Self-Esteem: Part 1

April 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.”

In fact:

“… 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


  1. I first tried to present Elmer’s ideas to school managers ten years ago, after I first came across them, in response to special self-esteem classes that were arranged for the most agressive pupils in the school. I had always thought that those who routinely imposed their will on others thought rather too much of themselves, but I was rather severely rebuffed.

    High self esteem is the big problem in schools with discipline problems, but no-one is interested in puncturing the inflated self esteem of those so inflicted. I thought at the time that the head-teacher himself had excessive and unjustified self-esteem, so of course he was unwilling to review the evidence – he knew he was right!

    • I raised the point that children why bully tended to have high self esteem at a training session and I was roundly told I was wrong. I am very sure Andrew is quite right about no connection between low self esteem and bullying or poor behaviour.

  2. Well said. This is just one more in the seemingly never-ending litany of therapeutic ideas being adopted wholeheartedly by institutions and individual teachers with no absolutely no capacity to apply them.

    Whatever can be done to a) correctly identify, and b) effectively deal with, self-esteem and dozens of other issues simply cannot be done in large institutions or ordinary classrooms. Teachers often complain that they’re being asked to do the job of parents or child welfare workers, but they happily take on these sorts of things. A teacher in a classroom cannot possibly deal with this stuff even if they have relevant training.

    It is absolutely true that many of the worst behaved students have unjustified pride in themselves. Only a therapist could get behind this facade to see if there’s a lost little soul in there crying for help. There are far more urgent cases with excruciatingly obvious needs to fill a therapist’s diary. If a stroppy thug wants to admit a need for help, help will be found.

    For the majority of school students, the most obvious need is for real information about their skills and knowledge, and their behaviour. The self-esteem movement is just a cover up for education bureaucracies not wanting to face up to their own responsibilities. No marking at all or high marks for simple tasks are the futile substitute for real teaching and real testing. No admonishment for bad behaviour is a reinforcement of anti-educational behaviour.

    (I’m re-reading “Class Warfare” just now so I’m one who’s a bit stroppy.)

    btw, I often work with problem kids. Even those who ARE willing to work here, away from home and school, may take months (or 2-3 terms) to show much improvement in their normal environments. So the ones who are not willing? Not a hope.

  3. I had always thought that those who routinely imposed their will on others thought rather too much of themselves

    My thoughts exactly, Glen. It seems to me that the majority of poorly behaved pupils are only too keen to exhibit their ignorance and disrespect; they’re proud of it, and while I do think that in a few cases that may well be a way of covering up their insecurities, I certainly don’t believe it’s true of all of them.

    And sitting in a classroom where one teacher is attempting to teach another twenty-nine kids is certainly not the way to go about helping those kids who genuinely do have self-esteem issues. Surely, the best way to effectively deal with those problems is in a one-to-one situation with a therapist or some other such person who is qualified to treat them.

  4. Bugger me. I’ve got low self-esteem; I’m always hugely surprised when I do anything well and am absurdly, slobberingly grateful if anyone considers me worthy of being nice to. I don’t recollect my parents ever telling me they loved me (I never doubted they did), although I do remember two occasions in fifty years on which they told me they were proud of my achievements. I accurately recall being the difficult child whilst my brothers were easy, cute and lovable.

    AND YET, without conscious awareness of correcting an esteem imbalance, I have managed a life of academic and careeer success, free of substance abuse or dependence, have never had so much as a speeding fine, sustained a happy 27 year marriage and produced happy, well-balanced children.

    I don;tthink cause and effect is in operation here.

  5. “As ever, we have an approach to education based on the belief that children are natural saints”

    I’d rather this than consider them natural “sinners”.

  6. What are you on about stephen? No-one even mentioned sinners. Oldandrew was just coining a phase – I think most of us understood that!

  7. I think all people, old and young, have in them the capacity for great good and great evil in differing amounts. Most of us are never called on to exercise the former, and laws keep us from practising the latter. Remove those laws for a moment though, and you get Auschwitz and Rwanda.

    Most people, even given the opportunity, would not deliberately harm another just because they could. Most children would not taunt, insult, bully and hurt another child or teacher, even given the chance. But to pretend that there aren’t any whose natural bent for badness is only kept down by the threat of punishment, is naive.

    Plenty of us see it every day in schools, kids who abuse thier teachers just because they can, because the possibility of meaningful punishment has gone. It’s not self-esteem issues, poverty or anything else. It’s badness. Sin, if you’re a religious type.

  8. I think I had incredibly low self-esteem when I was at school. It meant I didn’t dare say boo to a goose, let alone a teacher. Instead, I put my head down and got on with my work, trying not to be singled out by my classmates or the teachers. As a result I was always “quiet and conscientious” on my reports, got good grades, and blossomed at university.

  9. I remember reading some books by an author, Sharon Green, who took the self-esteem argument seriously and explained her villains’ behaviour as being driven by insufficient love.
    They most definitely did not ring psychologically true. It was quite nice when the research came out showing the self-esteem movement to be nuts and confirmed my intuitive analysis.

  10. I concur. I spent 2 years as a HoY. Sometimes behaviour issues came from low self esteemm but far more common were arrogant, over confident boys or girls bullying less confident students (or teachers)

    Some thought the world revolved around them and the parents often agreed.

    Unreasonalby high self esteem, selfishness, arrogance, stubborness cause huge problems in schools.

  11. […] Self Esteem: Part 1. This post explores the connection between low self-esteem and behavior issues and proposes that relying on teachers to raise self-esteem is not an effective method for modifying negative behavior. […]

  12. […] Self Esteem: Part 1. This post proposes that relying on teachers to raise self-esteem through feel-good tactics is not effective. […]

  13. I had cripplingly low self-esteem during my school years. I earned very good grades, never disrupted any of my classmates or caused the teacher to need to reprimand me.

    Eventually I crashed and burned, so to speak, and left school on the advice of a psychiatrist, but I never disturbed anyone else. In my experience, the serious trouble-makers could have done with much less self-esteem. Perhaps it would have denied them the pleasure of being so obnoxious and going unpunished, but it would have made life so much easier for everyone else.

  14. […] long before he arrived at choir. Old Andrew contended that he just was dealing through some Self Esteem […]

  15. […] Self Esteem: Part 1. This post explores the connection between low self-esteem and behavior issues and proposes that relying on teachers to raise self-esteem is not an effective method for modifying negative behavior. […]

  16. […] “feel important”, this is not a teacher’s job. Despite the claims of the cult of self-esteem in education, the right attitude to learning is as often about humility as it is about confidence. […]

  17. […] excuses for not punishing children and because it was something I blogged about years ago (here and here). In the United States the self-esteem seems to have had a huge impact, over many years. […]

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