to themselves or others – turns out as a blanket generalisation not to be a reliable or sound basis for policy initiatives.”
“… the pattern indicates the following: people who have, or admit to, negative feelings about themselves also treat themselves badly (and may be badly treated by others). They do not tend to treat others badly.” [original emphasis]
“[T]reating themselves badly” here does not even extend to drug use, smoking or drinking, or pursuits that are simply “risky” rather than harmful. This does not give much grounds for suspecting that low self-esteem is a cause of bad behaviour in schools. He states that:
“Young people with low self-esteem are not more likely as a result to:
• commit crimes, including violent crimes
• use or abuse illegal drugs
• drink alcohol to excess or smoke …
• fail academically.”
This hardly fits in with the lifestyles of the worst behaved students in our schools. It is also noticeable that some behaviour which is mentioned as being more common in young people with high self-esteem such as holding prejudiced attitudes towards ethnic minorities and engaging in “physically risky pursuits” is often seen in badly behaved students.
The one possible connection between low self-esteem and poor behaviour is that young people with low self-esteem are more likely “to fail to respond to social influence”. However, this is less than convincing as evidence of a link between low self-esteem and poor behaviour. It would be more than a little naïve to suggest that the social influences students face are all towards good behaviour. More importantly it turns out that young people with very high self-esteem are also more likely to reject social influence; it is those with middling self-esteem who follow the crowd. Even if we did identify somebody whose self-esteem led them to misbehave in ways that involve rejecting social influences we’d have to deal with the fact that high self-esteem is more common than low self-esteem. Also, it turns out that low self-esteem in children does not seem to correspond to social class or to being a member of an oppressed ethnic minority, so not only does it apparently not directly cause poor behaviour, but it cannot be used to suggest deprivation or social disadvantage might cause poor behaviour.
Of course, even if we can find no general connection between poor behaviour and low self-esteem this still leaves the possibility that there may be a small number of students with poor behaviour and low self-esteem, and that in these cases a change in self-esteem could have an impact on their behaviour. Unfortunately, even in this unlikely case the research does not indicate we could do very much. Observations of self-esteem turn out to very inaccurate, or at the very least they turn out not to correspond to accepted psychological tests, so it is unlikely we’d accurately identify such a case in the first place. Even if we did identify this situation, the sort of “self-esteem building” programs that schools engage in are not terribly effective (in some cases there is no evidence of any effect at all). They are also apparently less effective on students who have been targeted as in need of them, than when they given to students who have been selected randomly. If a student genuinely did need their self-esteem raised it would be far more effective to have an expert administer cognitive-behaviourial therapy than to expect teachers to deal with it in school.
The scientific evidence simply does not support efforts to deal with bad behaviour in schools by raising self-esteem. As ever, we have an approach to education based on the belief that children are natural saints, and a desire to ignore any fact which does not fit with this.
Elmer, Nicholas, 2001, Self-esteem: the Costs and Causes of Low Self-Worth, Joseph Rowntree Foundation